Guillermo Barba, the Mexican financial and economic journalist, has recently published an article on his website confirming that through an information request that he had made to Mexico’s central bank, Banco de México (Banxico), the central bank has now released what amounts to a relatively comprehensive list of Mexico’s gold bars held in storage at the Bank of England gold vaults in London.
Mexico’s list is an inventory of wholesale market gold bars that Banixco owns and stores in custody at the Bank of England vaults in London. In the contemporary parlance of the gold market, most people would call this type of holding an allocated gold holding, but more historically in the Bank of England world, it has been known as an “earmarked gold” holding or a “set-aside gold” holding because the specific bars are set-aside for a specific central bank, in other words the central bank has its name attached to those particular bars (earmarked).
Wholesale gold bars are also known as London Good Delivery gold bars or variable weight gold bars, and each weighs in the region of 400 troy ounces ( ~ 12.5 kilos). On the Banixco list, there are 7,265 wholesale gold bars listed. This new list is one of the very few detailed central bank gold bars lists (weight lists) which exists in the public domain, and it could be useful for a number of purposes (see below).
Barba has done persistent and diligent work over the last 6 years, by patiently obtaining more and more information from the Mexican central bank about its gold reserves via various Freedom of Information Requests (FOIA), and shedding some light on this usually opaque area of gold and central banking.
2011: Gold Reserves Skyrocket, Central Bank Secrecy
Before we examine this newly published list from the Banco de México, a little background is useful. As of February 2017, Mexico held about 120.7 tonnes of gold in its official gold reserves, which puts the country at the tail-end of the world’s Top 30 official/country gold holders.
All through the 2000s, Banixco only held a few tonnes of gold in its official reserves, ranging from about 4 tonnes and 9 tonnes. This situation changed in early 2011 when the Mexican central bank purchased just over 93 tonnes of gold in March 2011 (first reported by the FT in early May 2011). This brought Mexico’s gold holdings up from 7.1 tonnes to about 100.2 tonnes by the end of Q1 2011. The country’s official gold holdings were boosted further to about 125.2 tonnes by Q2 2012 when Banixco bought more than 16 tonnes in March 2012. See World Gold Council quarterly changes of central bank gold holdings for the underlying data.
After Mexico made these sizeable gold purchases in early 2011, Guillermo Barba submitted various FOIAs to the Mexican central bank about the country’s newly acquired gold stash. Unfortunately, most of these information requests received weak responses from the Bank. For example, the question:
“How many bars of gold make up the recent acquisition of 93 tonnes of gold made by Banxico en the first quarter of 2011”
received a response from Banixco of:
“…we inform you that the information that you request is classified as reserved”
The Mexican central bank also added that:
“due to the variability of the content of gold in the bars, it is not possible to specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased.”
We later learned that the Bank of England purchased this “gold” on behalf of Mexico. On the surface, Banixco saying that it could not “specify with certainty the exact number of bars purchased” seems to suggest that at least some of the Mexican gold at that time in 2011 was held on a unallocated basis and possibly out on loan to bullion banks in the London gold lending market.
If Mexico bought actual gold bars at the outset in Q1 2011, the gold bought for Mexico was probably already sitting in the Bank of England vaults. Some of it may then have been lent out to bullion banks immediately. Alternatively, at the outset in Q1 2011, the Bank of England could have ‘sold’ to Mexico a fine ounce claim on a number of gold ounces, that could then be allocated to actual gold bars on a future date. Without seeing the purchase invoices of the Mexican gold transactions, it’s hard to say what the initial purchase transactions referred to.
Another question Barba put to Banixco in 2011 was:
“In what country or countries is the gold that forms part of the International Reserves of Mexico physically located?”
“access to the requested information will not be granted, since it is classified as reserved”
Barba’s article addressing his questions in 2011 and Banixco’s responses, which was published in September 2011, can be read here.
“At month’s end, April 2012, Banco de Mexico maintained a position in fine gold of 4,034,802 ounces, of which only 194,539 ounces are located in the territory of the United Mexican States.
“countries where these reserves are located are ‘United States of America, England and Mexico.‘
‘the acquisitions of gold during March and April 2012 are under custody in England’.”
[the gold is stored in] “the city of London, England, where more than 99% of the gold which the Bank of Mexico maintains outside the country is presently under custody…”
With 4,034,802 ounces (125.5 tonnes) held in total, and 194,539 ounces (6.05 tonnes) held in Mexico, there were 3,840,263 ounces (119.44 tonnes) held outside Mexico, which was 95.2% of Mexico’s total gold holdings. With 99% of the foreign gold in London, this equated to about 3.8 million ounces (118 tonnes) held in London, and about 38,000 ounces (1.2 tonnes) held in the US with the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB).
Mexican Federal Auditors not happy with Banixco
In February 2013, Guillermo Barba also highlighted that the Mexican Federal Audit Office (Auditoría Superior de la Federación or ‘ASF’) Report for the Year 2011 was highly critical of Banixco’s relaxed approach to its gold purchases at the Bank of England.
The ASF reprimanded Banixco, saying that it:
“has not conducted physical inspections to gold to verify compliance with the terms of acquisition and the conditions regarding its storage, in order to be certain of the physical custody of this asset”
According to the ASF, Banixco only held documents about the “Terms and Conditions” of the gold holdings contract with the Bank of England, with records of “the dates of the transactions” and also some “payment vouchers”.
ASF also recommended that the Mexican central bank:
“make a physical inspection with the counterparty [Bank of England] that has the gold under its custody, in order to be able to verify and validate its physical wholeness.”
February 2017: Partial Glimpse of Bar List
Fast forward to 17 February 2017, and Barba published another article confirming that following some further information requests to the Mexican central bank, Banixco had clarified the following facts about its gold holdings:
“Of the 3.881 million ounces of gold that the Bank of Mexico has at the close of October 2016, 98.95% are held in the United Kingdom, 0.0004% in the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States and the remaining 1.05 % In Mexico.”
“The Bank of Mexico has the serial number of each ingot protected in accounts assigned abroad. From these accounts, the number of ingots rises to 7,265. It should be noted that for unallocated accounts there is no specific serial number and therefore the number of ingots cannot be determined.”
“Assigned accounts are those that are owned on specific ingots with serial numbers, and segregated from the rest.“
Therefore, for each gold ingot held in a foreign domiciled allocated gold account, Bank of Mexico is in possession of the bar serial numbers. This was the first information from Banixco that specifically addressed the number of gold bars held by the Mexican central bank at the Bank of England.
As of October 2016, with 3,881,000 ounces of gold held by Mexico in total, 98.95% of which was held at the Bank of England in London, that would infer that 3,840,250 ounces of gold (119.4 tonnes) were held in London, with only about 1,550 ounces (0.0004%) held at the FRB in New York.
Assuming each gold bar contains 400 oz troy ounces of gold, then 7,265 bars would contain 2.906 million troy ounces. It would also mean that about 934,000 troy ounces (29 tonnes) of Mexico’s gold are held unallocated accounts (where the gold is not unassigned as specific gold bars). The existence of unallocated gold accounts is revealing since it proves that the Bank of England doesn’t just offer its central bank customers the traditional custody facility of earmarked / set-aside / allocated gold bars. It also offers what either amounts to gold accounts that are denominated on a fine ounces basis but are fully backed by a pool of gold, or alternatively these unallocated accounts may not be fully backed (i.e. fractionally-backed).
To facilitate gold lending in the London Gold Market between central banks (the lenders) and commercial bullion banks (the borrowers), the Bank of England would have to operate account facilities for its customers that were in a sense dematerialised because when a central bank lends gold bars to a bullion bank, it does not necessarily (and probably doesn’t) receive back the same gold bars, because those bars have either been sold in the market or onward lent in the market. Therefore an account convention with specific bars earmarked to a customer would not facilitate this process. Only an account where the unit is a balance of fine troy ounces of gold would allow these transfers to occur. In this scenario, the central bank still insists it has a fine troy ounce gold holding, even though its gold has been lent out to a bullion bank.
The other alternative is that the Bank of England is selling its central bank customers a gold account service where, for example, Central Bank A pays dollar cash upfront for 100 tonnes of gold, and the Bank of England signs a piece of paper saying “We the Bank of England have a liability to Central Bank A for 100 tonnes of gold“, but that gold is not necessarily in the Bank of England vaults or anywhere else. The Bank of England just has to be able to allocated the claim to real physical gold bars if Central Bank A ever decides that its 100 tonne gold asset be converted to allocated gold bars.
Without seeing the “Terms and Conditions” of these “unassigned gold” contracts with the Bank of England, its hard to say how exactly the “unassigned gold” is backed up, and to what extent it’s backed up.
Historically, the Bank of England only ever offered earmarked gold accounts to its central bank customers, and on a few occasions in the 1950s and 1970s it actually pushed back on plans to offer customers fine gold ounce balance accounts (and got legal advice on this), because the Bank did not want to go down the road of ending up with one pool of gold backing multiple central bank customer accounts, as this went against the concept of custody of assets and title to specific gold, and furthermore the Bank was afraid of the legal implications of central banks depositing specific bars but getting back different bars which might not be of the same quality etc.
March 2017: Banixco Releases Detailed Bar List
Initially, as per his 17 February article, Banixco only provided Barba with a list of the 7,265 gold bars showing two columns of data, the first column listing internal Bar-IDs from the Bank of England’s gold bar database, and the second column listing the refiner brand names of the bars. This first list can be seen here, but it’s not really that important, because a few weeks later, Banixco agreed to provide Barba with a second, much more comprehensive list. This second list is featured in Barba’s article dated 7 March 2017.
The latter Banixco gold bar list file can be downloaded here. For each of the 7,265 gold bars listed (in 7265 Rows), the list contains 7 columns or variables of data, namely:
Sequence Number from 1 to 7265
“Serial Number” (which is an internal Bank of England sequence number)
Brand Code (an 8-digit code)
Gross Weight (troy ounces to 2 decimal places)
Assay (gold Fineness)
Fine Weight (troy ounces to 3 decimal places)
Although the Banixco list does not include the real serial numbers that each gold refiner stamps on its own gold bars, the combination of columns “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” in the list should be adequate to uniquely identify each bar, because don’t forget, these are variable weight bars and each bar for a given refiner will have a different fine weight when expressed to 3 decimal places. The start of the list looks as per the below screenshot:
Overall, the 7265 gold bars weigh 2,919,911.55 troy ounces and contain a total of 2,912,000 fine troy ounces of gold.The list provided by Banixco is sorted by ‘Brand Code’ which is an 8-digit Bank of England database table field that consists of refiner code (digits 1-4), refiner location (digits 5-6) and sequence number (digits 7-8). For example, Valcambi is VALCCH01 i.e. VALC, CH = Switzerland, and 01.
The 2nd column in the list is a Bank of England internal ID bar number which is either 6 or 7 digits. On Mexico’s list, the highest number is 1047712 and the lowest number is 704989, but the numbers present on the list run in short and broken sequential ranges of, for example, 1039142-1039221 or 880338-880446. If this is a sequential internal series of numbers that started at 000001, it would suggest that more than 1 million individual Good Delivery Bars have passed through the Bank of England’s 10 gold vaults since the numbering series was initiated. The series may not be fully sequential at all, and could possibly also include some part of the number signifying vault location, although this is doubtful.
The Refiner Bar Names on Mexico’s Gold Bar List
There are 24 ‘Brand Codes’ listed on the Mexico’s gold bar list, including such refiners as South Africa’s Rand Refinery, Australia’s Perth Mint, Switzerland’s Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and Metalor, the Royal Canadian Mint, Germany’s Heraeus, Johnson Matthey, the US Assay Office, the State Refinery (Moscow), the Central Bank of the Philippines Gold Refinery, and N.M. Rothschild. Many of these brands held at the Bank of England are the same refiner brands which are trusted and popular in the retail investment gold bar market, and carried by BullionStar, such as Perth Mint, Argor-Heraeus, Heraeus, Royal Canadian Mint, and Johnson Matthey.
Some refiners have, or have had over time, refinery operations in multiple geographic locations, so some refiners have multiple Brand Codes listed in the Bank of England gold bar database. One example is Johnson Matthey, which on the Banixco list is listed as 4 separate entities, namely Johnson Matthey Salt Lake City USA, Johnson Matthey and Co Ltd [GB], Johnson Matthey & Mallory Ltd. Toronto, and Johnson Matthey Hong Kong Ltd. Another example is Metalor, which is present on the Banixco list in 3 guises, namely Metalor Hong Kong, Metalor USA, and Metalor Technologies SA (Switzerland).
Other long-standing refiners have gone through various mergers over time and their historic parts are now all part of a larger refining group. This applies to “Perth Mint” bars, which on the Banixco list are represented by Western Australia Mint (Trading as AGR) , AGR Joint Venture Melbourne and the Royal Mint (Perth).
On an individual Brand Code basis, the below table shows these refinery brand names, and the number of gold bars of each brand name that show up on Mexico’s gold bar weight list.
First up is the Rand Refinery, with Banixco holding 1735 rand Refinery gold bars. Nearly a quarter of Banixco’s earmarked bars are Rand Refinery bars. It’s not surprising that on a refiner name basis, Banixco holds more Rand Refinery gold bars than any other bar brand. After all, Rand Refinery of South Africa is said to have refined over 50,000 tonnes of gold since it was established in 1921, which is about 30% of all the gold that has ever been mined. A lot of Rand Refinery bars were also historically sold in the London Gold Market and held within the bank of England vaults. This is probably still the case.
For example, according to the Bank of England archives, most of the gold held by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the Bank of England was (as of the late 1970s) in the form of Rand Refinery gold bars. Whether this is still the case is unclear, as the IMF is ultra secretive about its remaining gold reserves and never reports facts such as gold bar weight lists.
Second up is AGR Joint Venture, which is now technically part of the Perth Mint, with the Bank of Mexico holding 1519 of these bars. Together with the Rand refinery bars, these two brands makeup 45% of Banixco’s total holdings. Adding in the bars of Johnson Matthey Toronto and Valcambi Switzerland, nearly 70% of Mexico’s bars are from just 4 bar brands.
Grouping refiner names where appropriate such as all Johnson Matthey names and all Perth Mint related names, results in a slightly different ranking, with Perth Mint taking pole position with 1892 bars held by Banixco, and with Rand Refinery and Johnson matthey in exact joint second place with 1736 bars a piece in the Mexican holdings.
Under this grouping approach, 74% of Mexico’s gold bars have been manufactured by just 3 refinery groups, rising to nearly 85% if Valcambi bars are included.
One of the reasons for highlighting this, is that it could be useful for extrapolating the frequency of gold bar brands that might be held across gold accounts generally at the Bank of England. While this extrapolation might be flawed, it does suggest that there are certain refinery bars brands that are more common than others within the Bank of England vault network.
The Bank of England did not just go and transfer newly refined gold bars into the Banixco account. It populated the Banixco allocated gold holding (in 2011 or after) with a selection of bars from lots of different eras. Hence the presence of NM Rothschild bars, US Assay Office bars, old Royal Mint (Perth) bars, as well as AGR Joint venture bars. Its also possible that a bullion bank or bullion banks executed the order on behalf of Mexico with gold that these banks store at the Bank of England (bullion banks also store gold at the bank of England for those who were not aware of this fact).
AGR Joint Venture bars were only produced until 2003. See here for details of AGR’s history. NM Rothschild bars have not been produced since 1967. Royal Mint (Perth) bars are extremely old and have not been produced under this name for a very long time. LBMA Good Delivery records don’t even specify when Royal Mint (Perth) bars ceased to be produced. The last Johnson Matthey bars produced in England were in 2005. US Assay Office bars (from the New York Assay Office) haven’t been produced since 1997 at the latest, and mostly well before that. Therefore, even though the Banixco gold bar list doesn’t list year of manufacture for each bar, some inferences can be made to show that a lot of the bars allocated to the Mexican gold account at the Bank of England are old bars that are no longer in production. But that’s not surprising because gold is a store of wealth and has been for 1000s of years, so an old bar is as good as a newer bar.
The bar list is also interesting in that it shows that when the Bank of England (or a bullion bank with a gold holding at the Bank of England) either buys physical gold bars on behalf of a central bank customer, or allocates specific bars to a central bank gold account for a gold balance that was previously in a unallocated account, it is either transferring gold from a Bank of England inventory holding, or by buying gold from another central bank that’s already in its vaults, or else buying gold from a bullion bank that probably also has gold stored at the Bank of England, part of which may be gold that has flowed out of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds that store their gold in the London vaults.
Which brings us to some critical points. Using the “refiner brand – gross weight – assay – fine weight” combination for bars on the Banixco list, it should be possible to cross reference these bars against records of gold bars that have been held over time in gold-backed ETFs such as GLD and IAU. Various gold researchers such as Warren James maintain databases with records of all gold bars that are in and that have ever been in gold-backed ETFs. If a bar on the Banixco list has a match in those database tables, then it proves that the Bank of England sources gold for its central bank customers that was at one time held in one of the ETFs. And this probably happens, since the bullion banks such as HSBC and JP Morgan are active in allocating and deallocating gold in and out of ETFs, and they hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and are active in the gold lending market.
More importantly, if in the future, a gold-backed ETF flags up one or more gold bars that were among the 7265 gold bars on the Banixco list, and Banixco hasn’t reported selling any gold, then it will prove that Banixco either lent or swapped some of ts gold while still accounting for it under ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its balance sheet, and it will prove that central bank gold is being double counted while on loan, i.e. claimed to be held by a central bank, while really being held in a gold-backed ETF.
Two months after the LME announcement, during the annual conference of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) announced on 17 October that it too planned the launch of a gold futures contract in the London market. See Bullion Desk’s “ICE to launch gold futures in 2017, competition in gold market grows” as well as the ICE press release. The ICE contract is named “Gold Daily Futures” and resides on the ICE Futures US platform. It too is a daily futures contract.
Not to be outdone, the CME Group then followed suit on 1 November 2016 and it too announced plans for a “London Spot Gold Futures contract” as well as a “London Spot Silver futures contract”. See CME press release “CME Group Announces New Precious Metals Spot Spread” from 1 November 2016, and “CME to launch London spot gold, silver futures for spot spread” from the Bullion Desk, 1 November 2016. The CME contract was to trade on COMEX (Globex and Clearport) as a daily futures contract, and was devised so as to offer traders a spot spread between COMEX and London OTC Spot gold.
As of August 2016, the LME’s target launch date was said to be “the first half of 2017”. ICE was more specific with a target launch of February 2017 (subject to regulatory review). In it’s announcement, CME went for an even earlier planned launch date of 9 January 2017 (subject to regulatory approval).
Two Launches – No Volume
Why the update? Over the 2 weeks, there have been a number of developments surrounding these 3 contracts. The CME and ICE gold futures contracts have both been launched, and additionally, LME has provided more clarity around the launch date of its offering.
Surprisingly, while there was plenty of financial media coverage of these 3 gold futures contracts when their plans were initially publicised from August – November 2016, there has been little to no financial media coverage of the contracts now that 2 of the 3 have been launched.
On 25 January, I took a look at the CME website to see what the status of the CME gold futures contract might be. Strangely, the contract itself was defined on the CME website (with a code of GSP) but it had no trading volume. From the website, it was not clear when the contract actually launched, but it looked to be sometime during the last week of January.
On 25 January, I also sent a short email to CME asking:
“Has the London Spot Gold contract started trading yet?
Next up the ICE gold futures contract (AUD). Upon checking the ICE website under section “Products”, the new ICE Gold Daily Futures contract has been defined, and the description states “The Daily Gold Futures contract will begin trading on trade date Monday, January 30, 2017“.
Turning to the ICE reporting section of the website for futures products, and selecting the end of day ICE Futures US report page, and then selecting the reports for AUD, there are 6 daily reports available for download, namely, from 30 and 31 January, and 1, 2, 3 and 6 February. Again, looking at each of these reports, there are varying prices specified in the reports but there are no trading volumes. All of the volumes are zero.
Therefore, as far as the CME and ICE websites show, both of these new gold futures contracts have been launched and are available to trade, but there hasn’t been a single trade in either of the contracts. Not a very good start to what was trumpeted and cheer-led as a new dawn for the London Gold Market by outlets such as Bloomberg with the article “Finance Titans Face Off Over $5 Trillion London Gold Market“.
LMEprecious – To Launch Monday 5 June 2017
Finally, possibly so as not to be forgotten while its rivals were launching their London gold futures offerings, the LME on Friday 3 February announced in a general LME and LME Clear update memo that the planned launch date of its LMEprecious platform is now going to be Monday 5 June, i.e. 4 months from now.
As a reminder, the LMEprecious contracts will be supported by a group of market maker investment banks, namely Goldman Sachs,Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Natixis and ICBC Standard Bank.
It’s also important to remember that all 3 of these gold futures contract product sets are for the trading of unallocated gold, (i.e. claims on a bullion bank for gold, aka synthetic / fictional gold). All 3 contracts claim to be physically-settled but this is essentially a play on words, because in the world of the London Gold Market, physically-settled does not mean physically-settled in the way any normal person would define it. LBMA physically-settled just means passing unallocated balances around, a.k.a. pass the parcel. To wit:
ICE London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“The contract will be settled through unallocated loco London gold vault accounts using LBMA Good Delivery Rules.”
CME London gold futures settle via unallocated accounts:
“London Spot Gold futures contract will represent 100 troy ounces of unallocated gold“
And for LMEprecious, settlement will be:
“Physical settlement one day following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to [LME Clearing] LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank.”
With neither the CME nor the ICE gold futures contracts registering any trades as of yet (according to their websites), it will be interesting to see how this drama pans out. Will they be dud contracts, like so many gold futures contracts before them that have gone to the gold futures contracts graveyard, or will they see a pick up in activity? All eyes will also be on the LME contract from 5 June onwards.
The lack of coverage of the new CME and ICE London gold futures contracts is also quite unusual. Have the London financial media already forgotten about them? According to Reuters it would seem so. On 22 January, Reuters published an article titled “LME’s pitch for share of gold market faces bumpy ride” which exclusively questioned whether the LME gold contract would be a success, while not even mentioning the CME and ICE contracts. Given that 22 January was right before the CME and ICE contracts were about to be launched, this is quite bizarre. Presumably Bloomberg will come to the rescue of its ‘financial titans’ heros, and will write glowing tributes about the new contracts, but this will be tricky given the zero trade volumes. We await with bated breath.
Given that it’s now just over a year since that last set of calculations, it made sense at this point to update the data so as to grasp how many Good Delivery golds bars held in London is spoken for in terms of ownership, versus how much may be unaccounted for. Estimating gold held in London vaults is by definition a tricky exercise, since it must rely on whatever data and statements are made available in what is a notoriously secret market, and there will usually be timing mismatches between the various data points. However, using a combination of published sources from the Bank of England, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the Exchange Traded Fund websites, and UK gold import/export data, it is possible to produce some factual numbers.
In the Bank of England vaults
Exactly once per year, the Bank of England publishes a snapshot of how much gold it is holding in custody for its central bank and commercial bank customers. This snapshot is featured in the Bank’s annual report which is usually published around July each year, and reports on its financial year-end, as of end of February. In its 2016 Annual Report, the Bank of England states (on page 31) that:
“At end-February 2016, total assets held by the Bank as custodian were £567 billion (2015: £514 billion), of which £135 billion (2015: £130 billion) were holdings of gold”
With an afternoon LBMA Gold Price fix of £888.588 on Monday 29 February 2016, this equates to 151,926,427 fine troy ounces of gold, or 4725 tonnes held in custody at the Bank of England. This equates to approximately 380,000 London Good Delivery gold bars, each weighing 400 fine troy ounces.
The corresponding figure for end of February 2015 was £130 billion, which, valued at the afternoon fix on that day of £787.545 per ounce, equalled 5,134 tonnes. Therefore between the end of February 2015 end of February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody by the Bank of England fell by 409 tonnes. Since, according to World Gold Council data, there were no central bank sellers of gold over that period apart from Venezuela whose gold was predominantly held in Venezuela at that time, then most of this 409 tonne decline must be either due to unreported central bank sales, central bank gold repatriation movements, London bullion bank sales, or some combination of all three.
The year-on-year drop of 409 tonnes came after a previous decline of 350 tonnes to end of February 2015, and before that a drop of 755 tonnes between February 2013 and February 2014. So overall between February 2013 and February 2016, the amount of gold held in custody in the Bank of England’s vaults fell by 1,514 tonnes.
LBMA Ballpark: 6,500 tonnes in London
Up until at least October 2015, the vaulting page on the LBMA website stated that:
“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 7,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”
This is based on a Wayback Machine Internet Archive page cache from 9 October 2015.
The current version of that page on the LBMA website now states:
“In total it is estimated that there are approximately 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London vaults, of which about three-quarters is stored in the Bank of England.”
The earliest Internet Archive page cache mentioning 6,500 tonnes is from 8 February 2016. So sometime between October 2015 and February 2016, the LBMA changed its ballpark figure, revising it down by 1000 tonnes. Wayback Machine Archive web crawlers usually update a web page following a change to that page, so its likely that the revision to 6,500 tonnes was done nearer February than October. Using a figure from a LBMA website page is admittedly quite general, but at least it’s an anchor, and someone at the LBMA saw fit to make that actual change from 7,500 tonnes to 6,500 tonnes. In June 2015 (as some readers might recall), the LBMA had said that there were 500,000 Good Delivery gold bars in all the London vaults, which is approximately 6256 tonnes, so perhaps the 6500 tonne estimate was partially based on this statistic from mid-year 2015 that the LBMA was playing catch-up with.
With 6,500 tonnes in London vaults, ~ 75% of which is at the Bank of England, this would mean 4,875 tonnes at the Bank of England, and another 1,625 tonnes at other (commercial) gold vaults in London, mostly at HSBC’s and JP Morgan’s vaults. As per the Bank of England’s annual report as of 29 February 2016, we know now that there were 4,725 tonnes in custody at the Bank, so the LBMA ballpark of 4875 is actually very close to the actual 4725 tonnes reported by the Bank, and the difference is only 150 tonnes. Lets’s move on to the vaulted gold held in London but held outside the Bank of England vaults.
ETF Gold held in London
In the September 2015 calculation exercise, we estimated that there were 1,116 tonnes of gold held in the London vaults within a series of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.
The known ETFs and other companies that hold their Good Delivery bar gold in London are as follows:
SPDR Gold Trust: GLD. Custodian HSBC London, all GLD gold held at HSBC vault
The 1,116 tonnes of gold ETF holdings in London, calculated in September 2015, were as follows, with the SPDR Gold Trust accounting for the largest share:
The total figure for all gold held in London that we used in September 2015 was the 6,256 tonne figure implied by the LBMA’s 500,000 gold bars statement from June 2015. With 6,256 tonnes in total, and 5,134 tonnes at the Bank of England (as of end February 2015), this left 1,122 tonnes in London but “not at the Bank of England“, which implied that there was nearly no gold in London outside the Bank of England that was not accounted for by ETF holdings. in other words the ‘London Gold Float’ looks to have been near zero as of September 2015.
Assuming 6,500 tonnes of gold held in London in February 2016, and with 4,725 tonnes at the Bank of England in February 2016, we can repeat this exercise and say that the would leave 1,775 tonnes of gold in London but “not at the Bank of England“, as the following chart shows:
Its well-known by now that the tide of significant gold ETF outflows that occurred in 2015 suddenly turned to very strong inflows into gold ETFs beginning in early 2016. Although our gold ETF holdings data was updated using holdings information as of 30 September 2016, it’s still worth seeing how well the latest London holdings of the gold ETFs help to explain this 1775 tonnes “not in the Bank of England” figure. As it turns out, as of the end of September 2016, the above ETFs collectively held 1,679 tonnes of gold, so right now, if there were 1775 tonnes of gold in London outside of the Bank of England, the ETF holdings would explain all but 96 tonnes of this total.
Taking a quick look at some of the individual ETF holdings, the massive SPDR Gold Trust is currently holding around 950 tonnes of gold in London. The iShares figure reported in the charts of 214.89 tonnes comprises 2 components a) the London held gold within IAU (which can be seen in this daily JP Morgan weight list), and b) the gold bars held in iShares trust SGLN. The bulk of the ETF Securities figure of 276.68 tonnes represents gold held in PHAU (over 150 tonnes), and GBS (over 100 tonnes). The Deutsche Bank total is quite hard to calculate and comprises gold held in 5 Deutsche bank ETFs. Nick Laird receives daily holdings files for these ETFs from Deutsche Bank and performs a number of calculations such as fractional ounces per ETF unit to arrive at a total figure of 88 tonnes. The SOURCE and ABSA ETFs make up the vast majority of the remainder, with the other entities listed, such as BetaShares and Standard Bank ETF, being immaterial to the calculation.
Central Bank gold at the Bank of England
For the purposes of this exercise, data on central bank gold holdings at the Bank of England does not need to be updated since there hasn’t been any reported gold buying or selling activity by any of the relevant central banks since September 2015 (except for Venezuela), so the ‘known figure’ of 3779 tonnes attributed to identified banks in September 2015 remains unchanged. If anything, since the Bank of England revealed last February that its gold under custody fell to 4,725 tonnes, it means that there are now approximately 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that are not explained by known central bank holders.
Given that many central banks around the world will not cooperate in confirming where they store their foreign stored gold, then there are definitely additional central banks storing gold in the Bank of England vaults which would reduce this 946 tonnes of gold with unknown ownership. Therefore some of this total is unknown central bank gold holdings. Some is presumably also gold and borrowed gold held by bullion banks that have gold accounts at the Bank of England. Given that the Bank of England and the LBMA bullion banks maintain a total information blackout about the real extent of the gold lending market out of London, it is difficult to know how much borrowed gold is being held at the Bank of England by bullion bank account holders.
Some of the growth in the SPDR Gold Trust gold holdings this year looks to have been sourced from gold originating from the Bank of England, as was detailed in a July BullionStar article “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults“, which highlighted that the Bank of England was a subcustodian of the SPDR Golf Trust during Q1 2016. As a SPDR Gold Trust filing stated:
“During the quarter ended March 31, 2016, the greatest amount of gold held by subcustodians was approximately 29 tonnes or approximately 3.8% of the Trust’s gold at such date. The Bank of England held that gold as subcustodian.“
Year to Date ETF changes and UK Gold Imports
It’s important to highlight that the 6,500 tonnes figure reported by the LBMA and the 4,725 tonne figure reported by the Bank of England relate to the February 2016 period, while the ETF gold holdings totals calculated above are from the end of September 2016. So there is a date mismatch. Nick Laird has calculated that during the February to September 2016 period, the London gold ETFs added 399 tonnes of gold, and during the same period the UK net imported (imports – exports) more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold. Given the apparent low float of gold in London late last year, its realistic to assume that gold inflows into the London-based ETFs this year were mostly sourced from non-monetary gold imports into the UK because there was apparently no other gold at hand from which to source the ETF gold inflows. ETF demand would also help explain the drivers of UK gold imports year-to-date. Note that monetary gold imports (central bank gold trade flows) are not reported by the respective trade bodies since the opaque basket of deplorables (i.e. central bankers) get an unfair exemption, therefore the 800 tonnes of net gold imports into the UK refers to non-monetary gold imports.
According to the latest comprehensive trade statistics, from January to July 2016 inclusive the UK net imported 735 tonnes of gold from the Rest of the World. To this figure we can add another 84.6 tonnes of gold that the UK net imported from Switzerland in August 2016. This gives total UK gold imports up to August 2016 inclusive of 819.6 tonnes, hence the statement, the UK net imported over 800 tonnes of gold year-to-date.
If 399 tonnes of the 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold imported into the UK during 2016 was channeled into the holdings of gold-backed ETFs, this would still mean that the ‘London Float’ of gold could have been augmented by approximately 400 tonnes year-to-date. However, since most non-monetary gold imports into the UK are for bullion bank customers such as Scotia and Barclays, some of these extra imports could have been for repaying borrowed gold liabilities to central bank customers, and the quantity of gold now held at the Bank of England may be higher than reported by the Bank last February.
In summary, given the large UK gold imports year-to-date, there may now be over 7,000 tonnes of Good Delivery gold bars held in London vaults. But the fact that very large quantities of gold bars had to be imported into the London market during 2016 does suggest that our calculations from September 2015 were valid and that there was a very low float of gold in the London market. This float may now be a few hundred tonnes higher given the imports, but there is still an unquantifiably large number of claims in the form of ‘unallocated gold’ holdings in the London market which are liabilities against the LBMA bullion banks.
Remember that the London Gold Market trades nearly 6000 tonnes of predominantly paper gold each and every day. The latest LBMA ‘gold’ clearing statistics show that on average, 18.8 million ounces (585 tonnes) of ‘gold’ was cleared per trading day in September 2016 which on a 10:1 trading to clearing ratio equates to 5,850 tonnes traded per day, and 128,000 tonnes traded during September. So the LBMA administered market nearly trades as much ‘gold’ connected transaction per day as is held in the entire London vaulting network.
If gold demand from the Rest of the World ticks up, such as from India, then the London market will not have the luxury of being able to import large quantities of gold in the absence of that excess demand putting upward pressure on the gold price. Until then, the London Gold Market looks likely to continue its physical re-stock with one hand, while trading leveraged paper gold with the other hand, all the while rolling over outstanding borrowed central bank gold obligations, such as the short-term gold deposits held by Banco Central de Bolivia, which will be the subject of an upcoming case study into the hidden London gold lending market consortium.
the LBMA was established in 1987 by the Bank of England
the original bullion bank founding members and steering committee members of the LBMA represented 6 commercial banks active in the London Gold Market, namely, N.M. Rothschild, Mocatta & Goldsmid, Morgan Guaranty Trust, J. Aron, Sharps Pixley (former Sharps Pixley), and Rudolf Wolff & Co.
the Bank of England has been involved in the affairs of the LBMA from Day 1 in 1987, and continues to this day to have observer status on the LBMA Management Committee
the Bank of England has observer status on not just the LBMA Management Committee, but also on the LBMA Physical Committee and in the LBMA Vault Managers group
the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has observer status on the LBMA Management Committee
although there are 2 other London financial market committees closely aligned with the Bank of England, and populated by bank representatives, that publish the minutes of their regular meetings, namely the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee, the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee, the LBMA Management Committee does not publish the minutes of its meetings, so the public is in the dark as to what’s discussed in those meetings
Note that “observer status” does not mean to sit and observe on a committee, it just means that the observer has no voting rights at committee meetings. Note also that the structure of the LBMA Management Committee has recently changed to that of a Board, so the Committee is now called the LBMA Board.
One of the most interesting points in the previous article referred to the very recent appointment of a very recently departed Bank of England senior staff member, and former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, as the new ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management Committee / ‘Board’. Paul Fisher has also in the past, been the Bank of England’s representative, with observer status, on this very same LBMA Management Committee (now LBMA Board) that he is now becoming independent chairman of. Fisher is replacing outgoing LBMA Board chairman Grant Angwin, who if from Asahi Refining (formerly representing Johnson Matthey).
‘Independent’ Non-Executive Chairman
This article continues where the above analysis left off, and looks at the appointment of Fisher as the new ‘independent’ Non-Executive Chairman of the LBMA Board, considers the ‘independence’ of the appointment given the aforementioned very close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA, and examines the chairman’s appointment in the context of the UK Corporate Governance Code, which now governs the Constitution and operation of the LBMA Board.
As I commented previously:
Arguably, the pièce de résistance of these Bank of England / FCA relationships with the LBMA Management Committee, is the fact that Paul Fisher, the newly appointed ‘independent‘ Chairman of the LBMA Board, a.k.a. LBMA Management Committee, has already previously been the Bank of England’s “observer” on the LBMA Management Committee.”
This was confirmed in Fisher’s speech to the 2004 LBMA Annual Conference in Shanghai, Fisher, when then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, he stated:
“I am glad to be invited to the LBMA’s Management Committee meetings as an observer.”
Fisher was Head of Foreign Exchange Division at the Bank of England from 2000 to 2009, so could in theory have been a Bank of England observer on the LBMA Management Committee throughout this period. The Foreign Exchange Division of the Bank of England is responsible for managing the Sterling exchange rate, and for managing HM Treasury’s official reserves held in the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA), including HM Treasury’s official gold reserves. One would think that when the LBMA announced in a press release in July of this year that Fisher was being appointed as the new LBMA chairman, that the fact that he had previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings would be a fact of relevance to the appointment. However, surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, this fact was omitted from the press release.
“The LBMA is delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Paul Fisher as the new Chairman of the Association, effective from 5 September, 2016. Paul is due to retire from the Bank of England at the end of July.”
The press release goes on to say:
“Paul brings with him a wealth of financial market experience following his 26 years at the Bank of England. Prior to joining the LBMA, his last role was as Deputy Head of the Prudential Regulation Authority. Paul was selected by the LBMA Board following an independent Executive search procedure.”
“Previously, from 2002, he [Paul Fisher] ran the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division where he had a constructive relationship with the LBMA and developed a working knowledge of the bullion market.”
Notwithstanding the capability of the appointment, there is absolutely zero mention in this press release of the fact that Paul Fisher used to be the Bank of England observer on the LBMA Management Committee, a committee that he is now being made chair of. Why so? Was it to make the relationship appear more distant that it actually was, thereby reinforcing the perception of ‘independence’?
In addition, the recently added bio of Paul Fisher on the LBMA Board listings features text identical to the press release, with no indication that Fisher previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings.
Notice also the reference to an “Executive search procedure” being used to support the new chairman’s appointment.
At this point, it’s instructive to examine what drove the re-definition of the LBMA Management Committee to become the LBMA “Board”, and the appointment process to that board of an ‘independent‘ Non-Executive Chairperson. It can be seen from the LBMA website archive that until July of this year, the entity providing oversight and strategic direction to the LBMA was the ‘LBMA Management Committee':
Only in July following a LBMA General Meeting on 29 June did the website description change to LBMA Board:
The new Board structure of the LBMA allows it to have 3 representatives from LBMA Market Making firms, 3 representatives from LBMA Full Member entities, 3 ‘independent’ non -executive directors (inclusive of the ‘independent’ chairman), and up to 3 representatives from the LBMA Executive staff, including the LBMA CEO.
One of the first references to a future change in governance structure at the LBMA came in October 2015 at the LBMA annual conference, held in Rome. At this conference, Ruth Crowell, CEO projected that in the future:
“To enhance its governance, the new Board will include for the first time Non-Executive Directors whilst giving more power to the Executive so as to ensure any conflicts of interest are eliminated.”
On 29 April 2016, a LBMA “Future Events” summary document confirmed that a General Meeting (akin to an EGM) of LBMA members would be convened on Wednesday 29 June 2016 in London so as to “update the LBMA’s legal structure and governance“. The same “Future Events” summary also highlighted a change in schedule to the LBMA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), which due to the 29 June General Meeting, would now be held on 27 September 2016 with an agenda item to “incorporate, into the constitution of the LBMA, the governance and legal structure changes agreed at the General Meeting in June“.
It would be quite presumptuous for any normal organisation of members, in the month of April, to not only assume that resolutions that were only being put to its membership in the month of June would be passed, but to also actually hard-code these assumptions into the agenda of a scheduled September meeting. However, this was what was written in the “Future Events” document and appears to be the pre-ordained roadmap that the LBMA Management Committee had already set in stone.
On Thursday 30 June, the day after its General Meeting in London, the LBMA issued a press release in which it confirmed (as it had predicted) that “Members of the LBMA approved by an overwhelming majority a number of important changes to its Memorandum & Articles of Association“.
As well as endorsing the LBMA’s expansion to acquire the responsibilities of the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM), which was the first motion for consideration at the meeting, the press release confirmed that the membership had endorsed the appointment of an independent Non-Executive Chairman:
“The second change was to further enhance the governance of the Association. TheUK Corporate Governance Code was incorporated and will govern both the Constitution as well as the operation of the Board. While it is vital for the Board to have a strong voice for its Members, it is important that any actual and perceived conflicts between these parties are balanced by having independence on that Board. This independence protects the interests of the wider membership as well as the individuals themselves serving on the Board. To address this, the LBMA has added an independent Non-Executive Chairman as well as two additional Non-Executive Directors (NEDs).”
Notice the reference to 2 other independent non-executive directors. Nine business days later, on 13 July 2016, the LBMA issued a further press release revealing that ex Bank of England Head of Foreign Exchange and former observer on the LBMA Management Committee, Paul Fisher had been appointed as the “independent Non-Executive Chairman“.
Executive Search Procedure
Recall also that the 13 July press release stated “Paul was selected by the LBMA Board following an independent Executive search procedure.””
Nine days is an extremely short period of time to commence, execute, and complete an ‘independent Executive search procedure‘. It immediately throws up questions such as which search firm was retained to run the independent Executive search procedure?, which candidates did the search firm identify?, was there a short-list of candidates?, who was on such a short-list?, what were the criteria that led to the selection of the winning candidate above other candidates?, and how could such a process have been run and completed in such a limited period of time when similar search and selection processes for chairpersons of corporate boards usually take months to complete?
How independent is it also to have a former divisional head of the Bank of England as chairman of the London Gold Market when the Bank of England is the largest custodian of gold in the London Gold Market, and operates in the London Gold Market with absolute secrecy on behalf of its central bank and bullion bank customers.
Since the LBMA voluntarily incorporated the UK Corporate Governance Code into the operations of its Board following the General Meeting on 29 June, its instructive to examine what this UK Corporate Governance Code has to say about the appointment of an independent chairman to a board, and to what extent the Corporate Governance Code principles were adhered to in the LBMA’s ‘independent‘ chairman selection process.
UK Corporate Governance Code
The LBMA is a private company (company number 02205480) limited by guarantee without share capital, with an incorporation filing at UK Companies House on 14 December 1987. Stock exchange-listed companies in the UK are required to implement the principles of the UK Corporate Governance Code and comply with these principles or else explain (to their shareholders) why they have not complied (called the “comply or explain” doctrine). In the world of listed equities, monitoring and interacting with companies about their corporate governance is a very important area of institutional and hedge fund management. It has to be so as the share owners are able to monitor and grasp if any governance issues arise at any of companies held within their institutional / hedge fund equity portfolios.
Non-listed companies in the UK are also encouraged to apply the principles of the Code, but are not obliged to. When a private company chooses to incorporate the UK Corporate Governance Code to govern its Constitution and operation of its Board, one would expect that it would also then ‘comply’ to the principles of the Code or else ‘explain’ in the spirit of the Code, why it is not in compliance.
The UK Corporate Governance Code is administered by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC). The April 2016 version of the Code can be read here. The main principles of the Code are divided into 5 sections, namely, Leadership (section A), Effectiveness (section B), Accountability (section C), Remuneration (section D), and Relations with Shareholders (Section E).
One of the main principles of Section B is as follows:
“There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board. “
Section A also addresses the independence of the chairman, and Section A.3.1. states that:
“The chairman should on appointment meet the independence criteria set out in B.1.1″
Section B.1.1, in part, states that:
“The board should determine whether the director is independent in character and judgement and whether there are relationships or circumstances which are likely to affect, or could appear to affect, the director’s judgement. The board should state its reasons if it determines that a director is independent notwithstanding the existence of relationships or circumstances which may appear relevant to its determination, including if the director:
has, or has had within the last three years, a material business relationship with the company either directly, or as a partner, shareholder, director or senior employee of a body that has such a relationship with the company;
represents a significant shareholder;”
It goes without saying that the Bank of England has a material business relationship with the commercial banks which are represented on the LBMA Board, and I would argue that although the LBMA has no share capital, because the Bank of England has a material business relationship with the LBMA, and because since Paul Fisher was a senior employee of the Bank of England until July of this year, then the LBMA should “state its reasons as to why it determines that this director is independent“.
Furthermore, although the Bank of England is not a ‘significant shareholder’ of the LBMA, it is the next best thing, i.e. it has a significant and vested interest in the workings of the LBMA and interacts with LBMA banks through the London vaulting system, the gold lending market, and in its regulatory capacity of the LBMA member banks. The Bank of England also established the LBMA in 1987 don’t forget, so the extremely close relationship between the two is of material concern when a senior employee of the former suddenly becomes chairman of the latter.
Section B.2 addresses ‘Appointments to the Board':
There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board“
“There should be a nomination committee which should lead the process for board appointments and make recommendations to the board. A majority of members of the nomination committee should be independent non-executive directors.
The nomination committee should make available its terms of reference, explaining its role and the authority delegated to it by the board. 
[Footnote 7]: The requirement to make the information available would be met by including the information on a website that is maintained by or on behalf of the company.“
Was there a nomination committee? As of the time of appointing the new chairman to the LBMA Board, there were zero independent non-executive directors on the Board. And, excluding the newly appointed chairman, there are still zero other independent non-executive directors on the LBMA Board.
If there was a nomination committee, notwithstanding that it couldn’t by definition have a majority of independent non-executive directors when overseeing a search process for an independent chairman, then did it “make available its terms of reference” “on a website that is maintained by or on behalf of the company.” Not that I can see on any part of the LBMA website.
Section B.2.4. of the UK Corporate Governance Code includes the text:
“Where an external search consultancy has been used, it should be identified in the annual report and a statement made as to whether it has any other connection with the company.“
The company here being the LBMA (which is a private company). There has been no public identification as to the identity of the external search consultancy that the LBMA state was used in the appointment of Paul Fisher as ‘independent’ non-executive chairman.
Section B.3.2. states:
“The terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors should be made available for inspection.
[Footnote 9]: The terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors should be made available for inspection by any person at the company’s registered office during normal business hours and at the AGM (for 15 minutes prior to the meeting and during the meeting).
There is no reference on the LBMA website as to the terms and conditions of appointment of non-executive directors being made available for inspection by any person at the company’s registered office, nor was this communicated in the LBMA’s press release wherein it announced the appointment of the ‘independent’ non-executive chairman. It is one thing to claim to incorporate the UK Corporate Governance Code into a Board’s operations, but an entirely different matter to actually implement the principles into the operations of the Board. Given the above, I can’t see how the LBMA has done much of the latter.
Further ‘Independent’ Non-Executive Director Appointments
Given the opacity in the appointment of the Bank of England’s Paul Fisher as the new ‘independent’ non-executive chairman, it is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the entire appointment process was a pre-ordained shoo-in. Without substantially more transparency from the LBMA, this view is understandable. Nor have there been any announcements about the appointment of “two additional Non-Executive Directors (NEDs)” that was claimed in the LBMA’s 30 June press release.
The LBMA held its Annual General Meeting this past week, on Tuesday 27 September. During the AGM, the outgoing chairman, Grant Angwin commented in his speech that:
” I’m delighted to have by my side Dr. Paul Fisher who will be replacing me as the first Independent Non-Executive Chairman of your Association – Paul will introduce himself to you in a moment.Paul and I will Co-Chair the Board until the end of this year. This is the first major step to making the Board more independent, Paul will be joined by up to 2 other Independent Directors in the near future.“
“The Board will now comprise of 6 representatives from the market – three each in the categories of Market Markers and Full Members, up to 3 Independent Non-Executive Directors (of which one will be the Chairman) and up to 3 LBMA Executive Directors. We expect to make further announcements on these roles very shortly.”
Given that the new chairman has been appointed, it is odd, in my view, that the 2 other independent directors have yet to be appointed and their identities announced. Likewise, for the 2 new directors from the LBMA Executive, who, if and when they join the Board, will give the LBMA Executive 3 seats on the Board. Surely the AGM would have been the ideal venue in which to make these announcements, since other board changes were being voted on at this meeting.
The New Board Profile
For completeness, the changes to the LBMA Board’s composition that did take place at the AGM, based on Board member resolutions that were put to a vote, are explained below:
Grant Anwin – Asahi Refining (co-chairman of Board)
Paul Fisher (new chairman of Board)
Ruth Crowell – Chief Executive of LBMA
Steven Lowe – Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta (and vice-chairman of Board)
Peter Drabwell – HSBC Bank
Sid Tipples – JP Morgan Chase
Jeremy East – Standard Chartered
Robert Davis, Toronto Dominion Bank
Philip Aubertin – UBS (‘Observer’ status)
Alan Finn, Malca-Amit
Mehdi Barkhordar, PAMP
Notice that there were 5 LBMA Marking Making reps on the Board, namely from HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, Standard Chartered and Toronto Dominion Bank. There was also an ‘observer’ from full LBMA Market Maker UBS. There were 3 Full Member representatives, namely from PAMP, Malca-Amit (the security carrier), and Asahi Refining.
At the AGM on 27 September, there was a vote on the Full Member reps to the Board, of which there are 3 positions in the new Board. The existing Full Member reps had to stand down and they, and other Full Member candidates, could re-stand for election:
Grant Angwin, Asahi Refining (and co-chairman of the Board)
Mehdi Barkhordar, PAMP
Hitoshi Kosai, Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo
Because there were 5 Market Maker reps already on the Board, and the new Board structure only allowed 3, there was also an election on which 3 of the 5 would remain: The results were:
Steven Lowe, Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta
Peter Drabwell, HSBC Bank
Sid Tipples, JP Morgan Chase
Noticeably, these 3 remaining reps represent what are probably the 3 most powerful bullion banks in the LBMA / LPMCL system, HSBC, JP Morgan and Scotia, two of which, HSBC and JP Morgan, operate large commercial gold vaults in London, and all 3 of which operate large commercial COMEX approved gold vaults in New York City. The reps from HSBC and Scotia have also been very long serving members of the LBMA Management Committee / Board, having been re-elected in 2015.
The AGM voting results press release also added that:
“The other two Non-Executive Directors of the LBMA Board will be announced in the near future.”
Given the aforementioned profile of the new ‘independent’ LBMA Board Chairman and ex Bank of England senior staffer Paul Fisher, it will be intriguing to examine the new independence credentials of these 2 new Non-Executive Directors who will be announced in the near future. Will they be truly independent, or will they be former bullion bankers previously affiliated with the LBMA and the London Gold Market, or ex FCA people previously affiliated with the LBMA, or maybe a combination of the two.
As per the UK Corporate Governance Code:
“There should be a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure for the appointment of new directors to the board”. The board should also “state its reasons if it determines that a director is independent“. If an external search consultancy is used in finding either of the 2 new non-executive directors, there should be a “statement made as to whether it [the search consultancy] has any other connection with the company [the LBMA]“.
If 2 extra executive directors are also added to the Board from the LBMA’s staffers, to bring the number of Board directors up to 12, who will these 2 people be? My money in the first instance would be on the LBMA’s senior legal counsel (for regulatory reasons) and the LBMA’s communications officer. Whether the minutes of future or past LBMA Board meetings will ever be made public is another matter, but given the persistent secrecy that surrounds all important matters in the London Gold Market, it would probably be very naive to think that real LBMA communication via, for example LBMA Board meeting minutes, will ever see the light of day.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) is a London-based, globally active, trade association for “the promotion and regulation of commerce relating to the London Bullion Market”. The “London Bullion Market” here collectively refers to the London Gold Market and the London Silver Market. The remit of the LBMA has very recently also been extended to cover the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM).
While it is generally known to many, vaguely or otherwise, that the Bank of England has a vested ‘interest’ in the London gold market, the consistently close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA tends not to be fully appreciated. This close and familial relationship even extends to the very recent appointment of a very recently departed Bank of England senior staff member, and former head of the Bank of England Foreign exchange Division, Paul Fisher, as the new ‘independent‘ chairman of the LBMA Management Committee (a committee which has recently been rechristened as a ‘Board’). Note that at the Bank of England, the Bank’s gold trading activities fall under the remit of the ‘Foreign Exchange’ area, so should be more correctly called Bank of England Foreign Exchange and Gold Division. For example, a former holder of this position in the 1980s, Terry Smeeton, had a title of Head of Foreign Exchange and Gold at the Bank of England.
What is also unappreciated is that the same Paul Fisher has in the past, been the Bank of England’s representative, with observer status, on this very same LBMA Management Committee that he is now becoming independent chairman of. This is an ‘elephant in the room’ if ever there was one, which the mainstream financial media in London conveniently chooses to ignore.
As you will see below, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has a close, and again, very low-key but embedded relationship with this LBMA Management Committee.
At the ‘Behest’ of the Bank of England
The LBMA states in one of its Alchemist magazine articles, that its Association “was established at the behest of the Bank of England” in 1987, with Robert Guy of N.M. Rothschild, the then chairman of the London Gold Fixing, spearheading the coordination of the Association’s formation. Elsewhere, in a recent summary brochure of its activities, the LBMA states that it was “set up in 1987 by the Bank of England, which was at the time the bullion market’s regulator”, while a recently added historical timeline on the LBMA website, under the year 1987, states “LBMA established by the Bank of England as an umbrella association for the London Bullion Market.”
‘Established at the behest of“, “set up by” or “established by“, take your pick, but they all clearly mean the same thing; that the Bank of England was the guiding hand behind the LBMA’s formation.
Prior to the formation of the LBMA, and before a change of regulatory focus in 1986, the London Gold Market and London Silver Market had primarily followed a model of self-regulation, but the Bank of England had always been heavily involved in the market’s supervision and operations, especially in the Gold Market. Even reading a random sample of the Bank of England’s archive catalogue material will make it patently clear how close the Bank of England has always been to the commercial London Gold Market. For scores of years, the London Gold Market to a large extent merely constituted the Bank of England and the five member firms of the London gold fixing, namely NM Rothschild, Mocatta & Goldsmid, Sharps Pixley, Samuel Montagu, and Johnson Matthey.
According to the 1993 book, “The International Gold Trade” by Tony Warwick-Ching, a combination of the advent of the Financial Services Act of 1986 which introduced supervisory changes to the UK’s markets, and the growing power of other bullion banks and brokers in the London precious metals market in the 1980s, acted as a combined impetus for the LBMA’s formation in 1987.
As Warwick-Ching stated:
“The LBMA was partly a response to a growing demand of concerns who were not members of the [gold] fixing for a greater involvement at the heart of the bullion market.”
Morgan and J.Aron join the Party
Specifically, according to its Memorandum of Association, the LBMA was formed into a Company on 24 November 1987 by N.M. Rothschild & Sons Limited, J.Aron & Company (UK) Limited, Mocatta & Goldsmid Limited, Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York, Sharps Pixley Limited, and Rudolf Wolff & Company Limited. This company is “a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital”. Given their participation from the outset, presumably J Aron (now part of Goldman Sachs) and Morgan Guaranty (now part of JP Morgan Chase) were members of the ‘growing demand of concern‘ contingent alluded to by Warwick-Ching, who wanted a bigger say in the gold market’s inner sanctum.
The authorising subscribers of the original Memorandum, on behalf of their respective companies were, Robert Guy (Rothschild), Neil Newitt (J. Aron), Keith Smith (Mocatta & Goldsmid), Guy Field (Morgan Guaranty Trust), Les Edgar (Sharps Pixley), and John Wolff (Rudolf Wolff & Company), and they requested that “We, the subscribers to the Memorandum of Association, wish to be formed into a company pursuant to this Memorandum.” The original steering committee of the LBMA comprised five of the above, Robert Guy (Chairman), Guy Field (Vice Chairman), Keith Smith, John Wolff, Neil Newitt, as well as Jack Spall of Sharps Pixley, the father of Jonathan Spall (current consultant to the LBMA). Note that the incorporation filing at UK Companies House for the LBMA is dated 14 December 1987, about 3 weeks after the date listed on the original Memorandum of Association.
As early as April 1988, there were 13 “Market Maker” members and 48 ‘Ordinary’ members in the LBMA. The market maker members had to be ‘listed money market institutions’, which meant that they were institutions listed under section 43 of the Financial Services Act 1986 (on a list actually maintained by the Bank of England) who conducted various transactions, including bullion market transactions, which were exempt from authorisation.
“The Bank of England has been intrinsically linked with the London bullion market since its foundation in 1694.”
“Although the Bank isn’t a member of the LBMA, members of the LBMA hold gold custody accounts with the Bank”
“The Bank’s vaults hold approximately two-thirds of all the gold held in London vaults and as such plays a significant role in the liquidity within the London gold market. Customers are able to buy or sell gold to other customers, by making or receiving book entry transfers, with ownership transferred in the Bank’s back office system… The service provides a very important element of the gold market infrastructure in London, helping LBMA members and central banks to trade in a secure and efficient way.”
A Bank of England presentation to the 2013 LBMA conference in Rome, titled the-bank-of-englands-gold-vault-operations, gives a good overview of the Bank’s provision of book entry transfers to its central bank and bullion bank clients for the smooth running of the London Gold Lending Market, a market which is totally opaque and completely undocumented. In fact the Bank of England sits at the heart of this gold lending market.
As a historical account of the LBMA’s 1987 formation states:
“From the Steering Committee’s inception, The Bank of England, which held responsibility for the supervision of the wholesale bullion market, was involved in the Association’s affairs and assisted in the drafting of the relevant Code of Conduct. Observers continue to attend Management Committee Meetings to the present day.”
This steering committee ultimately became the LBMA Management Committee, and, in the last few months, has become the LBMA ‘Board’. So the Bank of England is, for all intents and purposes, a highly active partner within the LBMA’s governance structure. As a confirmation of this point, at the LBMA annual general meeting in July 2014, the then chairman of the LBMA Management Committee chairman, David Gornall, of Natixis stated in his speech that:
“The LBMA is also privileged in having an observer from the Bank of England on the Management Committee. The Bank’s presence is of inestimable benefit to us.”
As to what inestimable benefit David Gornall was referring to, or in what way a Bank of England observer participates on the LBMA Management Committee, was not elaborated on. Nor can it be gleaned from any meeting minutes from LBMA Management Committee meetings, because such minutes are not made publicly available (See below).
For anyone not familiar with the concept of an observer on a corporate committee or board, it does not refer to someone who just sits there and observes, as the name may suggest. An observer refers to an attendee at the committee / board meetings who actively participates in discussions but who has no voting rights on committee / board resolutions. Observers can and do fully participate in meeting apart from voting. When voting occurs, they may (or may not) be asked to leave the room.
At the LBMA annual general meeting in June 2013, David Gornall, also chairman of the LBMA Management Committee at that time, revealed that not only was there a Bank of England observer on the Management committee, but there was also an observer from the UK financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), on the same committee:
“The LBMA is also privileged in having observers from both the Bank of England and the FCA on the Management Committee. Their presence is of inestimable benefit to us.”
In fact, there are many such references within various LBMA related speeches. At the LBMA Precious Metals Conference in September 2013, Matthew Hunt of the Bank of England stated:
“More specifically on gold, even though we are not active traders in the market but we are a large custodian, some of the people in our team responsible for gold observationsit on the LBMA Management Committee and the LBMA Physical Committee as observers. Thus we retain a significant engagement with the gold market via that route.”
Notably the Bank of England has a team of people responsible for gold observation, but not for the observation of other commodities such as zinc, lean hogs, live cattle, heating oil, soybeans, sugar, beaver pelts etc etc.
In March 2013, Luke Thorn of the Bank of England, while addressing a LBMA Assaying and Refining Seminar, stated:
“We are not a member of the LBMA, but we continue to play a key role in the London market. We have observer status on the Management, Physical and Vault Committees.”
There are therefore Bank of England observers on 3 LBMA Committees. So, who are these Bank of England and FCA observer representatives? That is not an easy question to answer. There is no mention on the LBMA website’s committee page, and has never been any mention, of any Bank of England observers or FCA observers on the LBMA Management Committee (now Board). Nor are there any published minutes on the LBMA website of any LBMA Management Committee meetings, or the meetings of any of the other five LBMA sub-committees, such meeting minutes as would generally list the attendees of such meetings. More about the lack of minutes below.
Turning briefly to the physical and vault committees, the LBMA website has a listing for its physical committee and does mention that a Bank of England observer called Jennifer Ashton currently is on this committee.
“The Physical Committee is made up of industry experts from the physical bullion market. It is responsible for monitoring, developing and protecting the Good Delivery List and works closely with sub-Groups such as the LBMA Referees and the LBMA’s Vault Managers Working Party”
There is however, no formal listing of the Vault Manager ‘s group as a LBMA committee within the LBMA’s committee listings section. The only informative reference to such a committee on the LBMA web site is in the good delivery rules explained section, which states:
“The Vault Managers Working Group, comprising the Bank of England and representatives from those LBMA members with their own vaulting facilities in London, meet regularly to consider issues relating to bar quality and vault procedures. Vault Managers are required to document every case of bar rejection and provide the associated information to the LBMA Executive”
Who is on this committee from the Bank of England, let alone from any of the other committee member companies is not disclosed.
Turning again to the identities of LBMA Management Committee observers, and going back slightly further to the LBMA Annual General Meeting on 20 June 2012, the Chairman, the omnipresent David Gornall of Natixis London Branch, stated:
“Talking of the Management Committee, let me remind you that we are very fortunate to have observers from both the Bank of England and the FSA on the committee. I would like to thank Trevor Stone and Don Groves for their participation in our affairs”.
From a speech at the 2009 LBMA annual conference by Michael Cross, the then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, we learn that the Bank of England’s Banking Services area:
“is where Trevor Stone and his colleagues, who will also be known to many of you, work. The Banking Services area provides wholesale banking and custody services to a wide range of bank customers”
On 30 September 2013, the ever-present David Gornall in another speech, this time to the LBMA annual conference in Rome, had this to say:
“We are grateful for the communication and feedback on our work from regulators, particularly that of own regulator the FCA. We are delighted to be joined by Don Groves of the FCA during tomorrow’s financial market regulation session. Don is a long-time observer on the LBMA Management Committee and we thank him for his participation and continued dialogue on our regulatory questions facing the London Market.”
The next day, on 1 October 2013, at the same conference, Ruth Crowell, the then Deputy CEO of the LBMA (and current LBMA CEO) introduced Don Groves as follows:
“With that, I am going to turn it over to Don Groves from the Financial Conduct Authority. Don is a technical specialist in the market contact area of the FCA’s Market Monitoring Department, where he is responsible for reviewing allegations of market misconduct, including market abuse and insider dealing.
Don specialises in the UK commodity markets and has been in market conduct for a number of years. We are also very privileged to have Don as an observer on the LBMA’s Management Committee.“
Groves joined the FCA in 1999, and left the FCA in March 2015. While his LinkedIn profile has very detailed listings of his duties while at the FCA, there is no reference to the fact that he ever sat on the LBMA Management Committee, which strikes me as odd, unless that is a deliberate omission. A previous version of Groves’ LinkedIn profile states:
“I am considered to be an expert in Market Conduct matters and market abuse in the UK. I conduct project work pertaining to market conduct issues, contribute to the drafting of European legislation pertaining to market abuse and am an experienced public speaker. My main area of interest is the UK’s commodities markets.
Is it not odd that a FCA regulator was a long-time observer sitting on the LBMA Management Committee, but that the FCA has never had anything to say about the London Gold Market. Perhaps it’s because of the following, which gives the impression of a compliant and embedded regulator. As the FT wrote in October 2013 in an article titled “Gold and oil benchmarks face tighter regulation“:
“I don‘t want to give the impression that the UK is picking on the bullion market or anything else,” Mr Groves told the London Bullion Market Association precious metals conference in Rome. “But a consumer focus is what politicians are looking at…so there’s going to be more focus from us as regulators, on consumer issues.”
“However, [Groves]admitted the regulator did not know enough about physical markets and had launched a project to increase its knowledge. “We are going out as the FCA and learning about those markets,” he said.
What exactly the FCA was doing sitting on the LBMA Management Committee remains unclear, because, to reiterate, there are no publicly available minutes of the Committee’s meetings. At a guess, perhaps Groves was “learning about physical markets“, specifically the physical gold market.
Its also relevant to note that the Bank of England and FCA both crop up as observers when the LBMA holds various seminars, such as the seminar it held in the City of London on 24 October 2014 to showcase various solution providers that were competing to provide the infrastructure for the LBMA Gold Price fixing auction competition that was running at that time:
According to the LBMA press release, “Both the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority attended the seminar as observers.”
Where are the LBMA Mgt Committee Meeting Minutes?
Through the Non-Investment Products Code (NIPs), the Bank of England interfaces closely with the UK’s foreign exchange, money and bullion markets. The Bank of England explains NIPs as follows:
“The Non-Investment Products Code
This Code has been drawn up by market practitioners in the United Kingdom representing principals and brokers in the foreign exchange, money and bullion markets to underpin the professionalism and high standards of these markets.
It applies to trading in the wholesale markets in Non-Investment Products (NIPs), specifically the sterling, foreign exchange and bullion wholesale deposit markets, and the spot and forward foreign exchange and bullion markets.”
“Footnote : Co-ordinated by the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee, the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Group and the Management Committee of the London Bullion Market Association”
Of the three, the Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee is chaired and administered by the Bank of England. The Sterling Money Markets Liaison Group (now known as the Sterling Money Markets Liaison Committee) is also chaired and administered by the Bank of England.
However, the only tiny piece of information offered about the LBMA on the Bank of England website is as follows:
“The Bullion element of the NIPs Code is being replaced by a new code which will be established by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA). Further information on the bullion code can be found on the LMBA website.”
Conveniently, the Bank of England passes the buck back to a web site (LBMA’s website) which is notoriously bereft of any information about the meetings of the LBMA Management Committee, the agendas of such meetings, the minutes of such meetings, and the attendees at these meetings. Why is this opacity allowed by the FCA and Bank of England when the foreign exchange and money market brethren have to submit to published minutes of their meetings, which in many cases involve the same banks and institutions? Could it be that discussion of the London Gold Market is highly secretive and a no-go area, and that the institutions involved have a free pass from the Bank of England and FCA to continue their discussions in private, away from the public eye?
Pièce de Résistance
Arguably, the pièce de résistance of these Bank of England / FCA relationships with the LBMA Management Committee, is the fact that Paul Fisher, the newly appointed ‘independent‘ Chairman of the LBMA Board, formerly known as the LBMA Management Committee, has already previously been the Bank of England’s “observer” on the LBMA Management Committee.
In his speech to the 2004 LBMA Annual Conference in Shanghai, Fisher, the then Head of Foreign Exchange at the Bank of England, while discussing the “Non-Investment Products Code”, a code which regulates the bullion market, the foreign exchange market, and the wholesale money market, stated that:
“In the bullion section, the work is led by the LBMA and the whole is coordinated by the Bank of England. Partly on that basis, I am glad to be invited to the LBMA’s Management Committee meetings as an observer. I’d just like to pay tribute to the professionalism and integrity with which I see the Management Committee operating for the best interests of the global marketplace for bullion.”
One of the more bizarre parts of Fisher’s appointment, in my view, is that when the LBMA announced in a press release last July (2016) that Fisher was being appointed as the new LBMA chairman, there was no mention of the fact that he had previously attended the LBMA Management Committee meetings. One would think that this would be a very relevant when considering the ‘independence’ of the appointment?
On hearing the news on 13 July about the appointment of the Bank of England’s Paul Fisher as ‘independent’ non-executive chairman of the LBMA Board, James G Rickards, the well-known gold author and commentator, tweeted the below, which succinctly sums up the elephant in the room, which the mainstream media chooses to ignore.
This appointment reinforces the link, or bridge, between the two entities, which is now even more set in stone than previously. It’s as if the Bank of England, at this time, has felt the need to put it’s man directly at the head of the LBMA. The timing may be relevant, but in what way is not yet clear.
A forthcoming article looks at this appointment of a former Bank of England Head of Foreign Exchange as the new ‘independent’ Non-Executive Chairman of the LBMA Board, considers what, if anything, is independent about the appointment given the extremely close relationship between the Bank of England and the LBMA, and examines the appointment in the context of the UK Corporate Governance Code, which now governs the Constitution and operation of the LBMA Board.
Welcome to the twilight zone of IMF gold sales, where transparency really means secrecy, where on-market is off-market, and where IMF gold sales documents remain indefinitely “classified” and out of public view due to the “sensitivity of the subject matter”.
Off and On Market
Between October 2009 and December 2010, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claims to have sold a total of 403.3 tonnes of gold at market prices using a combination of ‘off-market’ sales and ‘on-market’ sales. ‘Off-market’ gold sales are gold sales to either central banks or other official sector gold holders that are executed directly between the parties, facilitated by an intermediary. For now, we will park the definition of ‘on-market’ gold sales, since as you will see below, IMF ‘on-market’ gold sales in reality are nothing like the wording used to describe them. In total, this 403.3 tonnes of gold was purportedly sold so as to boost IMF financing arrangements as well as to facilitate IMF concessional lending to the world’s poorest countries. As per its Articles of Agreement, IMF gold sales have to be executed at market prices.
Critically, the IMF claimed on numerous occasions before, during and after this 15-month sales period that its gold sales process would be ‘Transparent’. In fact, the concept of transparency was wheeled out by the IMF so often in reference to these gold sales, that it became something of a mantra. As we will see below, there was and is nothing transparent about the IMF’s gold sales process, but most importantly, the IMF blocked and continues to block access to crucial IMF board documents and papers that would provide some level of transparency about these gold sales.
Strauss-Kahn – Yes, that guy
On 18 September 2009, the IMF announced that its Executive Board had approved the sale of 403.3 metric tonnes of gold. Prior to these sales, the IMF officially claimed to hold 3217.3 tonnes of gold. Commenting on the gold sales announcement, notable party attendee and then IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn stated:
“These sales will be conducted in a responsible and transparent manner that avoids disruption of the gold market.”
The same IMF announcement on 18 September 2009 also stated that:
“As one of the elements of transparency, the Fund will inform markets before any on-market sales commence. In addition, the Fund will report regularly to the public on the progress with the gold sales.”
On 2 November 2009, the IMF announced the first transaction in its gold sales process, claiming that it had sold 200 tonnes of gold to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in what it called an ‘off-market’ transaction. This transaction was said to have been executed over 10 trading days between Monday 19 November to Friday 30 November with sales transactions priced each day at market prices prevailing on that day. On average, the 200 tonne sales transaction would amount to 20 tonnes per day over a 10 day trading period.
Note that the Reserve Bank of India revealed in 2013 that this 200 tonne gold purchase had merely been a book entry transfer, and that the purchased gold was accessible for use in a US Dollar – Gold swap, thereby suggesting that the IMF-RBI transaction was executed for gold held at the Bank of England in London, which is the only major trading center for gold-USD swaps. As a Hindu Business Line article stated in August 2013:
“According to RBI sources, the gold that India bought never came into the country as the transaction was only a book entry. The gold was purchased for $6.7 billion, in cash.”
“The Reserve Bank of India bought 200 tonnes of gold for $1,045 an ounce from the IMF four years ago. The Government can swap it for US dollars,” said [LBMA Chairman David] Gornall.”
Two weeks after the Indian purchase announcement in November 2009, another but far smaller off-market sale was announced by the IMF on 16 November 2009, this time a sale of 2 tonnes of gold to the Bank of Mauritius (the Mauritian central bank), said to have been executed on 11 November 2009. Another two weeks after this, on 25 November 2009, the IMF announced a third official sector sales transaction, this time a sale of 10 tonnes of gold to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.
Overall, these 3 sales transactions, to the Reserve Bank of India, Bank of Mauritius and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, totalled 212 tonnes of gold, and brought the IMF’s remaining official gold holdings down to 3005.3 tonnes at the end of 2009, leaving 191.3 tonnes of the 403.3 tonnes remaining to sell. All 3 of the above announcements by the IMF were accompanied by the following statement:
“The Fund will inform markets before any on-market sales commence, and will report regularly to the public on progress with the gold sales.”
For nearly 3 months from late November 2009, there were no other developments with the IMF’s gold sales until 17 February 2010, at which point the IMF announced that it was to begin the ‘on-market’ portion of its gold sales program. At this stage you might be wondering what the IMF’s on-market gold sales consisted of, which ‘market’ it referred to, how were the sales marketed, who the buyers were, and who executed the sales transactions. You would not be alone in wondering about these and many other related questions.
The IMF’s press releases of 17 February 2010, titled ‘IMF to Begin On-Market Sales of Gold’ was bereft of information and merely stated that the IMF would “shortly initiate the on-market phase of its gold sales program” following “the approach adopted successfully by the central banks participating in the Central Bank Gold Agreement“, and that the sales would be “conducted in a phased manner over time”. The third Central Bank Gold Agreement (CBGA) ran from September 2009 to September 2014. These CBGA’s, which have been running since September 1999, ostensibly claim to support and not disrupt the gold market but in reality have, in their entirety, been highly secretive operations where vast amounts of central bank and official sector gold is channeled via the BIS to unspecified buyers in the bullion banks or central bank space, with the operations having all the hallmarks of gold price stabilization operations, and/or official sector gold redistribution between the world’s developed and emerging market central banks.
The February 2010 announcement also made the misleading claim that “the IMF will continue to provide regular updates on progress with the gold sales through its normal reporting channels”. These regular updates have never happened.
The IMF publicly announced each official sale shortly after the transaction was concluded. A high degree of transparency will continue during the sales of gold on the market, in order to assure markets that the sales are being conducted in a responsible manner.”
However, following this February 2010 lip service to transparency, there were no direct updates from the IMF exclusively about the on-market gold sales, even after the entire gold sales program had completed in December 2010.
One further IMF ‘off-market’ gold sale transaction was announced on 9 September 2010. This was a sale of 10 tonnes of gold to Bangladesh Bank (the Bangladeshi central bank) with the transaction said to have been executed on 7 September 2010. Adding this 10 tonnes to the previous 212 tonnes of off-market sales meant that 222 tonnes of the 403.3 tonne total was sold to central banks, with the remaining 181.3 tonnes sold via ‘on-market’ transactions. The Bangladesh announcement was notable in that it also revealed that “as of end July 2010, a further 88.3 metric tons had been sold under the on-market sales announced in February 2010″. The addition of Bangladesh to the off-market buyer list that already consisted of India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius also resulted in the quite bizarre situation where the only off-market buyers of IMF comprised 4 countries that have extremely close historical, political, cultural and economic connections with each other. Three of these countries, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are represented at the IMF by the same Executive Director, who from November 2009 was Arvind Virmani, so their buying decisions were most likely coordinated through Virmani and probably through the Reserve Bank of India as well.
“The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced today the conclusion of the limited sales program covering 403.3 metric tons of gold that was approved by the Executive Board in September 2009.”
“The gold sales were conducted under modalities to safeguard against disruption of the gold market. All gold sales were at market prices, including direct sales to official holders.”
‘Modalities’ in this context just means the attributes of the sales including the approach to the gold sales, i.e. the sales strategy. This brief announcement on 21 December 2010 was again bereft of any factual information such as which market was used for the ‘on-market’ gold sales, the identity of executing brokers, the identity of counterparties, transaction dates, settlement dates / deferred settlement dates, method of sale, information on whether bullion was actually transferred between parties, publication of weight lists, and other standard sales transaction details. Contrast this secrecy to the 1976 -1980 IMF gold sales which were conducted by a very public series auction, and which were covered in minute details by the financial publications of the time.
As usual with its treatment of official sector gold transactions, the World Gold Council’s Gold Demand Trends report, in this case its Q4 2010 report, was absolutely useless as a source of information about the IMF gold sales beyond regurgitating the press release details, and there was no discussion on how the gold was sold, who the agent was, who the buyers were etc etc.
Lip Service to Transparency
When the IMF’s ‘on-market’ sales of 191.3 tonnes of gold commenced in February – March 2010, there were attempts from various quarters to try to ascertain actual details of the sales process. Canadian investment head Eric Sprott even expressed interest in purchasing the entire 191.3 tonnes on behalf of the then newly IPO’d Sprott Physical Gold ETF. However, Sprott’s attempts to purchase the gold were refused by the IMF, and related media queries attempting to clarify the actual sales process following the IMF’s blockade of Sprott were rebuffed by the IMF.
A Business Insider article from 6 April 2010, written by Vince Veneziani and titled “Sorry Eric Sprott, There’s No Way You’re Buying Gold From The IMF”, lays out the background to this bizarre stone-walling and lack of cooperation by the IMF. Business Insider spoke to Alistair Thomson, the then external relations officer at the IMF (now Deputy Chief of Internal Communications, IMF), and asked Thomson why Sprott could not purchase the gold that was supposedly available in the ‘on-market’ sales. Thomson’s reply is summarised below:
“The IMF is only selling gold though a qualified agent. There is only one of these agents at the moment and due to the nature of the gold market, they won’t reveal who or what that agent is.”
“Sprott can’t buy the gold directly because they do not deal with institutional clients like hedge funds, pension funds, etc. The only buyers can be central bankers and sovereign nations, that sort of thing.”
The IMF board agreed months ago how they wanted to approach the sale of the gold. Sprott is welcome to buy from central banks who have bought from the IMF, but not from the IMF directly.”
While this initial response from the IMF’s Alistair Thomson contradicted the entire expectation of the global gold market which had been earlier led to believe that the ‘on-market’ gold sales were just that, sales of gold to the market, on the market, Thomson’s reply did reveal that the IMF’s ‘on-market’ gold sales appeared to be merely an exercise in using an agent, most likely the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) gold trading desk, to transfer IMF gold to a central bank or central banks that wished to remain anonymous, and not go through the publicity of the ‘off-market’ transfer process.
Although, as per usual, the servile and useless mainstream media failed to pick up on this story, the IMF’s unsatisfactory and contradictory response was deftly dissected by Chris Powell of GATA in a dispatch, also dated 6 April 2010. After discussing the IMF’s initial reply with Eric Sprott and GATA, Business Insider’s Vince Veneziani then went back to IMF spokesman Alistair Thomson with a series of reasonable and totally legitimate questions about the ‘on-market’ gold sales process.
What are the incentives for the IMF not to sell gold on the open market or to investors, be it institutional or retail?
Did gold physically change hands with the banks you have sold to so far or was the transaction basically bookkeeping stuff (the IMF still holds the physical gold in this case)?
Are there available records on the actual serial numbers of bullion? How is the gold at the IMF tracked and accounted for?
Does IMF support a need for total transparency in the sale of gold despite the effects it could have on various markets?
Shockingly, Alistair Thomson, supposedly the IMF press officer responsible for answering the public’s queries about IMF finances (including gold sales), arrogantly and ignorantly refused to answer any of the questions, replying:
“I looked through your message; we don’t have anything more for you on this.”
Another example of the world of IMF transparency, where black is white and white is black, and where press officers who have formerly worked in presstitute financial media organisations such as Thomson Reuters fit in nicely to the IMF’s culture of aloofness, status quo protection, and lack of accountability to the public.
Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market
Fast forward to July 2015. While searching for documents in the IMF online archives related to these gold sales, I found 3 documents dated 2010, titled “Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market“. Specifically, the 3 documents are as follows (click on links to open):
Each of these 3 documents is defined by the IMF as a Staff Memorandum (SM), which are classified as ‘Executive Board Documents’ under its disclosure policy. The IMF Executive Board consists of 24 directors in addition to the IMF Managing Director, who was in 2009 the aforementioned Dominique Strauss-Kahn. According to the IMF’s Executive Board synopsis web page, the board “carries out its work largely on the basis of papers prepared by IMF management and staff.”
The most interesting observation about these 3 documents, apart from their contents which we’ll see below, is the fact that only 3 of these documents are accessible in the IMF archives, i.e. the documents only run up to May 2010, and do not include similar documents covering the remainder of the ‘on-market’ sales period (i.e. May – December 2010). Therefore there are 7 additional monthly reports missing from the archives. That there are additional documents that have not been published was confirmed to me by IMF Archives staff – see below.
Each of the 3 reports is only 3 pages long, and each report follows a similar format. The first report spans February – March 2010, specifically from 18 February 2010 to 17 March 2010, and covers the following:
“summarizes developments in the first month of the on-market sales, covering market developments, quantities sold and average prices realized, and a comparison with widely used benchmarks, i.e., the average of London gold market fixings“
‘Market developments’ refers to a brief summary in graphical chart of the London fixing prices in US Dollars over the period in question. Quantities sold and the currency composition of sales are notable:
Sales Volume and Proceeds: A total of 515,976.638 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period February 18 to March 17. These sales generated proceeds of SDR 376.13 million (US$576.04 million), based on the Fund’s representative exchange rates prevailing on the day of each sale transaction.
Currency Composition of Proceeds: Sales were conducted in the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket …., with the intention of broadly reflecting the relative quota shares of these currencies over the course of the sales program.
The 4 currencies in which the sales were conducted during the first month were USD, EUR, GBP and JPY. See table 1 in the document for more information. Perhaps the most revealing point in each document is the confirmation of the use of an agent and specifically an arrangement that the sales prices included a premium paid by the agent:
Sales Prices compared with Benchmarks: The sales were implemented as specified in the agreement with the agent. Sales were conducted at prices incorporating a premium paid by the agent over the London gold fixing, and for sales settled in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, the sales price also reflects market exchange rates at the time of the London gold fixings (10:30 am and 3:00 pm GMT), net of a cost margin.
The use of a premium over the London fixing price is very revealing because this selling strategy, where the agent paid a premium over the average London gold fixing price, is identical to the sales arrangement which the Swiss National Bank (SNB) agreed with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) when the BIS acted as sales agent for SNB gold sales over the period May 2000 to March 2001.
As Philipp Hildebrand, ex-governor of the SNB, revealed in 2005 when discussing the SNB gold sales strategy that had been used in 2000-2001:
“At the outset, the SNB decided to use the BIS as its selling agent. Between May 2000 and March 2001, the BIS sold 220 tonnes on behalf of the SNB. For the first 120 tonnes, the SNB paid the BIS a fixed commission while the performance risk resided with the SNB. For the next 100 tonnes, the BIS agreed to pay the average price of the AM and PM London gold fixing plus a small fixed premium.“
My conclusion is therefore that the IMF also used the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland as selling agent for its ‘on-market’ gold sales over the period February to December 2010, with the sales benchmarked to average London fixing prices in the London Gold Market.
The pertinent details for the IMF’s March – April sales document are as follows:
“A total of 516,010.977 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period March 18 to April 16.”
“Sales were conducted in three of the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket” i.e. USD, EUR and JPY”
The relevant details from the April – May sales document are as follows:
“A total of 490,194.747 troy ounces (15.25 metric tons) of gold was sold during the period April 19 to May 18, 2010; no sales were conducted during the last two business days in April, owing to end of financial year audit considerations.”
“Sales were conducted in three of the four currencies included in the SDR valuation basket” i.e. USD, GBP and JPY
Purely a Pricing Exercise?
The entire ‘on-market’ gold sales program of 181.3 tonnes may well have been just a pricing exercise by the Bank for International Settlements gold trading desk to determine the market prices at which to execute the transfers, with the gold transferring ownership after the event as book entry transfers at the Bank of England in the same manner as was applied to the Indian ‘off-market’ purchase of 200 tonnes.
Taking the sales quantities in the 3 published monthly reports, and incorporating quarterly IMF gold holdings time series data from the World Gold Council, it’s possible to calculate how much gold was ‘sold’ each single day over the entire ‘on-market’ gold sales program. As it turns out, for much of the program’s duration, identical quantities of gold were sold each and every day. The ‘on-market’ program commenced on 18 February 2010. Between 18 February and 17 March, which was a period of 20 trading days in the London gold market, the agent sold 515,976.638 troy ounces (16.05 metric tons) of gold. Between 18 March and 16 April, which was also a trading period of 20 trading days (even after factoring in 2 Easter bank holidays), the agent sold a practically identical quantity of 516,010.977 troy ounces (also 16.05 metric tons). This is a daily sales rate of 25,800 ozs or 0.8025 tonnes per trading day over these 40 trading days.
During the period from 19 April to 18 May 2010, which was 19 trading days excluding the 3rd May UK bank holiday and excluding the last 2 trading days of April on which the IMF program didn’t trade, the agent sold 490,194.747 troy ounces (15.25 metric tons) of gold, which again is…wait for it… 0.8025 tonnes and 25,800 ozs per day (0.8025 * 19 = 15.2475 tonnes & 25,800 * 19 = 490,200 ozs).
Following the combined Indian, Mauritian, and Sri Lankan ‘off-market’ purchases of 212 tonnes during Q4 2009, the IMF’s gold holdings stood at 3,005.32 tonnes at the end of 2009. Based on World Gold Council (WGC) quarterly data of world official gold reserves, the IMF’s gold holdings then decreased as follows during 2010:
…resulting in total remaining gold holdings of 2,814.04 tonnes at the end of 2010, an IMF gold holdings figure which remains unchanged to this day.
These WGC figures tally with the IMF monthly report figures. For example, the IMF says that 16.05 tonnes was sold up to and including 17 March, and with another 10 trading days in March 2010, a further 8.205 tonnes (0.8025 daily sales * 10) was sold by the end of March, giving total Q1 sales of 16.05 + 8.025 = 24.075 tonnes, which is identical to the WGC quarterly change figure. The IMF was active on 59 trading days in Q2 during which it sold 47.34 tonnes, which…wait for it…was an average of 0.8024 tonnes per day (47.34 / 59 = 0.8024).
Therefore, over Q1 and Q2 2010 (i.e. between February and the end of June 2010), the ‘on-market’ sales program sold 71.42 tonnes at a consistent ~ 0.8025 tonnes daily rate. This would suggest an algorithmic program trade which offered identical quantities each and every day, or more likely just priced these quantities so as to arrive at a sales consideration amount so that the IMF would receive ‘market prices’ for its gold. Recall that IMF gold has to be sold at market prices according to the Fund’s Articles of Agreement.
Given that 88.3 tonnes had been sold ‘on-market’ by the end of July 2010 as the IMF revealed in its Bangladesh announcement, we can infer that 16.88 tonnes was sold ‘on-market’ during July 2010. This 16.88 tonne sale in July was actually at a slightly lower pace than previous months since there were 22 trading days in July 2010, however the figure was chosen due to the following: With 191.3 tonnes on sale at the outset of the ‘on-market’ program, and 71.42 tonnes sold by the end of June, this left 119.88 tonnes to sell at the end of June. Whoever was choosing the monthly sales quantities wanted to finish July with a round figure of 103 tonnes, and so chose 16.88 tonnes to sell in July (i.e. 119.88 – 16.88 = 103 tonnes). Subtracting the 10 tonnes that Bangladesh bought in September 2010 (which would have been also factored in at that time) left a round 93 tonnes (2.999 million ozs) to sell as of the beginning of August.
The Q3 2010 sales of 67.66tonnes comprised the 10 tonne ‘off-market’ sale to Bangladesh on 7 September and 57.66 tonnes of on-market sales. Given 16.88 tonnes sold in on-market sales in July, there was therefore 40.78 tonnes sold over August – September, or an average of 20.39 tonnes in each of August and September (which represented a combined 43 trading days). Overall, there were 65 trading days in Q3 and 58 trading days in Q4 (assuming that the sales wrapped up on 21 December as per the IMF announcement). From the beginning of August to the 21 December, a period of 101 trading days, the IMF sold the remaining 93 tonnes, which would be a daily sales pace of 0.93 tonnes per day.
So overall, the IMF’s 403.3 tonnes of gold sales between November 2009 and December 2010 consisted of 222 tonnes sold ‘off-market’ to India, Bangladesh, Sri lanka, and Mauritius, 88.3 tonnes sold ‘on-market’ between February and July 2010, and 93 tonnes sold ‘on-market’ between August and December 2010′.
Given that the IMF’s 4 gold depositories are the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England in London, the Banque de France in Paris and the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur India, and given that the IMF gold in New York is mostly in the form of US Assay Office melts, and the gold in Nagpur is a hodgepodge of mostly low quality old gold (read non-good delivery gold), then it would be logical for the IMF to sell some of its good delivery gold which is stored in London (which, until at least the late 1970s, was predominantly held in the form of Rand Refinery 400 oz gold bars), or even in Paris, since the Banque de France has been engaged in an ongoing program of upgrading the old US Assay office gold bars in its custody to good delivery bars.
“Our bars are not all LGD [London Good Delivery quality], but we have an ongoing improvement programme.”
This Banque de France gold bar upgrading program was also confirmed in February 2011 in a National Geographic Magazine article which stated:
“Buyers don’t want the beat-up American gold. In a nearby room pallets of it are being packed up and shipped to an undisclosed location, where the bars will be melted down and recast in prettier forms.”
Top Secret Foot Notes
There are 2 interesting footnotes on page 1 or each of the 3 above documents. The first footnote states that ‘The Executive Board was briefed on the plans for on-market sales prior to the announcement’, the announcement in question being the IMF’s 17 February 2010 announcement IMF to Begin On-Market Sales of Gold.
The second footnote, which is a footnote to a sales process and sales performance summary, refers to 2 further IMF papers as follows: “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund (SM/09/243, 9/4/09) and DEC/14425-(09/97), 9/18/09“.
As mentioned above, SM are Staff Memorandums which are classed under Executive Board Documents. DEC series document are ‘Text of Board Decisions’ (hence the DEC) and these documents are also deemed to be Executive Board Documents. After searching for both of these documents (SM/09/243 and DEC/14425-(09/97)) in the IMF archives, it became apparent that they were not there, i.e. they were not returned and not retrievable under IMF archive search results.
This was surprisingly since the IMF claims to have what it calls its “IMF Open Archives Policy”, part of which is Article IX, Section 5, which is the “Review of the Fund’s Transparency Policy—Archives Policy“. This policy, prepared by the IMF Legal Department includes the following:
Access will be given as follows:
2. (i) Executive Board documents that are over 3 years old
(ii) Minutes of Executive Board meetings that are over 5 years old;
(iv) Other documentary materials maintained in Fund archives over 20 years old.
3. Access to Fund documents specified in paragraph 2 above that are classified as “Secret” or “Strictly Confidential” as of the date of this Decision will be granted only upon the Managing Director’s consent to their declassification. It is understood that this consent will be granted in all instances but those for which, despite the passage of time, it is determined that the material remains highly confidential or sensitive.
Given that the 2 above gold sales documents, as well as 7 other monthly reports about ‘on-market’ gold sales were missing from the archives, but all the while the IMF claimed its on-market gold sales to be “Transparent”, the next logical step was to contact the IMF Archives people and seek explanations. What follows below is the correspondence I had with the IMF Archives staff. The IMF Archives staff were very helpful and their responses were merely communicating what they had found in their systems or had been told ‘from above’. My questions and emails are in blue text. The IMF replies are in red text. My first set of queries were about the SM/09/243 and DEC/14425 documents:
02 August 2015: My first question
I’m looking for IMF document SM/09/243 “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund” (Sept 4th 2009) in the IMF Archives catalog (http://archivescatalog.imf.org/search.aspx). However, SM/09/243 does not appear to be in the online Archives.
But, for example SM/09/242 and SM/09/244 are both retrievable in the searchable archives, but not SM/09/243.
Can you clarify where SM/09/243 is?
02 August 2015: My second question
Could you clarify how to search for and retrieve a document in the IMF online Archives that has reference “DEC/14425-(09/97)”
This document is dated 9/18/09. I cannot find it using any of the search parameters.
3 August: IMF Archives reply
Thank you for contacting the IMF Archives. Both documents you are referring to in your recent communication, SM/09/243 and DEC/14425, are not available to the public. Please visit our website to consult on IMF Policy on Access to the Archives.
3 August: me
Can you clarify why these documents are not available to the public? i.e. have they received a certain classification?
4 August: IMF Archives
You are absolutely right, despite the time rule, these two documents are still closed because of the information security classification. We hope it answers your question.
4 August: me
Thanks for answer. Would you happen to know when (and if) these files will be available…..assuming it’s not a 20 year rule or anything like that.
5 August: IMF Archives
Could you please provide some background information about your affiliation and the need to obtain these documents. Classified documents undergo declassification process when such a request is submitted. It can be a lengthy process up to one year.
5 August: me
I was interested in these specific documents because I am researching IMF gold sales for various articles and reports that I’m planning to write.
6 Aug: IMF
Thank you for providing additional information regarding your inquiry. Please send us a formal request for the declassification of these two documents specifying your need to have access to them. We will follow through on your behalf and get back to you with a response.
Before I had replied with a formal request, the IMF archives people contacted me again on 12 August 2015 as follows:
12 Aug: IMF
While waiting for your official request we made preliminary inquiries regarding the requested documents. The decision communicated back to us is not to declassify these documents because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
Thank you for the clarification. That’s surprising about the classification given that the IMF on-market gold sales were supposed to be transparent.
Was there any information fed back to Archives on why the ‘subject matter’ is deemed sensitive?
14 Aug: IMF Archives
“Thank you for your follow-up email. Unfortunately, these particular documents are still deemed classified and no further explanation has been communicated to the Archives.”
My next set of questions to IMF Archives in August 2015 addressed the 7 missing monthly gold sales reports that should have covered May – December 2010. Since there is a 3 year rule or maybe at max a 5 year rule under the IMF’s Transparency Policy (Archive Policy), I thought that maybe the May/June, June/July, and July/August 2010 files might be due for automatic release under the 5 year rule by the end of August 2015.
22 August 2015: Me:
“I have a question about documents which appear in the online Archive after the 5 year schedule.
Is there a scheduled update or similar which puts newly available documents in the Archive when the 5 years has elapsed?
For example, I see some documents in the Archive from June 2010, but not July/August 2010. Is there an automated process that runs, but that hasn’t yet run for July/August 2010, that puts the latest documents into the publicly available Archive?”
24 August: IMF
“Thank you for your inquiry. The review and declassification of eligible documents that meet the time rule is done by batches. Therefore, publication does not happen in real time. It is a process that takes time and might cause a delay. We will let you know when July and August documents are posted.”
2 October 2015: me
“Do you know when documents from June 2010 onwards will be added to the IMF online archive? I still don’t see any yet.
Is there a batch of declassifications for June 2010 / July 2010 / August 2010 happening soon?”
2 October: IMF
“Thank you for contacting the IMF Archives. Unfortunately, we are unable to speculate about the documents website availability and provide a more specific timeframe than the one already communicated in the attached correspondence. As already promised, we will let you know when July and August documents are posted.”
Then about 30 minutes later (on 2 October 2015) the IMF sent me another email:
2 October: IMF
“Dear Mr. Manly,
I ran a sample search of Executive Board minutes available via IMF Archives catalog and was able to find minutes issued in June and July 2010. Is there a specific document you are looking for which you are unable to find?
2 October: Me
“I was searching for the next months’ reports in the below series, report name “Monthly Report on Sales of Gold on the Market” – see screenshot attached.
The current search retrieval brings back 3 reports spanning February- May 2010, but nothing after May 2010. Report names in the retrieved search results are:
SM/10/69 SM/10/102 SM/10/139”
I was wondering if a couple of months in this series after May 2010 are available now?”
5 October: IMF
“The reports after May 2010 haven’t been declassified for public access because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, and therefore they are not available for retrieval.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”
5 October: Me
“Thanks for the reply. Out of interest, why were the reports from February to May 2010 declassified, since surely the June-December 2010 monthly reports are identical to the first three months in that they are also just providing monthly updates on the same batch of gold ~180 tonnes of gold which was being sold over the 10 month period?”
7 October: IMF
“Dear Mr. Manly,
This series of reports is under review at the moment, and according to security classification they are currently closed.
And there you have it folks. This is IMF transparency. As per the IMF Archive disclosure policy, only Christine Lagarde, current IMF Managing Director, has the authority to consent to the declassification of classified Executive Board documents.
Sensitivity of Subject Matter – China and Bullion Banks
The above IMF responses speak for themselves, but in summary, here we have an organization which claims to be transparent and which claims to have run a transparent ‘on-market’ gold sales program in 2010, but still after more than 6 years it is keeping a large number of documents about the very same gold sales classified and inaccessible to the public due to the ‘sensitivity of the subject matter’. What could be so sensitive in the contents of these documents that the IMF has to keep them classified? Matters of national security? Matters of international security? And why such extremely high level security for an asset that was recently described by the august Wall Street Journal as a ‘Pet Rock’?
The secrecy of keeping these documents classified could hardly be because of sensitivity over the way in which the sales were executed by the agent, since this was already revealed in the February – May reports that are published, and which looks like a normal enough gold sales program by the Bank for International Settlements on behalf of the IMF? Could it be to do with the identities of the counterparties, i.e. the buyer(s) of the gold? I think that is the most likely reason.
Two counterparties that spring to mind that might request anonymity in the ridiculously named ‘on-market’ sales process would be a) the Chinese State / Peoples Bank of China, and b) a group of bullion banks that were involved in gold swaps with the BIS in 2009/2010.
Chinese discretion – Market Speculation and Volatility
Bearing in mind another one of the IMF’s mantras during the 2009-2010 gold sales processes that it wanted to “avoid disruption of the gold market”, and the Chinese State’s natural surreptitiousness, the following information reported by China Daily on 24 February 2010 (which was the first week of ‘on-market’ sales) is worth considering. The article, titled ‘China unlikely to buy gold from the IMF‘, stated the following:
“Contrary to much speculation China may not buy the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) remaining 191.3 tons of gold which is up for sale as it does not want to upset the market, a top industry official told China Daily yesterday.
“It is not feasible for China to buy the IMF bullion, as any purchase or even intent to do so would trigger market speculation and volatility,” said the official from the China Gold Association, on condition of anonymity.”
To me, these comments from the ‘anonymous’ China Gold Association official are a clear indication that if China was the buyer of the remaining 181.3 tonnes (ie. 191.3 tonnes – 10 tonnes for Bangladesh), then China certainly would have conducted the purchase in secrecy, as ‘it does not want to upset the market’, and “any purchase or even intent to do so would trigger market speculation and volatility”
In the same China Daily article, there was also a comment reported from Asian Development Bank economist Zhuang Jian, who was in favor of China buying the IMF gold, as he thought that “buying IMF gold would not only help China diversify its foreign exchange reserves but also strengthen the yuan as an international currency”, and that China would “have a bigger say in the IMF through the gold purchasing deal”.
Zhuang Jian also stated that “China can start with small purchases on the international market like the 191.3 tons of IMF gold. In the short-term, the market will see volatility, but in the long-term the prices will return to normal”.
BIS Swaps and Bullion Bank Bailouts
In late June 2010, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) published its annual report to year-end March 2009. This report revealed that the BIS had, during its financial year, taken on gold swaps for 349 tonnes. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) initially reported in early July 2010 that these swaps were with central banks, however the BIS clarified to the WSJ that the gold swaps were in fact with commercial banks. The Financial Times then reported in late July 2010 that “Three big banks – HSBC, Société Générale and BNP Paribas – were among more than 10 based in Europe that swapped gold with the Bank for International Settlements.” Notice that two of the named banks are French banks.
Since the BIS refuses to explain anything material about these swaps, which was most likely a gold market fire-fighting exercise, the details remain murky. But the theory that best explains what actually happened was advanced by the late Adrian Douglas of GATA in early July 2010. Douglas proposed that bullion bank gold bailout tripartite transactions actually created the BIS gold swaps. Since IMF gold is stored at both the Bank of England vaults in London and at the Banque de France vaults in Paris, IMF ‘on-market’ gold held in Paris or London would be very easy to transfer to a group of bullion banks who all hold gold accounts at the Bank of England and, it now appears, also hold gold accounts at the Banque de France.
In May 2012, George Milling-Stanley, formerly of the World Gold Council, provided some insight to the publication Central Banking about the role of the Banque de France in being able to mobilize gold. Milling-Stanley said:
“Gold stored at the Bank of England vaults … can easily be mobilised into the market via trading strategies, or posted as collateral for a currency loan”
‘Of the Banque de France, Milling-Stanley says it has ‘recently become more active in this space [mobilising gold into the market], acting primarily as an interface between the Bank for International Settlements in Basel [BIS] and commercial banks requiring dollar liquidity. These commercial banks are primarily located in Europe, especially in France’.”
It’s interesting that two of the three banks named by the Financial Times as being involved in the BIS gold swaps are French, and that Milling-Stanley mentioned that most of the commercial banks that interfaced with the BIS are French banks. Given that the then Managing Director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is French, as is his successor Christine Lagarde, could some of the ‘on market’ IMF gold sales been a case of the French controlled IMF bailing out French bullion banks such as SocGen and BNP Paribas?
Applied to the IMF gold sales, and under a tripartite transaction, as I interpret it, the following transactions would occur:
IMF gold is transferred by book entry to a set of bullion banks who then transfer the title of this gold to the BIS. The BIS transfers US dollars to the bullion banks who then either transfer this currency to the IMF, or owe a cash obligation to the IMF. The sold gold is recorded in the name of the BIS but actually remains where it is custodied at the London or Paris IMF Gold Depositories, i.e. at the Bank of England or Banque de France vaults.
In this scenario, the IMF gold could have been transferred to bullion banks and further transferred to the BIS during 2009, with the ‘on-market’ pricing exercise carried out during 2010. With the BIS as gold sales agent, the entire set of transactions would be even more convenient since the BIS gold trading desk would be able to oversee the gold swaps and the gold sales.
So, in my opinion, the IMF ‘on-market’ gold on offer was either a) bought by the Chinese State, or b) was used in a gold market fire-fighting exercise to bail out a group of bullion banks, or c) a combination of the two.
Modalities of Gold Sales
As to why the IMF paper “Modalities for Limited Sales of Gold by the Fund” (Sept 4th 2009) SM/09/243″ is under lock and key and can only be declassified by the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, the conclusion is that it too must contain references to something that the IMF are extremely worried about allowing into the public domain. For the simple reason is that a similarly named IMF paper from 25 June 1999, titled “Modalities for Gold Sales by the Fund” (EBS/99/110)” is accessible in the IMF Archives, and while revealing in a number of respects, it hardly contains ‘sensitive material’. This paper was prepared when the IMF had been thinking about conducting gold sales back in 1999 which never materialized, except in the form of an accounting trick to sell to and simultaneously buy back a quantity of gold to and from Mexico and Brazil. This 1999 paper “Modalities for Gold Sales by the Fund” is very interesting though for a lot of reasons as it sketches out the limitations on IMF gold sales, the approaches to the sales that were considered by the IMF at that time, and it’s also is full of pious claims that the gold sales process should be ‘transparent’, such as the following:
“it will be critical to ensure transparency and accountability of the Fund’s gold operations through clear procedures for selecting potential buyers and determining prices, and through public disclosure of the results of the sales after they have taken place. The need for transparency and evenhandedness, which is essential for an international financial institution, argues for providing as much information as possible to the public.”
On the actual approaches to gold sales, the 1999 Modalities paper introduces the topic as follows:
“This paper considers four main modalities for the sale of gold by the Fund: (i) direct sales to another official holder of gold; (ii) placements into the market through a private intermediary or a group of intermediaries, such as bullion banks; (iii) placements into the market through the intermediation of a central bank with experience in gold sales or the BIS; and (iv) direct sales to the market through public auctions, as was the case with the gold sales by the Fund between 1976 and 1980″
On the topic of publication of sales results, the 1999 paper states:
“Publication of results: In all cases, the Fund would make public at regular, say monthly, intervals the quantity sold and the prices obtained, as well as, depending on the modality decided by the Board, the names of the buyers. In the case of a forward sales strategy involving an intermediary, the Fund would make public the quantities and delivery dates of the forward sales. It would be for consideration whether the Fund would announce the names of the intermediaries selected by the Fund to sell the gold, if that modality would be chosen”
On the topic of limitations to IMF gold sales, the 1999 paper says:
“Under the Articles, the Fund is only authorized to sell gold; that is, to transfer ownership over gold on the basis of prices in the market, taking into account reasonable transactions costs. The Articles prescribe the objective of avoiding the management of the price, or the establishment of a fixed price, in the gold market (Article V, Section 12 (a)). This implies that the Fund “must seek to follow and not set a direction for prices in the gold market.“
Under the Articles, the Fund cannot engage in gold leasing or gold lending operations, enter into gold swaps, or participate in the market for gold options or other transactions that do not involve the transfer of ownership over gold.”
“Directors generally expressed the view that private placements of gold, either through a group of private institutions or through the intermediation of central banks or the BIS, had many advantages in terms of flexibility, both in terms of timing as well as in the discretion that the Fund’s agents could employ in the techniques that they could use tochannel gold into the market.“
And from the discussion, using the services of the BIS (or another central bank) appeared to be most favorable option:
“Directors further noted that there would be considerable practical difficulties in the choice of the institution or group of institutions through which the sales of gold could be conducted, even though these would be limited-but not entirely eliminated-by choosing a central bankor the BIS.“
“Greater openness and clarity by the IMF about its own policies and the advice it provides to its member countries contributes to a better understanding of the IMF’s own role and operations, building traction for the Fund’s policy advice and making it easier to hold the institution accountable. Outside scrutiny should also support the quality of surveillance and IMF-supported programs.”
“The IMF’s efforts to improve the understanding of its operations and engage more broadly with the public has been pursued along four broad lines: (i) transparency of surveillance and IMF-supported programs, (ii) transparency of its financial operations; (iii) external and internal review and evaluation; and (iv) external communications.”
“The IMF’s approach to transparency is based on the overarching principle that it will strive to disclose documents and information on a timely basis unless strong and specific reasons argue against such disclosure.”
Again, what could these “strong and specific reasons” arguing “against such disclosure” be for the 2010 IMF gold sales?
By now you will begin to see that the IMF’s interpretation of transparency on gold sales diverges massively from any generally accepted interpretation of transparency. The IMF appears to think that merely confirming that a gold sale took place or will take place is the epitome of transparency, when it would more accurately be described as obfuscation and a disdain for actual communication with the public. IMF transparency is anything but transparent.
Perhaps the usually useless mainstream financial media may finally sit up and next time they bump into the IMF’s Ms Lagarde at a press conference, ask her why the IMF continues to block access to its 2010 gold sales documents, which remain classified due to, in the IMF’s own words, “the sensitivity of the subject matter”. Here’s hoping.
Today the London Metal Exchange (LME) and the World Gold Council (WGC) jointly announced (here and here) the launch next year of standardised gold and silver spot and futures contracts which will trade on the LME’s electronic platform LMESelect, will clear on the LME central clearing platform LME Clear, and that will be settled ‘loco London’. Together these new products will be known as ‘LMEprecious’ and will launch in the first half of 2017.
However, although these contracts are described by the LME as delivery type ‘Physical’, settlement of trades on these contracts merely consists of unallocated gold or silver being transferred between LME Clear (LMEC) clearing accounts held at London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) member banks (i.e. paper trading via LPMCL’s AURUM clearing system).
London Metal Exchange: LMEprecious Gold contracts – “unallocated gold” delivery through LPMCL members https://t.co/F9BOUCjh3K
For example, the contract specs for the LME’s planned spot gold trading state that the LME’s proposed settlement procedure is one of:
“Physical settlement two days following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank”
The range of LME contracts for both gold and silver will consist of a trade date + 1 contract (T+1), aptly named TOM, as well as daily futures from T + 2 (equivalent to Spot settlement) out to and including all trade dates to T + 25. Beyond the daily futures, the suite of contracts also includes approximately 36 monthly futures contracts covering each month out to 2 calendar years, and then each March, June, September and December out to 60 calendar months. The LME / WGC press release also mentions plans for options and calendar spread products based on these futures.
As well as trading electronically on LMESelect, these precious metals futures will also be tradeable via telephone market (inter-office market). Trading hours for the daily contract (TOM) will be 1am – 4pm London hours, while trading hours for all other contracts will be 1am – 8pm London hours, thereby also covering both Asian and US trading hours. Detailed contract specs for these gold and silver contracts are viewable on the LME website. The trading lot size for the LME gold contracts will be 100 ozs, which is significantly smaller than the conventional lot size of 5000 -10,000 ozs for gold trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 1000 ozs of gold). The planned lot size for the LME’s silver contracts is 5000 ozs, again below the conventional lot size of 100,000 – 200,000 ozs for silver trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 50,000 ozs of silver).
These LME contracts are being pitched as a real alternative to the incumbent over the counter system of gold and silver trading in London which is overseen by the London Bullion Market Association, an association whose most powerful members are the clearing and vaulting banks in London, namely HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, and to a lessor extent UBS and Barclays, but increasing ICBC Standard bank as well. But given that the LME’s clearing will sit on top of the LPMCL clearing system and use unallocated transfers, the chance of any real change to the incumbent London gold and silver market is non-existent. Nor will the trading of these LME products give any visibility into the amount of physical gold and silver that is held within the London Market, nor the coverage ratio between ‘unallocated account’ positions and real underlying physical metals.
Five Supporting Banks
This new LME / WGC initiative is being supported by 5 other investment banks and a trading entity called OSTC. These bank backers comprise US banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, French banks Natixis and Société Générale, and Chinese controlled bank ICBC Standard Bank. According to a Reuters report about the launch, the World Gold Council had approached 30 firms about backing the launch, so with only 5 banks on board that’s a 16.6% take-up ratio of parties that were approached, and 83.4% who were not interested.
Earlier this year in January, Bloomberg said in a report said that the five interested banks were “ICBC Standard Bank Plc, Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA“, so somewhere along the line Citigroup looks to have taken itself off the list of interested parties, while Natixis came on board. The World Gold Council’s discussions about a proposed gold exchange and its discussions with ‘5 banks’ appear to have begun as early as the 4th quarter of 2014 and were flagged up by the Financial Times on 02 April 2015, when the FT stated that:
“The WGC has hired a number of consultants and spent the past six months pitching a business case for banks to consider the alternative trading infrastructure”
“The World Gold Council…and at least five banks are participating in initial discussions”
Notably, this was around the time that LME found out it had not secured the contracts to run either the LBMA Gold Price or LBMA Silver Price auctions. Note, that all 5 of the LME supporting banks, i.e. Goldman, ICBC Standard, Morgan Stanley, SocGen and Natixis, are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), with Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen being LBMA market members, and Natixis being a full member of the LBMA. Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen are also direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction operated by ICE Benchmark Administration. None of these 5 banks are direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction. Notably, none of these banks except for ICBC Standard is a member of the precious metals clearing group LPMCL. ICBC Standard Bank also recently acquired a precious metals vault in London from Barclays and also joined the LBMA’s Physical Committee (see BullionStar recent blog ‘Spotlight on LPMCL: London precious MEtals Clearing Limited‘ for details). Therefore, ICBC Standard seems to have a foot in both camps.
Unallocated Balances, Unsecured Creditors
Given the long build-up to this LME / World Gold Council announcement, and the fact that these LME spot and futures products were supposed to be a genuine alternative to the LBMA bank controlled OTC trading system, the continued use of unallocated settlement and the use of LPMCL accounts by these planned LME contracts underscores that the LME contract do not represent any real change in the London Gold and Silver Markets.
As a reminder, the resulting positions following transfers of unallocated gold and silver through the LME Clear accounts of LPMCL members essentially means the following, in the words of none other than the LBMA:
“Unallocated account basis. This is an account where the customer does not own specific bars, but has a general entitlement to an amount of metal. This is similar to the way that a bank account operates”
“settled by credits or debits to the account while the balance represents the indebtedness between the two parties.”
“Credit balances on the account do not entitle the creditor to specific bars of gold or silver or plates or ingots of platinum or palladium but are backed by the general stock of the precious metal dealer with whom the account is held:the client in this scenario is an unsecured creditor.
Alternatively, a negative balance will represent the precious metal indebtedness of the client to the dealer in the case where the client has a precious metal overdraft facility.
Should the client wish to receive actual metal, this is done by “allocating” specific bars, plates or ingots or equivalent precious metal product, the metal content of which is then debited from the unallocated account”.
LME bows to LPMCL
However, it should come as no surprise that these LME spot and futures contracts haven’t taken a new departure away from the entrenched monopoly of the London gold and silver clearing and vaulting systems, for the LME specifically stated in quite a recent submission to the LBMA that it will never rock the boat on LPMCL’s AURUM platform. When the LME presented to the LBMA in October 2014 in a pitch to win the contract for the LBMA Gold Price auction (which it didn’t secure), the pitch said that a centrally cleared solution “would only be introduced with market support and respecting LPMCL settlement“. [See right-hand box in below slide]:
In the same pitch, the LME also stated that:
“LME Clear fully respects existing loco London delivery mechanism and participants“
[See bottom line in below slide]:
Interestingly, following the announcement from the LME and the World Gold Council, the LBMA provided a very short statement that was quoted in the Financial Times, that said:
“The LBMA saw the announcement with interest and reconfirms it has no direct or indirect involvement in this project”.
While that may be true, what the LBMA statement didn’t concede is that 5 of its member banks, 4 of which are LBMA market makers, do have a direct involvement in the LME / World Gold Council project. Nor did the LBMA statement acknowledge that settlement of the planned LME gold and silver contracts will use the LPMCL infrastructure, nor that the LPMCL is now in specific scope of the LBMA’s remit.
“the London Precious Metals Clearing company took part not only [in the LBMA] review, but we have now agreed to formalise our working relationship, with the LBMA providing Executive services going forward. I’m grateful to the LPMCL directors for their leadership and their support for removing fragmentation from the market.”
With the LME contracts planning to use LPMCL, this ‘new dawn’ view of the LME / World Gold Council initiative is in my view mis-guided.
Even COMEX has more Transparency
Anyone familiar with the rudimentary vaulting and delivery procedures for gold and silver deliverable under the COMEX 100 oz gold and 5000 oz silver futures contracts will know that at least that system generates vault facility reports that specify how much eligible gold or silver is being stored in each of the designated New York vaults, the locations of the vaults, and also how much of the eligible gold or silver in storage has warehouse warrants against it (registered positions). The COMEX ‘system’ also generates data on gold and silver deliveries against contracts traded.
However, nothing in the above planned LME contract specs published so far gives any confidence that anyone will be the wiser as to how much gold or silver is in the London vaults backing up the trading of these spot and future contracts, how much gold or silver has been converted post-settlement to allocated positions in the vaults, nor how much gold or silver has been delivered as a consequence of trading in these spot and futures contract, nor importantly, where the actual participating vaults are.
This is because the LMPCL system is totally opaque and there is absolutely zero trade reporting by the LBMA or its member banks as to the volumes of gold and silver trading in the London market, and the volumes of physical metals held versus the volumes of ‘metal’ represented by unallocated account positions. Furthermore, the LBMA’s stated goal of introducing trade reporting looks as dead as a dodo, or at least as frozen as as a dodo on ice.
LBMA stall on Trade Reporting, LPMCL clear as Mud
On 9 October 2015, the LBMA announced that it had launched a Request for Information (RFI) asking financial and technology providers to submit help with formulating solutions to deficiencies which regulators thought the London bullion market such as the need for transparency, and issues such as liquidity that had supposedly been recommended as strategic objectives by consultant EY in its report to the LBMA, a report that incidentally has never been made publicly available. On 25 November 2015, the LBMA then announced that it had received 17 submissions to its RFI from 20 entities spanning “exchange groups, technology firms, brokers and data vendors”.
On 4 February 2016, the LBMA then issued a statement saying that it was launching a Request for Proposals (rRfP) and inviting 5 of these service providers (a short-list) to submit technical solutions that would address requirements such as an LBMA data warehouse and that would support the introduction of services such as trade reporting in the London bullion market. The RfP statement said that the winning service provider would be chosen in Q2 2016, with a planned implementation in H2 2016.
However, no progress was announced by the LBMA about the above RfP during Q2 2016, nor since then. The only coverage of this lack of newsflow came from the Bullion Desk in a 27 May article titled “Frustration Grows over London Gold Market Reform” in which it stated that the 5 solution providers on the short-list were “the LME, CME Group, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), Autilla/Cinnobar and Markit/ABS“, and that:
“the pace at which the LMBA is moving forward are causes for consternation in some quarters of the sector”
A quote within the Bullion Desk article seems to sum up the sentiment about the LBMA’s lack of progress in its project:
“It’s not going to happen any time soon. Look at how long it’s been going on already,” another market participant said. “Don’t hold your breath. It seems like we still have a long way to go.”
What could the hold up be? Surely 17 submissions from 20 entities that were whittled down to a short-list of 5 very sophisticated groups should have given the LBMA plenty of choice for nominating a winning entry. Whatever else this lack of progress suggests, it demonstrates that increased transparency in London gold and silver market trading data is not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.
Furthermore, the opacity of the London clearing statistics that are generated out of the LPMCL clearing system need no introduction to most, but can be read about here.
According to the LBMA, ‘Loco London’ “refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London“, however, given the secrecy which surrounding trading data in the London gold and silver markets, and the lack of publication by any bank about the proportion of unallocated client balances in gold or silver that it maintains versus the physical gold or silver holdings that it maintains, this ‘loco London‘ term appears to have been abused beyond any reasonable definition, and now predominantly refers to debit and credit entries in the virtual accounting systems of London based bullion banks. Nor, in my opinion, will the LME contracts change any of this. One would therefore be forgiven in thinking that the real underlying inventories of gold and silver in the London market and their associated inverted pyramid unallocated account positions are too ‘precious’ to divulge to the market. The Bank of England is undoubtedly licking its chops to the continued opacity of the market.
And its not just my opinion. This latest LME / World Gold Council / investment bank announcement has generated other skeptical reactions. The last word goes to Jim Rickards, who tweeted this in reaction to the latest LME / World Gold Council news:
Within the last 2 months, there have been a series of developments in the London Gold Market, each of which has involved Chinese-controlled banking group ICBC Standard Bank Plc.
On 4 April, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) announced that ICBC Standard Bank had been reclassified as a LBMA Market Making member for the OTC spot trading markets in gold and silver.
On 11 April, ICE Benchmark Administration announced that ICBC Standard Bank had been approved for direct participation in the daily benchmark LBMA Gold Price auctions beginning on 16 May.
On 3 May, the LBMA announced in its Alchemist magazine that ICBC Standard Bank had joined the LBMA’s Physical Committee. This committee is responsible for aspects of the physical bullion market such as the LBMA’s Good Delivery List and it also liaises with the LBMA’s Vault Managers Working Party.
On 11 May, the relatively obscure but powerful London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL)announced that ICBC Standard Bank had joined LPMCL, the first membership addition to London’s monopoly bullion clearing group since 2005.
On 16 May, ICBC Standard Bank announced that it had agreed to acquire a London-based precious metals vault currently owned by Barclays. This precious metals vault was built by, and is operated by Brinks, on behalf of Barclays. ICBC Standard says that the vault acquisition will be completed by July 2016.
Therefore, within a period of approximately 6 weeks, ICBC Standard has positioned itself front and centre of the closely protected London bullion trading, clearing and vaulting infrastructure.
On Monday 16 May 2016, the LBMA also issued its own press release, announcing that ICBC Standard bank had joined LPMCL, and that it would become an ‘active member‘ of LPMCL in early June 2016.
The LBMA press release about LPMCL also quoted LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell as saying:
“I’m delighted to see ICBC Standard Bank join this vital organisation. The LPMCL clearing system is one of the great strengths of the London bullion market. The LBMA welcomes this addition and looks forward to continuing to assist LPMCL in its growth and development.”
Although the same bullion bank representatives, wearing different hats, run, and have always run, all of the precious metals entities that operate in the London market (via a series of different ‘puppet shows’), the ‘assistance’ that the LBMA is now providing to LPMCL is based on the following development that was highlighted by the LBMA CEO at the LBMA conference in Vienna in 2015, when she said:
“I’m delighted to inform you that the London Precious Metals Clearing company took part not only [in the LBMA] review, but we have now agreed to formalise our working relationship, with the LBMA providing Executive services going forward. I’m grateful to the LPMCL directors for their leadership and their support forremoving fragmentation from the market.”
Examination of the Barclays / Brinks vault (most likely near Heathrow in the Brinks complex) which ICBC is now acquiring, is left to a future analysis. This article concentrates solely on the LPMCL clearing system, the protected crux of the London precious metals markets, but an entity which is rarely given anything but a passing glance by the financial media in London or elsewhere.
One important point to mention here though is that it had been widely reported in January (initially by Reuters) that ICBC was acquiring another London-based precious metals vault, a vault that had been built by G4S in Park Royal on behalf of Deutsche Bank, and that had then been leased from G4S by Deutsche Bank. See “G4S London Gold Vault 2.0 – ICBC Standard Bank in, Deutsche Bank out” for details.
It turns out that the deal for the G4S / Deutsche Bank vault “did not go through“, according to ICBC. It appears that ICBC considered the Barclays / Brinks vault to be the preferred transaction over the Deutsche / G4S vault, and that when the Barclays / Brinks vault came on to the market, ICBC backed out of the transaction with Deutsche, in much the same as house-hunters change their mind when a better house comes on the market.
The future of the G4S / Deutsche vault is therefore still unknown. Possibly Standard Chartered, which was also mentioned as a name wanting to join LPMCL, could be a potential buyer of the Deutsche / G4S vault?
London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) is a UK private company limited by guarantee without share capital, that was incorporated on 5 April 2001, with a company number of 04195299. LPMCL is classified in Companies House with a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code of ‘Administration of financial markets‘. LPMCL has a registered address of C/O Hackwood Secretaries Limited, One Silk Street, London EC2Y 8HQ. Interestingly, this is the same registered address as the London Gold Market Fixing Limited and the London Silver Market Fixing Company Limited, both of which are still active companies and both of which are currently defendants in ongoing New York court class action suits where they and their member banks stand accused of price manipulation in the gold and silver markets, respectively. Hackwood Secretaries Limited is Company Secretary for LPMCL. Hackwood Secretaries is a Linklaters company used for company secretariat services. Linklaters is one of the better known global law firms that is headquartered in London.
LPMCL uses an electronic clearing platform called ‘AURUM’ to clear London-settled precious metals trades. This is done via book entry netting and clearing, entirely using unallocated accounts. The vast majority of the LPMCL clearing trades are processed by HSBC and JP Morgan.
As to the raison d’etre for LPMCL, perhaps the recent LBMA press release sums it up best:
“[the] London clearing system for gold, silver, platinum and palladium [is] managed by London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL).
LPMCL operates a central electronic metal clearing hub, with deals between parties throughout the world, settled and cleared in London.
Most global ‘over-the-counter’ gold and silver trading is cleared through the London clearing system. The London bullion market clearing banks provide a service to their clients in providing the settlement of gold and silver transfers. Ultimately each clearer has to have access to reserves of physical metal and provides an array of services tailored to each client’s specific needs; the most important of which is intermediating credit and providing credit facilities.
This last paragraph in the press release was cut and pasted by the LBMA from the LPMCL website FAQ under the question: “Can you explain the benefits of the London bullion clearing system as compared with a clearing house?” so it can also be viewed there.
You will notice from the above press release that:
a) LPMCL is critically important due to its role as global clearer for all 4 precious metals, and
b) Access to physical precious metals plays a secondary role in the LPMCL system compared to ‘credit facilities and intermediating credit (i.e. The LPMCL system is a credit-based fractional-reserve system of unallocated metal holdings and transfers).
LPMCL was founded in 2001 by 7 bullion bank founding members, namely, NM Rothschilds, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC Bank USA, ScotiaMocatta, UBS AG, Deutsche Bank , and CSFB (Credit Suisse). Credit Suisse resigned in October 2001, Rothschilds resigned in June 2004, and then Barclays joined in September 2005. Deutsche bank resigned in August 2015. HSBC Bank USA NA resigned on 11 February 2015, and was replaced by HSBC Bank Plc. Gold and silver were the two metals originally cleared loco London by LPMCL’s system. Platinum and palladium clearing loco London was added to LPMCL’s clearing offering in September 2009. UBS (a LPMCL member) and Credit Suisse (a previous LPMCL member) also offer loco Zurich clearing of platinum and palladium.
Including ICBC Standard Bank, the current membership of LPMCL as of May/June 2016 now consists of JP Morgan, HSBC, Scotia Mocatta, UBS, Barclays, and ICBC Standard. Since Barclays is withdrawing from much of its precious metals business in London, and is selling its London vault , its possible that Barclays will resign from LPMCL in the near future.
All LPMCL members either have their own precious metals vault in London, or access to vaulting facilities at London vaults. Many of the LPMCL members also have vaulting facilities in other financial capitals around the world. Here are some of the vault operations for each of the LPMCL members:
HSBC – vaults in London, New York (Manhattan) and Hong Kong
JP Morgan – vaults in London, New York (Manhattan) and Singapore (Freeport)
Scotia – vaults in Toronto and New York (JFK)
Barclays – vault in London (being sold), vault in Singapore
UBS – vault in Zurich (Kloten) and Singapore (Freeport)
Deutsche Bank (ex LPMCL) – trying to sell a lease on a G4S vault in London; has / had a vault in Singapore (Freeport)
ICBC Standard – buying vault in London from Barclays. Standard Bank had vaulting facilities at JP Morgan’s vault in London. ICBC has many vaults in China.
Notice also that 4 of the LPMCL member banks, HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia and UBS are also 4 of the 6 banks represented on the LBMA Management Committee, therefore LPMCL members have a disproportionately large influence on the strategic direction and decision-making of the LBMA.
“to take on and continue the promotion, administration and conduct of precious metals clearing in the London precious metals markets”
According to the original Articles of Association, the registered ‘Office’ of LPMCL was “New Court, St Swithin’s Lane, London EC4P 4DU“, which is the headquarters of N.M. Rothschild & Sons in London. Rothschilds was also the company Secretary at that time. Interestingly, the respective addresses listed for JP Morgan and HSBC in the Memorandum and Articles of Association document are “60 Victoria Embankment”, and “Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place”, which is the location of JP Morgan’s London precious metals vault, and a supposed location of HSBC’s London precious metals vault, respectively.
Why LPMCL was Established
According to the history section of the LPMCL’s website, the London bullion market first felt the need to develop an electronic clearing / matching system in the mid-1990s due to a combination of growing trade volumes, technological change, and also the need for better audit trails. This view is backed up by comments from Peter Smith of JP Morgan in a 2009 article for the LBMA’s Alchemist when he said that:
“Thirteen years ago , the bullion clearers were exchanging transfers between themselves by telephone instructions – a situation that was causing considerable problems in the control and audit departments within those banks. Because of those concerns, the clearers realised that the only sensible and secure solution was to develop a central clearing hub, where transfer instructions could be up loaded and matched. This resulted in the establishment of LPMCL in April 2001″
The LPMCL website’s history section also reveals that the initial legwork on automating London precious metals clearing was done by the LBMA’s physical committee, since this committee “comprised the clearing members”.
Until very recently, the LBMA physical committee was exclusively made up of LPMCL members, indeed, the LBMA physical committee literally looks like an alternate venue for LPMCL members to meet up in. For example, in September 2015, the only members of the LBMA physical committee were representatives from the then 5 members of LPMCL, i.e. JP Morgan, HSBC, Scotia, UBS and Barclays.
The addition of ICBC Standard and Standard Chartered to the LBMA Physical Committee was announced in the LBMA’s Alchemist on 3 May 2016. Currently, all 6 LPMCL members – JP Morgan (chair of physical committee), HSBC, ScotiaMocatta, Barclays, UBS, and ICBC Standard Bank are members of the LBMA physical committee, as is Standard Chartered (a potential member of LPMCL), and TD Bank (Toronto Dominion). Note that Standard Chartered and TD Bank are the 5th and 6th member banks of the LBMA Management Committee. Therefore all 6 bullion banks that are on the LBMA Management Committee are also on the LBMA Physical Committee.
The LBMA physical committee membership is rounded off by Brinks (notably, the vault transaction facilitator between Barclays and ICBC Standard Bank) . Note also, that there is a Bank of England ‘observer’ on the LBMA physical committee, an indication of the Bank of England’s keen interest in monitoring the London Gold Market and the gold market’s physical operations and transactions.
The LPMCL history goes on to say that:
“It was subsequently decided that the most effective way of carrying the electronic matching system project forward would be for the clearing members to form a separate company specifically for the purpose of developing and administering such a system. As a result LPMCL was formed in April, 2001.“
Obscurely, LPMCL was first incorporated on 5 April 2001 with a name of Itemelement Limited (basically a shell company). It changed name to London Precious Metal Clearing Limited on 2 October 2001 (‘Metal’ singular). It then changed name again on 2 November 2001 to London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (‘metals’ plural). The first tranche of LPMCL directors were then installed in November 2001 from the six remaining founder members companies (excluding Credit Suisse First Boston International since CSFB resigned in October 2001).
OM and LBT Computer Services
Its unclear what, if anything, LPMCL did as a company in 2002, however in April 2003 a press release was issued by Swedish technology company OM revealing that:
“London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (”LPMCL”) has chosen OM as an outsourcing partner for Facility Management of their proposed web-based automated bullion matching system to be provided by LBT Computer Services, an Information Technology service provider and partner to OM.”
“We are happy to welcome LPMCL, the leading organization for precious metal clearing, as a Facility Management customer to OM.”
This ‘web-based automated bullion matching system’ is “AURUM”.
The same press release described LPMCL as:
“LPMCL is the administrative company set up by the six clearing members of the LBMA to facilitate the development of an electronic matching system to replace the existing clearing system which is conducted by telephone and / or facsimile.”
In 2003, OM also merged with Finland’s NEX to form OMHEX. Following the merger OM continued to exist as the OM Technology division of OMHEX, providing transaction technology services to the financial and energy industries. OMHEX became OMX in 2004, and was then acquired by NASDAQ in 2007 to form the current group NASDAQ OMX.
However, the relevant entity here is LBT Computer Services, which is still around today as it’s website shows. The LBT web site also still has a short profile of its LPMCL project in the ‘case study’ section of its website, where is states, in a slightly childish way that:
“The LPMCL are the ‘clearing’ organisation for precious metal dealing and are based in London, the centre for such trading. They needed a way of linking together the precious metal bankers to match transactions/deals. They needed to do it in such a fashion that no bank could see anything other than their counterparty bank, and to do it with absolute security.
LBT built an application that is hosted on the Internet and which connects to each bank via a secure link to collect transactions which it then matches to the counterparty bank’s transactions and send the results back to both banks. It runs 24 x 7, unattended, other than via an on-line link. Unfortunately we cannot say more about this innovative solution.“
Why can’t LBT Services say anything more about the LPMCL automated platform? This statement from LBT is perhaps the first clue as to the secrecy, paranoia, and obsessive protectionism that surrounds LPMCL, a company that is the global clearer for all 4 precious metals, yet lies at the heart of the opaque system that is the global precious metals trading system run out of London where real trade-level data that runs through AURUM is never publicly reported.
Between 2003 and the present day, the AURUM platform would obviously have gone through a number of changes, and it may not even be hosted on the LBT platform any longer. Given that lack of publicly available information on the design and functionality of AURUM, its hard to say. There is however a current ‘LPMCL Technical Committee‘ comprising IT and Business Analyst representatives of the member banks (see various Linkedin profiles for details), so perhaps AURUM was brought in-house between the bank members. Many of the in-house systems that AURUM interfaces to would also have changed over the years, requiring various upgrades of the AURUM platform too, and therefore a rationale for the existence of a ‘LPMCL Technical Committee’.
ICBC Standard’s Membership Application to LPMCL
When Reuters reported back in January of this year that ICBC Standard was looking to take on the vault lease for the Deutsche Bank / G4S vault, Reuters also reported in the same article that ICBC Standard had:
“also applied to become a clearing member of the London gold and silver over-the-counter business [LPMCL]”
“These banks are shareholders of the London Precious Metals Clearing (LPMCL) company. They will decide whether to accept or reject ICBC Standard Bank’s application within the next few months.”
“They [ICBC] are applying for clearing membership at the moment, but that’s still subject to a vote, which has not taken place yet”
Therefore, LPMCL’s announcement that it had allowed ICBC Standard to join wasn’t really a surprise. But the application and voting procedure referred to by Reuters gels with the new membership procedure laid out in the Articles of Association of LPMCL, which states that membership of LPMCL is open to “other eligible persons as the directors in their discretion may admit to membership“. (person here means company entities that wish to become members).
In the LPMCL company each ‘member’ (bank) appoints a director. Each director can also appoint an alternate director. During the ICBC membership application, there were 9 directors listed as current directors of LPMCL, comprising 5 directors from each of the 5 members banks of JP Morgan, HSBC, ScotiaMocatta, UBS and Barclays, and 4 alternate directors from all the member banks except Barclays. A list of the current directors names can be seen here.
According to the 2015 annual accounts of LPMCL, the 5 LPMCL directors are Tony Dean (HSBC), Jane Lloyd (Scotia), Andrew Lovell (JP Morgan), Marco Heil (UBS), and Vikas Chamaria (Barclays). The 4 alternate directors are Peter Smith (JP Morgan), William Wolfe (HSBC), Conway Rudd (Scotia) and Daniel Picard (UBS).
Former Deutsche bank LPMCL director , Raj Kumar, has now moved to ICBC Standard Bank and should be in the front running to be appointed a LPMCL director representing ICBC Standard. If Standard Chartered also joins LPMCL, then former Barclays LPMCL director, Martyn Whithead, who moved to Standard Chartered, may also be expected to re-appear as a LPMCL director representing Standard Chartered.
LPMCL’s latest annual Accounts
The most recent set of annual accounts filed by LPMCL at UK Companies House are the accounts for the full year to 31 March 2015. These accounts were, audited by Kingston Smith LLP, signed off on 8 September 2015, and filed with Companies Office on 8 October 2015. The most interesting items in the accounts are as follows:
- 2015 Turnover (Revenue) totalled £223, 599 and is entirely derived from subscription income. This revenue is accounted for on an accruals basis, meaning that it refers to subscription income for the year to 31 March 2014. With 6 bank members of LPMCL for the period under consideration, thats £38,933 per member, which is very small change for investment banks.
- For the year to March 2015, LPMCL actually made an operating loss of £64,944 because Administrative Expenses were £288,543. The bottom line loss was a similar figure.
- The biggest components of Administrative Expenses were Computer Service Fees: £151,978, and Legal and Professional Fees: £118,384, which together totalled £270,362.
Computer Service Fees obviously refers to costs in running AURUM, running the LPMCL web site, and possibly other technology costs that can be billable by the member banks to LPMCL such as, for example, electronic communications and interfacing software for sending trades to and receive data from AURUM. ‘Fees’ suggests a payment to an external provider.
The ‘Legal and Professional Fees’ line item is more unusual. Why would LPMCL need to spend £118,384 on legal and profession fees in one year, which is 41% of total admin expenses, and 78% as large as the ‘computer service fees’? This legal and professional fees line item is also eye-opening since it increased from £69,194 in 2014 to £118,384, a 71% increase. Auditing fees would be fairly constant from year to year, so there is a relatively new and quite large expense under this category. Could it be a legal expense, and if so why?
What does LPMCL’s AURUM actually do?
The London bullion market’s clearing system is a monopoly bullion clearing system run by LPMCL for bullion settled loco London, with “all bullion transactions between the clearing members of the LBMA settled and cleared by The London Precious Metals Clearing Limited.” “Loco London” traditionally meant gold and silver bullion physically held in London. With the rise of the unallocated account transfer system, to what extent unallocated bullion accounts are backed by physical bullion is debatable. The system is now a fractional-reserve credit system. LPMCL’s electronic clearing platform, AURUM, clears all bullion trades via book-entry netting and clearing using unallocated accounts.
Entities trading in the London bullion market maintain a series of unallocated accounts with one or more of the LPMCL clearers. The LMPCL members maintain unallocated accounts between each other used for clearing. The LPMCL also maintain bullion clearing accounts at the Bank of England. Each day, each client of each bullion clearer sends its LPMCL member clearing bank details of bullion trades between that client and its counter-parties. At the end of each trading day, each LPMCL member then processes position settlements by first netting out, in-house, to whatever extent possible, the bullion trades done by its own clients and clients of those clients.
Following this, the LPMCL members send their netted trade data to AURUM which then clears the clearers’ positions. The majority of LPMCL trades cleared are processed by LPMCL members HSBC and JP Morgan. The clearers also ‘settle’ their own positions with each other between 4pm and 4:30pm each day via broker transfers usually involving 3 brokers. This is done to prevent excessive overnight credit exposure between the clearers. The clearing process also involves “close liaison with the Bank of England and the many overseas bullion depositories“.
According to the LBMA, the LPMCL members:
“utilise the unallocated gold and silver, in accounts they maintain between each other, to make ‘paper transfers’ to settle mutual trades. They also settle third-party loco London bullion transfers, conducted on behalf of clients and other members of the London Bullion Market. This system of ‘paper transfers’ avoids the security risks, costs and impracticality of physically moving metal bars”
An overview of the London clearing process can be read on BullionStar’s Gold University profile of the London gold market here. The LBMA web site also provides a summary here. A similar summary is also in an article titled “Gold and Silver Clearing “Loco London” Through the Central Hub Developed by London Precious Metal Clearing Ltd” in Issue 55 of the Alchemist , dated July 2009. The most visible part of LPMCL and AURUM is the generally useless high level monthly clearing statistics that the LPMCL has produced each month since early 1997, and that are published on the LBMA website. These clearing statistics report the “net volume of loco London gold and silver transfers settled between clearing members of the LBMA.”
For each of gold and silver, the statistics are calculated as daily averages and reported each month as three sets of figures, namely, a figure of millions of ounces transferred per day, the USD value of those ounces transferred per day, and also the number of transfers per day. Note that these clearing figures are just a fraction of what the real underlying trading figures are. Overall trading figures of the London gold market are anywhere up to 10 times or more larger than the clearing figures would suggest, since the clearing figures are ‘netted’ trading figures.
London-settled gold and silver clearing statistics were first published in January 1997, with the first clearing data reported for the Q4 period 1996. This was prior to the automation of the daily clearing operations through AURUM.
Even back then in 1997, the daily clearing figures for gold and silver through London were baffling and opaque since the daily clearing volumes were huge compared to the quantities of physical gold and silver that exists in the entire world, and there was no granular explanation or categorisation as to the trade types and client types that these clearing figures represented. In this regards, nothing has changed. Then as of now, the LPMCL only reveal that the monthly figures include 3 types of data:
- Loco London book transfers from one party in a clearing member’s books to another member in the same member’s books or in the books of another clearing member.
- Physical transfers and shipments by clearing members
- Transfers over clearing members accounts at the Bank of England
For example, the LBMA clearing statistics for April 2016 state that 16.5 million ounces (513 tonnes) of gold were cleared each day during the month. With 21 trading days in April 2016, that would be 346 million ounces (10,777 tonnes) of gold cleared during April. Since there is said to be a 10 :1 ratio between the amount of gold traded in London and the amount of gold cleared through AURUM, these clearing figures can be rolled up by a multiple of 10.
The trouble with this type of high level reporting is that it doesn’t even reveal the percentage of transfers in each of the above three groups, but physical transfers would be very very small percentage of the total, because, by definition, physical transfers couldn’t be any larger given that there is only a fraction of physical gold being transacted in the world on any given day relative to these gigantic clearing & trading figures.
An article called “Clearing Volume on the London Bullion Market” in Issue 6 of the Alchemist, by Peter Smith of JP Morgan, dated January 1997, first introduced these predominantly useless clearing statistics and revealed the 3 categories above. Nothing has changed in the reporting since 1997 and this LBMA lack of transparency remains right up to today. Ironically, Issue 6 of the LBMA’s Alchemist was titled ‘Towards Transparency‘ but there was little transparency divulged at that time, and the same opacity of the London bullion market still remains 20 years later.
Issue 6 of the Alchemist also had an introductory editorial from the then chairman of the LBMA, Alan Baker, whose opening line in the editorial was:
“The bullion market in London is often criticised by observers for being secretive and lacking in information and data. Unfortunately to an extent this is inevitable given the need for a duty of care to clients which dictates that a high level of discretion is an essential element in so much of the business that takes place in the market, particularly for gold.”
Notice the secrecy is inevitable spin. The LBMA has been making excuses for the lack of transparency for at least 20 years now. Frankly, I don’t agree with any of the above explanations on the need for opacity. It’s a fiction. Reporting of trade volumes in all other markets globally such as equities, bonds, FX, money market and exchange-based commodities, is detailed, publicly available, and usually granular by transaction types and client types, and this does not, and has never, compromised client confidentiality in any of these asset classes. Why then do the precious metals markets, and the gold market in particular need to be the exception? They do not.
The excuses by people such as the ex LBMA chairman are merely helping to protect an entrenched system of opacity in which central banks, sovereign institutions, monetary authorities, the Bank for International Settlements, large bullion banks, and other large operators can move within the gold market without being concerned that any of their transactions and interventions will ever be noticed and reflected in gold price discovery. This is not an efficient market. Far from it. This is a protected and hidden physical trading system upon which is overlaid a massive pyramid of fractional-reserve paper gold trading.
The trade types of the trades from which the massive MPMCL clearing figures are generated could easily be reported by LPMCL and the LBMA, but they choose not to report this information. All positional, transactional, account, account type, and physical allocation data in every database table in AURUM and in every bullion trade database table of each LPMCL member bank could be published publicly while stripping out clients’ account-sensitive data and would still not jeopardize client confidentiality.
Trade Types behind the LPMCL Clearing figures
LPMCL provided one glimpse into London bullion market trade types in October 2003, in an article in Alchemist 32, titled “Clearing the Air Discussing Trends and Influences on London Clearing Statistics“, when the then LMPCL chairman, Peter Fava, and JP Morgan’s Peter Smith, both involved in the compilation of the original clearing statistics in 1997, were interviewed about “some changes in the nature of the market and over the intervening years that might have had an impact on the reported numbers.” This is the only insight that I am aware of that provided a small window into some of trade types of bullion transactions that are processed through AURUM.
Fava was asked about the “changes in the overall pattern of trading activity from certain counterparts”. He then gave a rundown of various bullion trading activities that were showing up in the clearing data. The activities mentioned were:
central bank gold deposits, rolling over monthly, and the hedging transactions connected to that borrowing
interest rate swaps and longer-term collateralised agreements
speculative trading activity on a leveraged, forward basis that is closed out before maturity
investment fund participation via spot transactions* (generally netted by the counterparty banks against EFPs – exchange for physicals) but if not netted would show up in clearing
interbank market trading (multiple times per day)
consignment accounts in physical markets, notably Istanbul, Dubai and India” with purchases out of the consignment account hedged loco London
Since that 2003 article was written, there has been a huge growth in Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) trading, a trading activity that can be added to the above list. In 2014, in the LBMA Silver Price competition proposals, ETF Securities’ bid stated that “our physical precious metal ETCs are created and redeemed for physical metal, with the metal being cleared through the LBMA clearing system and the securities being cleared through the CREST clearing system which is used for LSE trading“.
I have analysed the above London bullion market trade types in more depth, but due to space constraints, I’ll cover this is a future posting, but for now, the point to note is that a lot of London bullion trading activity has very little to do with physical metal movements.
Recall also that Stewart Murray (ex LBMA CEO) had said in a 2011 presentation that investment funds had ‘very large’ unallocated positions in the market.
“Various investors hold very substantial amounts unallocated gold and silver in the London vaults”
I wonder if investment funds which presume they own unallocated gold or silver (which is just a long unallocated spot position put on by a bank), are aware that their positions are then offset against futures. Some unsophisticated funds might think they are actually hold pooled gold or silver holdings within a London bank vault.
Circling the Wagons: Protection of LPMCL’s clearing monopoly
In 2014, the daily fixing auctions for all 4 precious metals in the London market were moved to new electronic platforms. In the case of gold and silver, competitions were held (organised by the LBMA) to decide on which companies would become the new administrators and calculation agents for the auctions. Ultimately, Thomson Reuters / CME Group secured the contract to run the new Silver auctions (LBMA Silver Price), and ICE Benchmark Administration secured the contract to run the new Gold auctions (LBMA Gold Price). In the case of the platinum and palladium auctions, as to whether a competition was held is debatable, since neither LPPM nor the London Platinum and Palladium Fixing Company (LPPFC) would confirm this when asked. However, the London Metal Exchange was ultimately awarded the mandate to run the new platinum and palladium auctions (LBMA Platinum Price and LBMA Palladium Price).
After Thomson Reuters and CME Group had secured the contract for the silver auctions, CME Group maintained (in a public presentation) on 29 July 2014 that it would soon introduce a centrally cleared platform for these auctions trades so as to widen participation in the auctions and eliminate credit risk between participants.
“[for] Extended Participation, we envisage central clearing via CME Clearing Europe under the auspices of the UK and European regulated authoritieswhich should effectively open the door for most participants.”
“We’re basically starting the process as soon as possible. Let’s get this up and running by 15thAugust  andthen it’s all hands to the pumps on the clearing sideso hopefully it will happen soon.”
“The work we’ve got to do is to set this up so that’s it’s part of the platform so it’s a level playing field for participants…”
“Anindya Boral will be starting to do a big drive to enable cleared transactions through our clearing houseand wider participation in August”
In its presentation, CME Group featured a slide which stated that:
“Central counterparty clearing will enable greater direct participation in the London Silver Price”.
We anticipate using CME Group’s London Clearing House – CME Clearing Europe – for the London Silver Price
By serving as the counterparty to every transaction, CME Clearing Europe will become the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer, virtually eliminating credit risk between market participants“
Likewise, when the LME announced that it had been awarded the contract by LPPFC to run the platinum and palladium price auctions, the LME issued a press release on 16 October 2014 stating that it planned to introduce clearing of platinum and palladium auction trades using its clearing platform LME Clear, so as to maximise participation and overcome the credit risk obstacle:
“To maximise participation in the London pricing mechanism, the LME also plans to introduce a cleared platinum and palladium service, which will mitigate the difficulty associated with participants taking bilateral credit risk in positions.
LME Clear, launched on 22 September 2014, was built specifically to enable efficient clearing of metals exposures and will extend its existing precious metals clearing functionality to clear platinum and palladium.“
However, the LME mysteriously pulled its press release a few hours after it had been published, and replaced it with an amended version where the above two paragraphs had been deleted. See BullionStar blog “LPPM – The London Platinum and Palladium Market” for full details.
And so, LME Clear was never introduced for clearing platinum and palladium auction trades.
Similarly, in its Executive Summary proposal submitted to the LBMA in October 2014 to run the new gold price auctions, a contract which it ended up winning, ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) stated that its solution could employ pre-collateralisation to eliminate bi-lateral credit risk between participants, and therefore widen auction participation. ICE also made reference to the logic of using a centrally cleared model, but was shrewd enough at that point in time to defer to the powerful interests of the clearing members who essentially run the LBMA, knowing that the CME Group and LME clearing solutions for Silver and Platinum/Palladium had been shot down:
“It is through the Oversight Committee that the LBMA will continue to have significant involvement in the auction process, including… the decision on whether to move to a centrally cleared model(until that time, weaker credit names can be accommodated via pre-collateralisation).”
“One of the key benefits of WebICE is its ability to allow clients to participate in the auction process with the same information and order management capabilities as the direct participants. This reduces both operational and regulatory risk for direct participants, even before increasing the number of direct participants or moving to a centrally cleared model.”
In its presentation submission to the LBMA in October 2014 during the competition to run the London gold auctions, the LME also seemed to have gotten the message that the LPMCL’s clearing monopoly and its AURUM clearing system were not to be tampered in any proposed LME platform. In a slide titled “Potential credit models” the LME said that a centrally cleared solution “would only be introduced with market support and respecting LPMCL settlement“. See right-hand box in below slide:
Likewise, in the slide that followed the above one, the LME again made it abundantly clear that it had got the message that LMPCL was not to be touched – “LME Clear fully respects existing loco London delivery mechanism and participants“:
The only reference by the LBMA to central clearing counterparties is a short comment on its website about centrally clearing OTC forward trades where itstates:
“..members of a common ‘Central Counterparty’(CCP), that has a facility to clear forwards, may novate their trades and thus avoid bilateral credit risk. In the absence of an exchange, the trade remains one of an OTC nature but has the ability to be cleared. This method of credit mitigation is known as OTC Cleared.”
CME Group already offers a very sparsely used (or not even used) centralised clearing service for OTC unallocated gold forwards using collateral or cash margin. “Delivery occurs at LPMCL member banksvia book entry transfer of ‘London Good Delivery’ gold, which means unallocated loco London book entry gold claims on an LPMCL bank”.
Not surprisingly, the LBMA web site,says nothing about the pros and cons of centrally clearing OTC spot trades nor is there any discussion about exchange-basedtrading and clearing of any London bullion trades.
The LPMCL web site mentions an alternative clearing system (a clearing house), but not surprisingly, this approach is only mentioned as a foil for undermining it, as follows:
Q: Can you explain the benefits of the London bullion clearing system as compared with a clearing house?
A: “…a clearing house usually has a rigid settlement structure, does not provide credit, or assume intra-day or term credit risks, and not being in the banking business, has no ability to use any underlying liquidity. It will thus most likely be less flexible, less efficient and more expensive – particularly as clearing houses by their nature are non-competitive, whereas the London bullion clearing banks compete for clients by providing competitive services and pricing.”
Q: Could a clearing house replace the London bullion clearing system?
“Yes, but it would prove to be less efficient and more expensive than the current arrangement. It would also most likely need strong financial backing and insurance cover – which then directs us back to the London bullion clearing banks, as above, all of whom are first tier global institutions.”
Why is LPMCL being Protected?
In conclusion, why does the LBMA think that LPMCL is a ‘vital organisation’? as the LBMA CEO phrases it.
Firstly, LPMCL keeps the entire pyramid of London’s unallocated precious metals trades spinning. By not reporting any trade information, the LBMA and LPMCL keep the entire gold world in the dark about the extent of the London paper gold trading scheme
Secondly, LPMCL preserves opacity and prevents public reporting of precious metals trades, including central bank gold lending and gold swaps, and therefore keeps this major gold market trading activity out of focus, with the spotlight off the role of the Bank of England in the London Gold Market.
Thirdly, the most powerful banks in the LBMA are the LPMCL members which are also the vaulters in London and the member banks of the LBMA Management Committee. These banks want to maintain the monopoly status quo of LPMCL and to maintain the status quo of the London precious metals vaulting system and their vaulting fees. The same banks run the trading, clearing and vaulting of the entire London bullion system. Perhaps the FCA should be looking at anti-competitive behaviour here, for example vaulting fees, and clearing fees.
Fourthly, the current LPMCL system masks huge amounts of trading for the LBMA members banks and brokers. Huge trading makes large trading commissions. The same system generates the need for the banks to provide credit to bullion market participants, which generates interest income.
Fifthly, by propping up LPMCL, its member banks can push back on any competing initiatives that are proposing a ‘gold exchange’ in London, such as the exchange initiative that’s backed by the World Gold Council and a number of other (non LPMCL) bullion banks.
As the Financial Times said in October 2015 when reporting about the LBMA’s so-called moves to provide trade reporting in light of other initiatives by the LME / World Gold Council and banks such as Goldman, SocGen, Citibank and Morgan Stanley (and previously including ICBC Standard) to move gold trading on to an exchange platform using exchange defined gold contracts:
“In the other camp is the LBMA, the official body set up by the Bank of England in 1987 to regulate the bullion market,which has close ties to the vaulting banks.Many of its biggest members want physical gold trading in London to remain off-exchange, but have conceded that a move towards all trades being cleared in one place could add transparency.”
Look at what the incumbent LBMA banks do, not what they say to newspapers. What the LBMA – LPMCL co-op (same people, different hats) has just done is welcomed another bank (ICBC Standard) into ‘this vital organisation” (the LPMCL), and the LBMA is now looking forward to “continuing to assist LPMCLin its growth and development.”
ICBC Standard had been in the LME / World Gold Council / Goldman / SocGen/ Citi / Morgan Stanley camp, buton the face of it, ICBC now appears to have deserted that faction and fully aligned with the LPMCL cartel of HSBC / JP Morgan / Scotia / UBS and Barclays. ICBC Standard may have been using the LME / Goldman camp as a bargaining tool with which to exert access pressure to join the LPMCL gang, and now that it has done so, it would be surprising if ICBC continues to align itself with the LME’s upcoming gold exchange proposal. However, as a Chinese controlled bank with long-term planning horizons, ICBC may wish to play a strategic game with a seat at both tables.
c) the location of the HSBC vault in London is not publicised and so the secrecy creates intrigue
d) HSBC every so often throws out some visual or audio-visual media bait about the vault, most famously in the case of CNBC’s Bob Pisani and his camerman and producer visiting and filming inside the actual vault
Despite all of the above, no one seems to have ever tried to figure out where this gold vault is actually located. Until now.
In some ways HSBC has done a very good job keeping the location of its London gold vault under wraps. The main challenge is where does one begin to look for a vault in London from scratch. At first it would appear that there is nothing in the public domain pointing to the HSBC vault location. This is not entirely true however. The gold bullion activities of HSBC in London stem from two companies that over time became part of the HSBC group. My approach was to start by thinking about which London locations HSBC used to be based at. I took this approach because it became obvious that the HSBC London gold vault being used was still a battered looking old vault space in 2004 and 2005, which was after the entire HSBC company had moved to its spanking new London headquarters in Canary Wharf by 2003.
In New York, the location of the HSBC Bank USA precious metals vault in Manhattan is well-known and is even listed in CFTC documents such as here. The vault is at 1 West 39th Street, SC 2 Level , NewYork, NewYork 10018 , which is the same building as 450 Fifth Avenue, which is the former Republic National Bank building that HSBC took over in 1999-2000. This Republic building at 450 Fifth Avenue, when it was being built, “had special vault requirements that reportedly added significantly to the project’s cost“. So its hard to see why HSBC makes such a big deal of not revealing its London vault location.
History of HSBC gold operations in London
In 1993, HSBC Holdings plc relocated its headquarters to London after having acquired Britain’s Midland Bank the previous year. Midland in turn had fully acquired Samuel Montagu in 1974 to form Midland Montagu. Samuel Montagu & Co was a City of London bullion broker, and one of the 5 original gold fixing members of the London Gold Fixing, and in turn, Midland Montagu was also a Gold Fixer. In 1999, HSBC began using the name ‘HSBC’ for the Gold Fixing seat of Midland Montagu.
Between 1999 and 2000, HSBC completed the acquisition of Republic National Bank of New York. Republic National Bank of New York had been a big player in the world gold markets, and in 1993, Republic National had bought one of the London Gold Fixing seats from Mase Westpac, meaning that from 1993 both Republic National and Midland Montagu held Gold Fixing seats, and that HSBC ended up with 2 of the 5 Gold Fixing seats. Therefore, in 2000, following the Republic National takeover, HSBC in London sold one of its newly acquired seats to Credit Suisse.
I also have always thought that the HSBC vault is in central London, and not in some far-flung outer London location. The LPMCL website (www.lpmcl.com) still displays text that says that the bullion clearer’s vaults are in ‘central London locations':
“The five London bullion clearing members each maintain confidential secure vaulting facilities within central London locations, using either their own premises, or those of a secure storage agent…”
Anyone who knows London will understand that ‘central London’ refers to a small number of central districts, and not some broader inside the M25 (ring road) definition. Before moving to Canary Wharf in circa 2003, HSBC occupied a number of buildings clustered around the north bank of the River Thames, including 10 Lower Thames Street (the Banks’ Headquarters), 3 Lower Thames Street (St Magnus House), 10 Queen Street Place at the corner of Upper Thames Street (Thames Exchange – containing a trading floor), and Vintners Place (adjoined to Vintners Hall on the other side of Queen Street Place and Upper Thames Street).
HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch), until 2015, was also the HSBC entity that was listed as a member of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) on the LPMCL website. See, for example, September 2009 imprint of LPMCL website. The next step is therefore to see where HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch) was formerly located.
The Financial Services Register (FSA Register) lists HSBC Bank USA, Reference number: 141298, effective from 24 January 2000, with a registered address of Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place, London EC4R 1BE. Recalling the Republic National connection, the previous registered name for this entity was “Republic National Bank of New York”, with the same address, effective from 18 December 1995 to 24 January 2000. The FSA Register entry also lists various well-known names of the HSBC gold world alongside this HSBC Bank USA entity, including Jeremy Charles, Peter Fava and David Rose.
Recalling the Samual Montagu / Midland Montagu connection to HSBC, an entity called Montagu Precious Metals is also listed with an old address at “2nd Floor, Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place, London EC4R 1BQ.
An old gold information website called GoldAvenue from the year 2000, written by Timothy Green, also lists HSBC Bank USA (London branch) address as:
HSBC Bank USA
London branch Thames Exchange 10 Queen Street Place London EC4R 1BQ
That same Gold Avenue web page also correctly listed the HSBC New York vault address as:
HSBC Bank USA 452 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10018
which is the same building as West 39th Street, New York, in Manhattan.
The precursor to the SPDR Gold Trust was called Gold Bullion Ltd, a vehicle set up by Graham Tuckwell, promoted by the World Gold Council, and listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. Gold Bullion Ltd’s first day of trading was 28th March 2003. Following Gold Bullion Ltd’s launch, the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) was then launched in 2004, but originally it was called STREETracks Gold Shares, and it even had another former working title of ‘Equity Gold Trust’ in early 2004.
A May 2003 Marketwatch article about Gold Bullion Ltd and the early incarnation of the SPDR Gold Trust (Equity Gold Trust) can be seen here, and a speech by Graham Tuckwell about Gold Bullion Ltd to the LBMA annual conference in Lisbon in 2003 can be seen here. Most importantly, an early draft Prospectus of Gold Bullion Ltd (in MS Word), dated 10 February 2003, lists the Custodian of Gold Bullion Ltd as:
HSBC Bank USA
10 Queen Street Place
London EC4R 1BQ
Therefore, Thames Exchange goes to the top of the list for further consideration, as does it’s neighbour Vintner’s Place. Thames Exchange and Vintners Place were both HSBC buildings and both buildings are situated right across the road from each other, with Queen Street Place literally bisecting the 2 buildings. Queen Street Place is also the road that acts as the approach road to Southwark Bridge, with the 10 Queen Street Place building and the Vintners Place building literally creating a canyon either side of the road.
You will see below why Queen Street Place is interesting. Queen Street Place is very near the Bank of England and is in the City of London, so it’s under City of London Police protection. It’s also very near the River Thames, as is the JP Morgan London vault. To get to the Bank of England from Queen Street Place, you literally walk a mintute north up Queens Street, and then a few minutes north-east along Queen Victoria Street and you’re at the Bank of England.
An official HSBC letter-headed note documenting the Thames Exchange address and proving HSBC occupied this building can be seen here. Similarly, an official letter-headed note documenting the Vintner’s Place address, and proving that HSBC occupied that building can be seen here.
“Army of firms called in to help co-ordinate bank’s relocation to Docklands by 2002“
“HSBC has stepped up its retreat from the City of London by instructing agents to open negotiations on the disposal of its outstanding City liabilities.
In one of the most hotly contested pitches of last year, Jones Lang Lasalle has beaten rivals to secure the lead role as strategic adviser for the bank’s relocation to Docklands [Canary Wharf] in 2002.
In addition to JLL, the bank has instructed another seven firms to mastermind the disposal of its 121,000 sq m (1,302,445 sq ft) City portfolio.”
“HSBC has ruled out acquiring freehold or long-leasehold interests and has instructed agents to negotiate the best surrender or assignment of the occupational leases on its 12 City buildings.”
“Morgan Pepper is advising on HSBC’s 17-year lease at Thames Exchange, 10 Queen Street Place, EC4. The Scottish Amicable building is currently under offer to Blackstone Real Estate Advisors for £73m.
Insignia Richard Ellis, Chapman Swabey, Strutt & Parker and Wright Oliphant have positions on the bank’s remaining interests in Vintners Place EC3; Bishop’s Court at Artillery Street, and HSBC’s 37,160 sq m (400,000 sq ft) office complex at St Magnus House and Montagu House.
By the time STREETracks Gold Trust (the original name for the SPDR Gold Trust) was launched in 2004, HSBC Bank USA’s address had moved to HSBC’s new headquarters in Canary Wharf, in the Docklands, east of the City of London. By early 2003, Equity Gold Trust also listed the HSBC custodian with the Canary Wharf address.
“The phased occupation of the [Canary Wharf] building was completed in February 2003 when the last of over 8000 staff moved in, with HSBC Group Chairman Sir John Bond officially opening the building as the Group’s new head office on 2 April 2003.”
However, the old HSBC gold vault did not ‘move’ at the time the rest of HSBC moved lock, stock, and barrel to Canary Wharf between 2002-2003. In fact, the HSBC vault remained where it was in a slightly rundown shabby space with cream-colored walls. See multiple photos of the vault space below. The HSBC vault did however transform from an ‘old’ vault into a ‘new’ vault sometime between 2006 to early 2007. My belief, which I’ll explain below, is that this vault didn’t move, it just received an extensive renovation.
A diagram of the HSBC headquarters in Canary Wharf where the whole London HSBC workforce moved to by early 2003 can be seen below. Notice the car parks in basements B2, B3 and B4. You can also read about the basement construction in the Arup document above. This is not the location for a beat-up old vault that can be seen in the below old gold vault shots. Besides, the vertical pillars/piles in the old and new HSBC vault are nothing like the huge structural pillars/piles found in the HSBC headquarters in Canary Wharf.
The pillars in the old HSBC vault photos are pillars that would be found in an old arched vault, while the support pillars in the new HSBC vault photos are those that would be found in relatively shallow spaces under a road, such as pillars/supports used in the cut and cover New York subway system.
HSBC Gold Vault Photos
Here you can see an early gold vault photo of Graham Tuckwell, joint managing director of Gold Bullion Securities, and Stuart Thomas, managing director of World Gold Trust Services, in the ‘old’ HSBC vault in December 2004 checking a HSBC bar list:
Managing Director Stuart Thomas, Director of Corporate Communications, George Milling-Stanley of World Gold Trust Services, and CFO and Treasurer James Lowe (wearing a gold tie) of World Gold Trust Services
When the gold is stacked 6 pallets high, as in the above photo, it nearly reaches up to where the pillars start to broaden out. Recall for a moment the definition of a vault. A vault is any space covered by arches, or an arched ceiling over a void. This is why the Bank of England ‘vaults’ are called vaults, because in the old vaults of the Bank of England (before the Bank of England was rebuilt in the 1920s/1930s), the gold was stored in the arched vaulted basements. The pillars in the shots of this ‘old’ HSBC vault look like pillars/piles that are the lower parts of arches, since they taper outwards as they go higher and they are positioned in a grid like formation.
You can see how all the pallets of gold were located in a space with quite a lot of walls and chunky support pillars that broaden at the top (i.e. support pillars). Very similar pillars can be seen in old parts of the London Underground pedestrian tunnels, and also in the Vintner’s Hall wine vaults, which is next door to the vaults under Queen Street Place.
The NEW HSBC Vault 2007
During the second half of 2007, a series of 4 photos appeared on the STREETTracks website of a ‘New’ HSBC gold vault in London. The headline title of this series of images was
“The gold in trust at HSBC’s gold vault in London. The gold is being held in Trust for the shareholders of GLD. These images as at June 2007″
This STREETTracks web page can be accessed via the following link, however, the photos don’t render properly.
The MarketWatch website and a GLD SEC submission mentioned the ‘new’ vault move in an article on 11th January 2008:
“…StreetTracks Gold Shares, a wildly popular exchange-traded fund so awash in investor cash that its backers recently scrambled to find a bigger vault to accommodate their ever-growing horde of the precious metal, now valued at $18 billion.”
“Because the StreetTracks reserve expanded faster than expected, its managers had to move the stores to a bigger vault about six months ago to make more room, says George Milling-Stanley, a spokesman for the gold council.”
Graham Tuckwell, Chairman of ETF Securities, also referred to the ‘old’ and ‘new’ vaults at the LBMA Conference in Hong Kong in November 2012. On page 3, section C “Is the Gold Really There?”, Tuckwell shows 2 photos to the audience, one from “10 years ago” and one a recent photo. In the old photo, which is probably this photo
he says “the fellow on the left is a 10-year younger version of me“. He also says: “That was the old vault when we started doing it, and you can see that we are doing a bit of a check“.
Then Tuckwell goes on to say: “This photograph was taken just over a year ago on a recent vault visit“… “Our gold, from the London product, the GBS, is on the left and the gold from the US product, the GLD, is on the right in this picture“. GBS was the Australian product and GLD being the State Street product, listed in November 2004.
As it turns out, there are vaults beneath the road under Queen Street Place, between 10 Queen Street Place (Thames Exchange) and Vintners Place, and these vaults were renovated during the period that would coincide with the HSBC London gold vault transforming from an ‘old’ vault to a ‘new vault’.
Southwark Bridge and The Queen Street Place Vaults
A second bridge, the current Southwark Bridge, replaced the earlier bridge, and it opened in 1921.
A book titled ‘Design Applications of Raft Foundations‘, when discussing the development that became Vintners Place, mentions the vaults under Queen Street Place and shows that the vault space begins maybe 2.0 metres under the roadway, and with the vault space height being about 5 metres high which looks a very similar height to both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ HSBC vault spaces.
In fact, there were up to 17 vaults under Queen Street Place judging by a planning application from 1992 which listed a Vault Q (assuming Vaults A – Q), and the application said that the vaults had been used for storage.
Alterations to Vaults under Queen Street Place
Keeping in mind that the ‘old’ HSBC gold vault became a ‘new’ HSBC gold vault sometime in 2006, or early 2007, then the following, in my view, becomes highly relevant. In September 2004, a building control planning application was submitted to City of London planning department for Alterations to Vaults in the Thames Exchange building at 10 Queen Street Place. See link for the application. See screenshots also.
Following this in November 2005, another building control planning application was received by the City of London planning department for “Fit out of Vaults between 10 Queen Street Place and Vintners Place“. See link below and also screenshots.
Blackstone bought Thames Exchange from Scottish Amicable in 2000 while it was still being leased to HSBC. HSBC then surrendered the lease of the building when it moved to Canary Wharf in 2003. Blackstone then renamed Thames Exchange to 10 Queen Street Place and began renovating it while leasing it to City law firm SJ Berwin for its new London headquarters. However, SJ Berwin only moved its London headquarters from Gray’s Inn Road to 10 Queen Street Place sometime between February and April 2006, so the renovations appear to have gone on during 2003-2005. Norwich Property Trust purchased 10 Queen Street Place from Blackstone in 2006, after it had been renovated. Notably, Norwich retained TFT Consultants to inspect 10 Queen Street Place. TFT Consultants states in a case-study on its website that:
“We inspected this prominent riverside mixed-use building including extensive vaults underneath Southwark Bridge approach road and prepared a TDD report for Norwich Property Trust.”
Property investor Jaguar bought the 10 Queen Street Place building from Norwich in 2008, and then the Malaysian haji pilgrims fund purchased 10 Queen Street Place from Jaguar in September 2012.
Coincidentally, Vintners Place, which adjoins Queen Street Place on the other side of the vaults was also sold in September 2012 when Downtown Properties and a South Korean consortium bought it from Atlas Capital. The tenants at the time included Jefferies International, and Sumitomo and Thomson Reuters. Vintners Place also adjoins Thames House, Five Kings House, and The Worshipful Company of Vintners also has its headquarters in a building called Vintner’s Hall on the corner of Queen Street Place and Upper Thames Street.
And more zoomed in. Notice all of the individual vaults and doors, and all of the walls with rows of pillars marked between the walls.
Compare the above plans to the ‘proposed’ plans. In the proposed plans, which are revision C08 dated 06 April 2006, all of the individual vaults have been removed by removing all the doors and walls, leaving just rows of pillars, and beams (given that it’s a top-down view looking down).
You can see the changes a bit more clearly in the following slightly zoomed in version. Notice the facilities added on the right, such as toilets, kitchen, changing rooms, office, telecoms room etc, and also the rows of supports/ pillars on the left hand side, which is about 7 rows of supports / pillars in the open space, 5 of which run at the same angle, then there is a V shape where the pillars then run at a different angle.
Anyone who has the inclination, given these sets of plans of the vaults under Queen Street Place, please check back over the photos of the ‘old’ HSBC vault and ‘new’ HSBC vault and decide for yourself if the photos in the ‘old’ cramped vault with the pillars and cream wall is reminiscent of the pre-alteration plans above. Likewise, decide for yourself if the ‘new’ HSBC London gold vault with the open plan design and layout of vertical steel support columns looks like the plans above of the ‘proposed’ alterations and ‘Fit Out’ of the vaults under Queen Street Place.
When G4S built its subterranean gold vault in Park Royal, London in 2013 / 2014, it fitted it out the area beside the vault with toilets and a kitchen – See second last sentence in red box below from the G4S building contractor document. Because, if you are working down in a vault all day, there will need to be toilets and a kitchen area, as well as changing rooms, phones and desktop computers etc. For background to G4S vault, see “G4S London Gold Vault 2.0 – ICBC Standard Bank in, Deutsche Bank out“.
The Pisani Files – “This is it folks, this is the Motherlode!”
Now we come to the Bob Pisani videos that were filmed by CNBC in the HSBC London gold vault in 2011. I say videos in plural because there are 4 video segments, and actually 5 segments in total including a trailer. The videos are quite exciting and fast-paced but frustrating because the camera is quite shaky and moves around rapidly for a lot of the vault segments, possibly on purpose. The background music is quite catchy also (at first).
1. The Motherlode
The first video is on a CBNC web page and embedded in an article titled “Gold’s secret hiding place”, however the video is titled “Gold Rush – The Mother Lode”. Its dated Wednesday, 31 Aug 2011 with a byline of “CNBC’s Bob Pisani recently got an exclusive inside look at the HSBC gold vaults in London, where the gold for the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) is stored.” The video is 4:55 mins long, and introduced by Pisani from the New York studio. The vault shots begin at 1:18, and interestnigly, at 0:40 mins, the camera is in a vehicle travelling down Lower Thames Street.
Let’s call this 2nd video “Gold’s Secret Hiding Place”. This version, which is different to the Motherlode, is on YouTube. I’m not sure of the official segment name. This version is 5:06 mins long, and Bob says the vault is “in a super-secret location only known to a few people”. This is also the version where Bob hands in his cellphone and travels in a blacked-out vehicle saying “we have no idea where we’re going. We only know our final destination. The vault!”
There is a neat online app called Pause House which allows you to look at any YourTube clip frame-by-frame, and can be used on the above clip for those who want to get a good look at the vault interior. (Pause House).
3. The Third version
Lets call this the Third version. Its 2:43 mins long. Pisani starts on Waterloo Bridge on the River Thames and he points towards Westminster Bridge (the exact opposite direction to Southwark Bridge). Then he is in the blacked-out vehicle, and then in the vault from 1:04 mins. At this stage the music might be annoying, so luckily, there is no background music when Bob talks in the vault.
4. Inside the Secret Vault
This clip is 2:42 mins long and is dated Thursday, 8 Mar 2012 with a byline of “CNBC’s Bob Pisani gets unprecedented access inside the largest private gold reserve in the world.” Its slightly similar to version 3 above
There is one sentence in both “Motherlode” and “Gold’s Secret Hiding Place” that I consider very interesting. And it relates to the ‘old’ and ‘new’ vaults. What Bob Pisani says has obviously been told to him by someone at HSBC, since he would not know anything about the vault in advance.
At 3:37 mins in Motherlode, Pisani says “In 2005, there was less than 200 tonnes of gold here, now there’s 6 times as much“.
At 4:05 mins in Gold’s secret hiding place, Pisani says “In 2005, there was less than 200 tonnes of gold in this vault backing the GLD. Now there’s 6 times as much.”
Pisani is essentially saying, probably without realising, that it is the same vault. i.e. that the vault in 2005 is the same vault as in 2011. However, given that the vault in 2005 was the ‘old’ vault, and that the vault in 2011 was the ‘new vault’, this suggests that it is the same space, and that the vault space was just renovated. It therefore supports the view that the vaults under Queen Street Place are a very strong candidate to be the HSBC London Gold Vault that stores the GLD gold and the ETF Securities gold.
You might have spotted above that one of the existing vaults under Southwark Bridge was turned into a riverside walkway. This was probably vault Q, which looked to be the vault nearest the river. This walkway runs under the beginning of the abutment on the north of SouthWark Bridge and is called the slightly humorous name ‘Fruiterers Passage’. The Passage was opened circa the year 2000 (and named after the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers), and is ornately tiled with ceramics, even around its pillar enclosures. Take a look at a photo of Fruiterers Passage and compare it to a photo of the new ‘HSBC’ gold vault that features the yellow-painted steel support pillars. The dimensions and spacings of the pillars in both photos look very similar, even identical.
A video walk-through (2:45 mins) of Fruiterers Passage can be seen here. The first 20-30 seconds shows Southwark Bridge, and then the walk through the Passage begins:
Although there are lots of security cameras around the City of London, the cameras in Fruiterers Passage and security warnings near the entrance to the Passage seem particularly explicit.
A MarketWatch article from 11 January 2008 quoted George Milling-Stanley as saying that the vault was sizable but “not quite as big as a cricket pitch.” On another occasion, Milling-Stanley used another sporting analogy and described the ‘new’ vault as “about the size of a football field“. Can a sporting analogy (or two) help determine the size of the HSBC London gold vault? Possibly, but it’s not as clear-cut as you might think.
Notwithstanding that a ‘cricket pitch’ is the (smallish) 22 yard strip between the wickets, the quotation was presumably referring to a ‘cricket field’. However, there is no standard shape of a ‘cricket field’, let alone standardised dimensions, since the ICC rules only state that the field can be circular or oval with a variable diameter of between 450 and 500 feet on the ‘long’ side (sometimes giving 16,000 sq yards). Regarding Milling-Stanley’s ‘football field’, analogy, it’s not clear whether this analogy was intended for a US audience or non-US audience. So it could mean ‘American’ football, or soccer or rugby.
In soccer, there is no standard size ‘field’. The sidelines (touch lines) have to be between 100 and 130 yards (110 to 120 yards for international matches), while the goal lines (end lines) must be between 50 and 100 yards (70 to 80 yards) in international matches. This could result in over 7000 sq meters or over 1.75 acres. The American football field is thankfully standardised, being 120 by 53.33 yards or 6400 sq yards.
Overall, Milling-Stanley’s descriptions give a flavour for permissible dimensions, but based on Bob Pisani’s video tour, I see the vault as a rectangular space but not quite as big as a soccer pitch. So lets look at the space in Google Earth. I’ve just added a yellow rectangle for illustrative purposes to show where the vaults under Queen Street Place are located.
The Marketwatch January 2008 article also said that the HSBC vault was “located on the outskirts of London” but how would the journalist know this since the same article also said that “a spokeswoman for HSBC declined to provide vault details, citing security policies”. As financial journalists mostly repeat what is told to them, I think this “located on the outskirts of London” bone was thrown out as a red-herring, and means the exact opposite.
At its peak holdings in December 2012, the SPDR Gold Trust stored 1353 tonnes of gold. Some observations from looking at the vault space in the Pisani videos and from talking to other people, are that:
a) the HSBC vault looks quite full in 2011, but it still looks like the space would be hard pushed to store the 1200 tonnes of gold that Pisani says were there
b) based on modelling the number of realistic-sized pallets that could conceivably fit into the Queen Street Place vault space (as per the vault plans), it also seems that it would be hard pressed to store 1,200 tonnes, unless they were crammed in. And the pallets in the CNBC segments are not fully crammed in to the space.
Remember also that the 1200 tonnes of gold reference only referred to the SPDR Gold Trust holdings in mid-2011 around the time the CNBC video segment was filmed. See blue line in chart below (chart from www.sharelynx.com) for GLD holdings over its lifetime. HSBC is also the gold custodian for ETF Securities’ gold-backed ETF which held about 170 tonnes at the time of Pisani’s visit. That would be nearly 1,400 tonnes of gold just between the GLD and ETFS holdings, which would be about 228 piles of pallets stacked 6 high crammed in. Furthermore, that’s not even taking into account any gold holdings of other HSBC customers, and Pisani also says in the videos that HSBC confirmed to him that its vault also stores gold for a range of clients.
When GLD held 1353 tonnes in December 2012, this in itself would be 225 piles of pallets, each 6 high. ETFS held about 170 tonnes in December 2012 also, which would be another 28 piles of pallets stacked 6 high. If this location is the famous storage area for the SPDR Gold Trust then possibly during the boom times when GLD holdings peaked, the HSBC vault may not have been big enough to accommodate the GLD gold let any other gold. Which would mean that HSBC was storing GLD gold elsewhere such as at the Bank of England vault, or the JP Morgan vault, both very close to Queen Street Place. It would also mean that GLD sources new gold inflows from gold that is at the Bank of England, i.e. leased central bank gold.
Another point to consider is that if the vaults under Queen Street Place are the correct location for the HSBC vault, then where did the gold that was being stored there in late 2005 / early 2006 go to during the vault alterations? This would have been at least 200 tonnes of gold as of late 2005, rising to over 350 tonnes of gold by late 2006. As the Bank of England is literally up the road from Queen Street Place, moving it to the Bank of England vaults would be the most likely option during the renovation.
In summary, using publicly available information and evidence, I have described where I think the HSBC London gold vault may be located. Whether I am correct is another matter.
“There are seven custodians offering vaulting services in the London bullion market, three of whom are also clearing members of the LBMA (Barclays, HSBC and JP Morgan). There are also four other security carriers, who are also LBMA members (Brinks, G4S Cash Solutions (UK), Malca Amit and Loomis International (UK) Ltd). The Bank of England also offers a custodian service (gold only).”
These 8 custodians are then listed in a pdf document on the LBMA website with their head office addresses, but not the vault addresses. So where are the actual vaults?
“The London-based Malca-Amit vault is conveniently located close to Heathrow airport. The vault is graded at level XII CD EX, the highest European Vault classification and is complemented by the most up to date security systems including the Avigilon CCTV suite with cameras capturing 29 megapixels per frame.
The vault is authorised by the members of the London Clearing Company and has LBMA approval for the weighing and inspecting of precious metals.“
Notice the reference to London Clearing Company. This is a reference to the London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL), a private precious metals clearing consortium comprising HSBC, JP Morgan, Barclays, The Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta, and UBS.
Driving around in Circles?
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) actually featured Malca-Amit’s London vault in a slightly tongue in cheek article by Aelred Connelly titled “Visit to Malca-Amit’s New Vault” which appeared in Issue 68 of the LBMA’s Alchemist magazine in October 2012.
The article begins:
“It was a balmy day when we arrived at Feltham station where we were warmly greeted by our host for the day, Allan Finn, Global Commodities Director for Malca-Amit. Allan told us that the location of the vault was top secret so he deviously drove his car round in circles until we were so disorientated we had no idea where he had taken us.”
And ends with:
“Our tour came to an end. Allan drove his car round in circles again until we were so disorientated that we didn’t know where we had come from. But he made up for it by taking us for a nice lunch on the river at Richmond.
Apart from driving around in circles between Feltham Station and the vault destination, the article also tells us that:
“Malca-Amit became a member of the LBMA in March 2012 and shortly afterwards completed the building of a new vault facility close to Heathrow airport…..
…the new secure storage facility was opened in April 2012 near Heathrow airport.“
So it seems that Malca-Amit was granted Ordinary membership status of the LBMA just prior to its new vault becoming operational. The granting of Ordinary membership was probably a precursor to the Malca-Amit vault being, in the words of Malca-Amit, “authorised by the members of the London Clearing Company ..[with].. LBMA approval for the weighing and inspecting of precious metals.”
The LBMA Alchemist profile goes on to say:
“Built above ground, the Malca-Amit vault is one of a number of new facilities that either have been built or which will be opened shortly within the perimeter of the M25….. Proximity to an airport is an advantage.“
“When we eventually arrived at our destination only the sound of planes overhead gave any indication as to where we were.”
“Before we went in to the building Allan explained that the perimeter fencing can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 50 mph and the internal shutter anti-ram barrier which is located behind the entrance gates can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 30 mph.”
“But the thing that strikes you most is the vault. Allan explained that it is a Chubbsafe grade XII which offers the highest possible level of security and provides capacity for more than 300 metric tonnes of gold and 1,000 tonnes of silver.“
“Gold and silver are not the only precious items in storage: there are also diamonds and other precious stones and jewellery which are kept in storage on behalf of clients.”
Where then could Malca-Amit’s recently opened gold and silver vault be located?
Arena Building, Parkway
It turns out that in a similar manner to G4S when it made a planning application amendment for its new vault building at Abbey Road in Park Royal, Malca-Amit was also not shy of listing its building location on the internet, for it too listed the location of its new vault in a planning application amendment submission dated July 2013.
(0 vehicle(s), 0 trailer(s)) New authorisation at this operating centre will be: 4 vehicle(s), 2 trailer(s)
Which leads us to the questions: what is and where is this Arena Building?
In 2011, the already completed Arena Parkway building, profiled in a glossy brochure, was marketed on a UK commercial real estate website called NovaLoca commercial property finder. This brochure pdf file was created on 14 July 2011. So although Malca-Amit may have “completed the building of a new vault facility” as the LBMA stated, it did not build the building in which the vault is located. The building had already been built prior to 2011.
The ‘Arena’ building is in the ‘Parkway Heathrow M4′ industrial estate off Cranford Lane, in Heston, in the Hounslow area to the north-east of Heathrow airport. Anyone who knows that area around Hounslow will know that the one of the landing routes into Heathrow Airport is a very low approach along a route right above where this building is located.
According to the brochure:
“The Arena provides a modern detached warehouse unit of 23,660 sq ft with a self-contained secure yard and benefits from 24-hour security, an on-site management team and surveillance cameras.”
“The unit is available on a new Full Repairing and Insuring lease basis.”
Additional information in the 2011 brochure includes such facts as:
“NEW DISTRIBUTION/WAREHOUSE UNIT 23,660 sq ft (2,198 sq m)”
Description The Arena is a new high quality warehouse suitable for production, storage, research and development, laboratories and general distribution. It has an impressive reception leading to first floor fully fitted offices. The property is constructed of brick and profile metal composite cladding with double glazed windows fitted with solar shading.
Accommodation The property provides the following approximate gross external floor areas: Warehouse 20,430 sq ft 1,898 sq m FF Offices 3,230 sq ft 300 sq m Total 23,660 sq ft 2,198 sq m
Amenities Warehouse, 8m clear height, Two up and over electric loading doors, 200 kVA 3 Phase power supply, Roof lights to 10% of warehouse floor area, Floor loading of 50Kn/m2
Offices Open plan layout, Full access raised floor, Suspended ceilings with recess lighting, Gas central heating, Double glazed windows, Passenger lift Reception area
Exterior Self-contained property, Large secure yard, Access for articulated lorries Allocated parking
Given that this Arena building was being marketed from July 2011 onwards, and that Malca-Amit began operating the vault facility from April 2012, then it would suggest, as would be expected, that Malca-Amit took possession, and then fitted out the building to its own specific requirements, including the vault, before opening for business in April 2012.
The Arena building is in the London Borough of Hounslow, so it is instructive to examine planning applications made for this building in and around the dates that Malca-Amit took occupancy.
A planning search for TW5 9QA on the Hounslow planning website reveals that plans for this Arena Parkway building were submitted from as early as December 2007, but there seems to have been a long drawn out series of planning applications and amendements made for the construction, the latest being submitted in December 2008 and approved by Hounslow Council in February 2009. Therefore, construction of the building would have commenced sometime after February 2009.
The planning applications for the Arena building, which were submitted by CGNU Life Assurance Ltd / Aviva Investors, summarise the project as follows:
“System Reference: P/2008/3669
Planning Reference: 00315/F/P59(6)
Following approval for demolition of the existing office building and construction of new industrial and warehouse unit with ancillary office accommodation, new entrances off existing access road, car parking, landscaping and roof mounted photo-voltaic panels details submitted pursuant to Condition 6 (waste and recycled materials storage) of permission dated 18/03/08
Name Mr Mark Nevitt CGNU Life Assurance Ltd
Address C/O Aviva Investors No.1 Poultry London EC2R 8EJ
The Arena drawings document submitted with the most recent building application shows a layout in keeping with the size and shape of the structure that was actually built, so it looks like the development was completed in accordance with the last approved set of plans.
Following occupancy by Malca-Amit, the only planning application submitted for the Arena Building since then is application “Planning Reference: 00315/F/P61″ which addressed improved fencing around the site.
“System Reference: P/2013/1670
Planning Reference: 00315/F/P61
Site description THE ARENA PARKWAY TRADING ESTATE CRANFORD LANE HOUNSLOW LONDON TW5 9QA
Date received 31/05/2013
Details: Erection of security fencing and bollards along perimeter of site with sliding gate at yard entrance and rising barrier at car park
Ward: Heston West [note that a ward is a sub-unit of a borough]
“The application seeks to improve the existing security around the site. The existing bollards around the site would be made good to existing low-level shrub planting. The fencing around the part of the site would be a 2.4m high 358 mesh panel fence powder 600 mm high electric fence above. This fencing would be on the north, south and west parts of the site. There would be a 6m cantilevered sliding gate, which would be 2.4m high with serrated top – RAL 9005 (black) finish.
In order to secure parking on site a car park gate has been proposed whichruns off the access road. This would be 3m wide rising barrier which wouldbe 1m high, RAL 9003 (white) finish with contrasting red banding. Therewould be 1m wide exit gate which would be next to the unit.”
The Site Plan and Elevation for the above application put some visuals on the above delegated report text. This fencing is therefore the fencing that Allan Finn of Malca-Amit was referring to when he told the LBMA that the”perimeter fencing can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 50 mph and the internal shutter anti-ram barrier which is located behind the entrance gates can withstand a 7.5-ton vehicle at 30 mph.”
The Edinburgh Assay Office and UKAS
Not only is Malca-Amit located in this Arena Parkway Building, but so is the Edinburgh Assay Office. Although the Edinburgh Assay office has its headquarters in Goldsmiths Hall, Edinburgh, in Scotland, it also operates a laboratory at a Heathrow Sub Office where it is accredited for “Chemical Tests for the purpose of hallmarking”.
This fact is revealed in a series of United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) reports that were posted on the UKAS website in June 2015. On 8 June 2015, UKAS posted a report about the Edinburgh Assay Office on its website titled “The Edinburgh Assay Office Issue No: 010 Issue date: 08 June 2015″. This report lists a ‘Heathrow Sub Office’ for the Edinburgh Assay Office without specifying its address.
However, 4 days earlier on 4 June 2015, UKAS posted a report titled “The Edinburgh Assay Office Issue No: 009 Issue date: 04 June 2015” in which the Heathrow Sub Office was listed with an address of “1st Floor, Arena Parkway, Cranford Lane, Heston, TW5 9QA”.
Although the Issue 010 report from UKAS replaced its Issue 009 version a few days later, the Issue 009 version remained in the Google cache as a Google search result and also as a complete cached document:
Cached version of Issue 009
The commercial logic for the Edinburgh Assay Office having a presence in Malca-Amit’s Arena building seems to be that, in addition to Malca-Amit storing precious metals and precious stones and jewellery in the building, the location is also convenient for the rest of the Heathrow area where precious metals and jewellery are constantly arriving into and departing from. This is the ‘Hallmarking in Transit’ service offered by the Edinburgh Assay Office, offered in conjunction with Malca-Amit, and explained on the Assay Office website here, and also on Malca-Amit’s website here.
This is not the only UK-based assay office to maintain a sub-office in the premises of a secure precious metals transport and secure storage operator near Heathrow Airport. The Goldsmiths Company – Assay Office, which is headquartered in the City of London, also operates a Heathrow Sub Office in “Unit 7, Radius Park, Faggs Road, Feltham, Middlesex, TW14 0NG”. This is listed in a UKAS report “The Goldsmiths’ Company – Assay Office Issue 016 Issue Date 05 August 2014″. This ‘Unit 7 Radius Park’ is a Brinks building and it too contains a vault, but that’s another vault profile for another day.
“ICBC Standard Bank is buying the lease on Deutsche Bank’s London gold and silver vault, enlarging its footprint in the city’s bullion market..”
“ICBC.. has also applied to become a clearing member of the London gold and silver over-the-counter business.“
“The vault became operational in June 2014 and has a capacity of 1,500 tonnes. It was built and is managed by British security services company G4S.“
These moves by ICBC Standard Bank have now put both the G4S vault and LPMCL, (a private company), back in the spotlight.
The Background to the G4S Vault
On 20 March 2012, Deutsche Bank issued a press release announcing that it had contracted security company G4S to construct and manage a precious metals vault on Deutsche’s behalf in London. Critically, this was a substantial long-term partnership between Deutsche Bank and G4S, with G4S doing the actual work of building and then operating the precious metals vault. Deutsche stated at the time in March 2012 that the new vault would be for the exclusive use of Deutsche Bank clients, and that it would available for use by these clients during 2013:
“Deutsche Bank and G4S are pleased to announce that they are to join forcesin establishing a new vault for the storage of precious metals in the UK.”
“The new vault will be built and managed by G4S, the world’s leading international security solutions group, for the exclusive use of Deutsche Bank and its clients and will be an enhancement to Deutsche Bank’s already extensive metal trading and clearing capabilities.”
“‘It will position us well to quickly become a leading metals clearing and custody house,’commented Raymond Key, Global Head of Metals Trading at Deutsche Bank.The vault, which will be constructed and run to industry-leading standards of security, will be available for clients in 2013.“
Likewise, on 20 March 2012,G4S released its own press release in which it revealed that the contract with Deutsche Bank was a 10 year commercial deal and that discussions about building the vault had commenced in 2009:
“Working in partnership with Deutsche Bank, the business has secured a ten year commercial arrangement to establish a state of the art precious metals vault that will be built and managed by G4S, and will enable Deutsche Bank to extend and enhance their metal trading and clearing capabilities.
Discussions started with Deutsche Bank back in 2009 when increased economic volatility started to cause a rise in interest levels among investors for precious metals.”
“James Dinsdale, Managing Director, G4S Cash Solutions, said: ‘We’re delighted to have secured this partnership with Deutsche Bank….. This agreement represents a strategic move in the UK market place for G4S.”
“Clyde & Co has advised global security and logistics company G4S in relation to a project for Deutsche Bank.
G4S will build and manage a gold bullion secure storage vault in the UK for Deutsche Bank.”
What none of the press releases mentioned was that the precious metal vault was being integrated into the basement of a new G4S operating centre in Park Royal, London.
As it turns out, Deutsche did not deliver on its self-publicised deadline for the new vault becoming available to its clients in 2013. However, on 9 June 2014, over 2 years after announcing the London vault project, a much reduced Deutsche Bank London precious metals business that had substantially stepped back from the London Gold Market, confirmed to Reuters that it had finally opened its new London precious metals vault. Note that Reuters is usually the first distribution channel that the London Gold Market PR machine contacts to get its stories out on to the newswires.
“Deutsche’s new vault has been built in partnership with logistics company G4Sand is open to institutional investors, and commercial and central banks.”
“The vault has a capacity of 1,500 tonnes, making it significantly bigger than a 200-tonne storage facility that the bank owns at the Singapore Freeport.“
The period from late 2013 to early 2014 turned out to be a turbulent period for Deutsche Bank’s precious metals operations in London, during which time:
- German financial regulator BaFin began an investigation into the London Gold and Silver Fixings, of which Deutsche Bank was a fixing member (November 2013)
- Deutsche Bank announced that it would withdraw its participation in the London Gold and Silver Fixings and sell the Fixing seats (January 2014)
- Deutsche Bank ceased contributing to the GOFO benchmark and ceased being a LBMA market maker for precious metals forwards (February 2014)
- Deutsche Bank ‘failed to sell’ its gold and silver fixing seats (despite ICBC Standard Bank being interested), and Deutsche then merely resorted to withdrawing from the fixings (April/May 2014)
- Deutsche Bank’s Matthew Keen, who was a director of London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL), London Silver Market Fixing Limited (LSMFL), and London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) resigned from Deutsche Bank, prompting the appointment of other Deutsche representatives to those company directorships (January 2014)
- Deutsche Bank’s representative on the London Bullion Market Association’s (LBMA) management committee, Ronan Donohoe, resigned from the LBMA management committee on 5 March 2014, only 7 months into a 2 year appointment (March 2014)
Given all the above retrenchments affecting its precious metals activities in London, it is slightly odd that Deutsche Bank still went ahead in June 2014 and announced the opening, at least in name, of its London precious metals vault collaboration with G4S. Perhaps it had a contractual obligation with G4S to do so.
But odder still is that less that 5 months after announcing the opening of the new vault, Deutsche Bank then stepped back even further by closing its physical precious metals trading operation in London in November 2014, and then announced in December 2014 that it would actually be interested in selling its London gold vault. This decision is beyond bizarre given the huge level of commitment that Deutsche Bank had made to the development of the vault for at least 4-5 years beginning in 2009.
“Deutsche Bank is open to offers for its London-based gold vault following the closure of its physical precious metals business, three sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday. ‘If the right offer came along, then the bank would sell the London vault,’ one source close to the situation said.
The German bank shut its physical precious metals trading arm last month as it further reduced its exposure to commodity markets.”
“Deutsche declined to comment on the status of its vaulting operation.“
“…it could be difficult for Deutsche Bank to find buyers among its nearest peers. But sources familiar with the matter said a Chinese entity could come forward. ICBC is trying to build a presence in London and the sources said it was a likely candidate. ICBC declined to comment.”
The key question is did this Deutsche Bank vault in London, operated by G4S, ever do any precious metals business in the time between June 2014 and November 2014? If it did, then this activity could not have been substantial.
Deutsche Bank clients holding allocated gold and other precious metals with Deutsche in London would not have been impressed if they were told their holdings were being moved to the new vault in the summer of 2014, only to find out a few months later that Deutsche was looking to exit its involvement with the vault.
While the G4S / Deutsche vault sales process seemed to remain on hold for the entire year of 2015 with no announced activity from either Deutsche bank or ICBC, and no media scrutiny, Deutsche continued to exit the physical gold business in London amid a number of other significant developments. In August 2015, Deutsche departed from the London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) company, leaving HSBC, JP Morgan, Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays, and UBS as the remaining 5 members of the London gold and silver clearing consortium.
“Deutsche Bank is to sever its last link with commodity trading by resigning as a clearing member of the London gold and silver over-the-counter business..” [LPMCL]
It’s a little known fact that London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) (company number 04195299) is a UK private limited company with the same registered address as the London Gold Market Fixing Limited and the London Silver Market Fixing Company Limited. This registered address is C/O Hackwood Secretaries Limited, One Silk Street, London EC2Y 8HQ. Indeed, Hackwood Secretaries Limited is the Company Secretary for LPMCL. Hackwood Secretaries Limited is one of the companies Linklaters uses to offer its company sectretariat services. And Linklaters is one of the better known ‘magic circle’ global law firms that is headquartered in London.
While LPMCL has so far managed to steer clear of US class actions suits concerning precious metals manipulation accusations, its fellow Linklater registered gold and silver fixing companies, London Gold Market Fixing Limited and the London Silver Market Fixing Company Limited, both of which have had a lot of the same directors as LPMCL, have not been so lucky on the class action front, and both companies are now facing live consolidated class action suits in New York courts.
Each member bank of LPMCL usually appoints two directors who are senior staff members of that investment bank. So with 6 investment banks within LPMCL, there are usually 11-12 LPMCL directors, give or take a few people who would invariably be moving bank at any given time.
Deutsche Bank’s two last-serving directors of LPMCL, Raj Kumar and David Mitchell-Innes, actually resigned from LPMCL on 9th February and 1st September 2015, respectively. The February 2015 LPMCL resignation by Kumar seems to have been precipitated by his internal move within Deutsche Bank for a short while to the role of Global COO for Commodities, but then significantly, Kumar left Deutsche Bank in July 2015 to take up a role in ICBC Standard Bank in September 2015 as a managing director in ICBC Standard’s precious metals business, as Reuters reported on 17 September:
“London-based ICBC Standard Bank Plc named Raj Kumar head of its precious metals business development, effective immediately.
Kumar, who will be based in London, joins from Deutsche Bank AG, where he was managing director of precious metals business.”
This Deutsche Bank – ICBC Standard Bank – LPMCL link in the form of Raj Kumar was undoubtedly useful to ICBC Standard in its move to take on Park Royal vault lease from Deutsche Bank, and could help facilitate ICBC Standard’s stance in an application to become a member of LPMCL.
However, the 20 August Reuters report also interestingly stated that Standard Chartered might be interested in becoming a LPMCL member:
“…there is one other bank, Standard Chartered, that could become a gold and silver clearing member in the next few months.”
Could this be a typo by Reuters when it meant to say Standard Bank? Possibly, but most likely not. Standard Chartered is an important bank in the London Gold Market in its role as a LBMA market maker in spot and options for gold and silver which it secured in February 2015. But Standard Bank is not to be confused with Standard Chartered bank. They are two entirely separate banking institutions, albeit with historical connections.
Standard Chartered is headquartered in London, and is well-known for its emerging markets focus, particularly in Asia and Africa. The ‘Standard’ in Standard Chartered in some ways does refer to the South African ‘Standard Bank’, since Standard Chartered was created in 1969 through the merger of Standard Bank of British South Africa and Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. However in 1987, Standard Chartered sold its shareholding in Standard Bank.
In April 2015, Reuters said of Whitehead’s pending departure from Barclays:
“Barclays’ global head of metals and mining sales Martyn Whitehead will leave the bank as part of its restructuring and exit from some parts of its commodities business, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters on Monday.
Whitehead was Barclays’ only representative listed with London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd. Barclays is one of the six banks that organise and co-ordinate bullion clearing and vaulting in London.”
Therefore, could two former directors of LPMCL, namely Raj Kumar and Martyn Whitehead, now be spearheading applications on the part of their respective new employers, ICBC Standard Bank and Standard Chartered, to both join the private club that is London Precious Metals Clearing Limited, and have access to the exorbitant privilege of being part of the London Gold Market’s private gold clearing consortium, and preferential treatment form the Bank of England gold and foreign exchange desk?
China’s largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), has been eager to become a premier player in the London Gold Market for some time now. Although it became an Ordinary Member of the LBMA in 2012, ICBC had stated in 2012 its desire to become a LBMA Market Making Member. ICBC was also interested in buying Deutsche Bank’s seat in the old Gold Fixing in 2014, but strangely this sale never happened. See my BullionStar blog “Chinese Banks as direct participants in the new LBMA Gold and Silver Price auctions? Not so fast!” from March 2015 under section “ICBC and Standard Bank” for more details on this.
ICBC also stated in June 2015 that it wanted to become a direct participant in the LBMA Gold Price auction, but again strangely this has not yet happened despite 2 other Chinese banks, namely Bank of China and China Construction Bank (CCB), eventually being authorised by the LBMA to join up to the LBMA Gold Price auction on 22 June 2015 and 30 October 2015, respectively.
Prior to the controlling interest purchase by ICBC, Standard Bank was no stranger to London Gold Market gold vaulting, and a 2009 report from Abu Dahbi’s “The National” on United Arab Emirates related bullion stated that gold had:
“moved to the vaults of Standard Bank of South Africa, located in the London offices of JPMorgan Chase at 60 Victoria Embankment, Blackfriars, London.”
The ‘vaults of Standard Bank‘ reference just refers to allocated or sub-leased space in the JP Morgan vault in London in the name of Standard Bank of South Africa.
Finally, ICBC also has a strategic interest in the London platinum group metals market through Standard Bank Plc’s existing participation in the London Platinum and Palladium Market especially through the daily platinum and palladium fix auctions, which are now administered by the LME on behalf of the LBMA.
The Park Royal VAULT
As first revealed by Zerohedge in December 2014, the London precious metal vault that was built by G4S on behalf of Deutsche Bank is located at in the Park Royal area of London at 291 Abbey Road, London NW10 7SA.
This Park Royal location was actually telegraphed by G4S itself as early as July 2013 when ‘G4S Cash Solutions’ advertised for “Precious Metals Vault Officers” for the new vault in a job advert on the careers section of its own website, which listed the job location as ‘Park Royal, West London‘. Not really a very security conscious approach for whats purports to be one of the world’s foremost security companies. The job adverts included the following:
“Precious Metals Vault Officers
Location: Park Royal, West London
Number of Positions:16
Closing Date: November 2, 2013
G4S Cash Solutions, in partnership with one of the world’s leading financial institutions, is launching a Precious Metal Vault in West London. The vault which has been created with innovative, state of the art design and technology is at the leading edge of the global bullion storage industry.
We are now recruiting an exceptional team of Precious Metal Vault Officers who will operate and secure our vault in this exciting, new venture.”
“responsible for processing all inbound, outbound and stock management transactions and movements of Precious Metals”
“The operation and use of a Vault Management System together with specialist Precious Metals equipment”
“The conduct of receipting, weighing and stowing of Precious Metals including their physical movement in and around the Vault “
“G4S is the largest secure solutions company in the world…Our Cash Management Solutions business has expertise in cash and valuables transportation, cash processing, ATM and cash centre outsourcing, secure storage and retrieval.”
“Responsible for the management, security and operations of the precious metals vault including security and traceability of all assets entering and leaving the vault.”
“To work closely with internal management on the strategic global growth of our bullion projects; offering product, operational knowledge and LBMA expertise.”
“To train vault officers to ensure they are working within the LBMA / LPPM / LPMCL guidelines…”
A strong working knowledge of LBMA, LPPM and LPMCL codes of practice and proven experience of implementation of these codes
** Proven experience of working within a Precious Metal vault **
Proven experience of working within LBMA, LPPM and LPMCL codes of practice (including weighing of bullion)”
Planning and implementing the conduct of receipting, weighing and stowing of precious metals including their physical movement in and around the vault
Planning for and implementing the conduct of picking, packing and shipping of precious metals including their physical movement in and around the vault
There were also similar job adverts on the G4S website for other positions at Park Royal including “Precious Metals Shift Manager” (Positions: 4, closing date 31 October 2013), and “Secure Driver” (Positions:15, closing date 23 June 2014, “Deliver cash and valuables to various customers in a physically active role“).
Note that the closing date for the Secure Driver applicants was a few weeks after Deutsche Bank had announced on 6 June 2014 that it had opened the gold vault. So if the drivers hadn’t even been hired in June 2014 and probably not in July 2014 either, then there was nothing being moved in or out of the vault at that time, and there was most likely never any Deutsche Bank precious metals moved in or out of the G4S vault, which would also explain why, in December 2014, “Deutsche declined to comment on the status of its vaulting operation”, and would therefore make the vault an extremely bad and money losing investment decision for Deutsche Bank, as well as a bizarre business decision to commit substantially investment to the vault and then walk away from it 2 years later.
From July to August 2013, G4S even tweeted about these Park Royal roles on its Twitter account and stated the locations of the jobs roles and locations, for example, for “Vault Manager – Precious Metals in Park Royal“.
Not only that, but G4S even advertised these precious metals vault positions to the world on Facebook, complete with the specification of the Park Royal location.
Where is Park Royal? Most people in London, if they know Park Royal at all, would recognise the name as a tube station (train station) and as an area of North West London. Park Royal is just off the North Circular Road, in an industrial area, frequently congested with traffic, just down the road from Hanger Lane roundabout, another often traffic gridlocked area. But as the crow flies, Park Royal is not too far from Heathrow Airport, or the M25 ring-road, or Central London.
As well as telegraphing the general Park Royal area where the new vault was to be built, G4S also went further and specified the exact address of the new operating centre in a planning application document available on the web, conveniently pinpointing the vault building location in this large industrial sprawl, chock full of industrial parks and warehouses:
OFFICE OF THE TRAFFIC COMMISSIONER (LONDON AND THE SOUTH EAST OF ENGLAND) APPLICATIONS AND DECISIONS PUBLICATION DATE: 06 March 2014
Page 13 of document: Reference Number OK0229598 SI
G4S CASH SOLUTIONS (UK) LIMITED
Director(s): KEVIN O’CONNOR, Margaret Ann Ryan, Declan Hunt.
SUTTON PARK HOUSE, 15 CARSHALTON ROAD , SUTTON SM1 4LD
New operating centre: PARK ROYAL, 291 ABBEY ROAD LONDON NW10 7SA
New authorisation at this operating centre will be: 45 vehicle(s), 0 trailer(s)
In this case, the planning reference was referencing an increase in the number of vehicles allowed on the site. However, the more interesting planning applications are to be found not in the Office of the Traffic Commissioner, but in the website of Brent Council. These plans give a good overview of some of the details of the basement and vault that ICBC Standard Bank has just taken on the long-term lease for.
Planning applications for 291 Abbey Road NW10 7SA
The Park Royal area, including 291 Abbey RoadNW10 7SA, is under the remit of Brent Council Borough of London. Brent Council planning applications are available on the Brent Council Planning web site. On the Brent Council web site, there are 5 planning application ‘Case Numbers’ for 219 Abbey Road NW10 7SA submitted since 2012. The sequential nature of there being 5 case numbers just means that after the initial application was made, various details of the application were amended, which necessitated the applicant making subsequent submissions to the Council requesting the changes. This allows the amended plans of the G4S development to be compared to the initial plans. Each of the 5 applications have multiple scanned documents uploaded and attached to the applications.
Case Number 12/2112: This is the original planning application
“Erection of new 2-storey storage facility (Use Class B8)”. Use Class B8 means Distribution or Storage. B8 building use is for storage or as a distribution centre. This application was submitted on 9 August 2012, and the application was granted on 9 November 2012.
Pick Everard architectural practice describes itself on its website as “a leading independent, multi-professional consultancy practice working within the property, infrastructure and construction industry.”
Notice that on the diagram, there is a square-shaped basement specified on the floor plans, listed as ‘Basement Storage’, and this basement is specified as 1178 square metres. This 1178 sq mt space is approximately 34 metres * 34 metres. Furthermore, the ground floor level is listed as “Industrial Warehouse”, 1132 sq metres, with “Vehicle Loading Bays” at the rear, and the 2nd Floor level is listed as “Offices”.
“If you wish to store the higher value precious metals then you may find that insurers insist that your vaults are subterranean.”
It appears that these guidelines were specifically written for Deutsche Bank and G4S to follow since they were the only parties submitting a planning application for a new precious metals vault in London at that time, and the dates fit exactly. Case Number 12/2112 also includes an initial site location plan Project Park Royal – Document 120437 A 001 J Site Location Plan showing an overview of the site, with car park at front, building in the middle with truck loading bays at the back of the buildings, and truck parking at the rear of the site.
Case number 12/3371: Some small extra details
Case 12/3371 is just an application containing extra details about construction materials etc and security gates, barriers etc. This application was submitted on 18 December 2012, and granted on 12 February 2013.
Case Number 12/3344: Some small extra details
Case 12/3344 just covers some extra details such as car park spaces at the front of the site, for 32 cars, 30 staff/visitor spaces, and 2 disabled spaces. That application was submitted on December 2012, and granted on 13 February 2013.
Case Number 13/0722: Some important revisions to the Project, including a reduction in the size of the Basement
Case Number 13/0722 is interesting in that it included a reduction in the size of the basement from 1178 sq metres in the original application, to 750 sq metres. This application was submitted on 25 March 2013, and granted on 22 April 2013.
The accompanying Delegated Report specified a “Non-material amendment application to: (a) reduce basement area, and other changes such as (e) alterations to fencing, (f) reduction in number of vehicle loading bay shutters from 6 to 5.
“It is proposed to reduce the size of the basement from 1178sqm (as approved) to 750sqm. This is below ground level and will not have a material impact.”
In the revised floor plan Project Park Royal – Document 120437 A 105 C Typical floor plans and sections, the basement, still listed as ‘Basement Storage’, has been remodelled as a rectangular space and reduced in size to 750 square metres from 1178 sq metres, i.e. a reduction of 428 square metres compared to the original submission. This new 750 sq metre size, as a rectangular area, is roughly 19 metres * 38 metres. See revised floor plans. While a smaller basement does not necessarily mean a smaller vault, the basement size was more than likely reduced specifically because the vault size had been reduced.
If this was the case, then its possible that Deutsche Bank communicated to G4S that the vault size was to be reduced due to gold bullion exiting London for Asia (via Switzerland) in 2012 and especially during early 2013, and a fear that the previous planned size for the vault would be too big for the intended London bullion activity requirements.
The floor plan diagram specifying the reduced basement was actually created on 26 April 2013, which is coincidentally the week following the historic two-day gold price smash that occurred over Friday 13th and Monday 16th April 2013. Said another way, the amended planning application which specified the basement size reduction was submitted 2 weeks before the historic gold price smash of 13-16 April 2013, and the application amendment to the floor plans was granted the week after the historic gold price smash of 13-16 April 2013.
When the Deutsche/G4S vault opened in June 2014, Reuters reported that the vault’s capacity was 1,500 tonnes of gold. It’s not clear if this capacity statistic was the capacity from a larger vault that would have been in the larger basement area, i.e. 1178 sq mtrs, which a source may have supplied to Reuters at an earlier time, or whether it referred to a smaller vault within the smaller and revised 750 sq mtr basement area. For if the vault can now hold 1,500 tonnes of gold within a smaller basement, the original basement, being 57% larger, may have been designed to hold in excess of 2,300 tonnes of gold.
It’s either a fortunate or unfortunate set of timings that Deutsche/G4S applied to reduce the size of one of the largest ever precious metals vaults in London within a few weeks of the gold price being critically injured by huge gold futures contract short trading over the 13-16 April 2013 period. It would be interesting to know who made the decision to reduce the area of the basement, and on what rationale this decision was based.
Again, as to how much precious metal, if any, Deutsche Bank ever processed or held in the Park Royal vault is debatable, since a) the vault was not operational until June 2014 and b) Deutsche Bank was rapidly exiting the London Gold Market at that time. It therefore makes this LinkedIn profile of the person who actually performed the job of Precious Metals Manager at the vault all the more interesting, a role which is stated to have lasted from December 2013 to May 2015, but a profile in which the references to physically related precious metal activities just refer to the job spec bullet points, and the achievements listed predominantly concern the vault and not the contents of the vault.
Likewise, the ‘Bullion Operations Manager‘ at the G4S vault, a vault which was exclusively for Deutsche’s clients, must have seen fallow periods in which no metal passed over the vault’s threshold with the LinkedIn profile predominantly listing job spec bullet points. However, interestingly, the profile refers to ‘Leasing with [a] major financial corporation to ensure compliance to contractual agreements‘, so there were, as would be the case, contractual agreements between Deutsche and G4S. On the Deutsche side, these contractual agreements would raise the question of what penalties, if any, Deutsche Bank incurred in exiting contractual obligations with G4S, and whether Deutsche would have received a get-out exemption by delivering ICBC Standard Bank as the willing recipient of the vault lease.
The planning applications submitted to Brent Council also include a “Method Statement & Logistics Plan” report written by the construction contractor Galliford Try for the project. On its website, Gallilford Try describes its Construction division as “a leading construction company, carrying out building and infrastructure works across the UK.”
Galliford Try’s Method Statement & Logistics Plan report, which is useful as a comparison benchmark to the actual construction that was completed, reckoned that the construction would take 50 weeks to complete, which probably explains why the vault and building was only complete in mid-2014, given that the amended planning application was only granted by Brent Council on 22 April 2013. It still however does not help in explaining why Deutsche Bank initially thought in 2012 that the vault would be ready for its clients to use in 2013.
Crucially, page 4 of the Galliford Try report, in a section titled “Internal Finishes (weeks 27-50)“, sub-section “Basement (weeks 26 -40)“, confirms that “Once the ceiling grid works have been completed the steel / vault doors will be installed“, which proves beyond doubt that the vault is located in the basement of the G4S operating centre. There are also kitchen and toilet areas in the basement as per other London subterranean precious metals vaults.
On page 3, when discussing the basement excavation and basement concrete slab floor, it also states that “Pockets will be formed in the floor for the fitting of the security doors etc“, and that “the lift pits…will be installed.”
From page 2:
From page 3:
From page 4:
The Park Royal site on which G4S built the operating centre and vault was first put on the market in November 2011 by Clay Street Property Consultants. The site occupies 1.89 acres and was sold (presumably to a G4S related company) in April 2012 for £4.5 million:
291 Abbey Road & 2-4 Penny Road, Park Royal , London
Marketed in November 2011 the 1.89 acre site attracted a broad range of interest including institutional investors, property companies, developers and owner occupiers.
Securing 15 bids all at in excess of the asking price the site was sold in April 2012 to an owner occupier for £4,500,000 reflecting a price of £2.38m per acre.
A Google Earth image from July 2013 shows the site with the new development in full flight, and the construction of the basement in progress, and so allows a determination of whether the construction was following the last set of plans approved by Brent Council:
Zooming in on the construction of the basement area from July 2013, the image shows the rectangular darker area where the vault was being positioned, and the lift-pits to the right of the image, one lift shaft at the front, and two towards the rear, which would be adjacent to the truck loading bays. This shape is very much in keeping with the basement size reduction to 750 square metres in the ultimate set of plans approved by Brent Council.
Finally, a Google Earth image from June 2015 shows an aerial view of the completed G4S development.
The hasty exit of Deutsche Bank from the London Gold Market has never been adequately explained by the media. It remains an elephant in the room that the mainstream media does not seem to want to touch. The composition and operating mechanisms of the private LPMCL club is also another elephant in the room that mainstream media journalists have never adequately analysed and are unlikely to do so.
Now that ICBC Standard Bank has taken on the remaining term of the 10 year G4S lease that was vacated by Deutsche Bank, the key questions for ICBC are to what use will the state-controlled Chinese bank put this precious metals vault to, and whether the 5 incumbent LPMCL members will formally (along with the Bank of England informally) give the go-ahead to allow ICBC become a member of the private syndicate that is London Precious Metals Clearing Limited. The other outstanding question is whether Standard Chartered will also be involved in any extension of membership of LPMCL.
Another little appreciated fact is that during the pitches for the replacements to the Gold Fixing and Silver Fixing auctions, most of the exchanges and companies making the pitches, such as, CME, LME, ICE, all offered working solutions that included centralised on-exchange clearing of precious metals for the London Gold and Silver Markets. These solutions were even included in the various presentation materials of CME, ICE and LME, and made it into market presentations and press releases etc, however, the LBMA and its various associated accomplishes such as the LPMCL, pushed back completely on any part of solution that would have encroached on the existing LMPCL clearing mechanism.
The question of why LMPCL was so ‘precious’ that it needed protection from a transparent on-exchange clearing platform is also a question that mainstream financial journalists seem to have entirely missed. I will write a future blog post on LPMCL so as to shed some light on this thoroughly protected private syndicate of bullion bank clearers.
That article highlighted that the amount of gold stored in custody at the Bank of England (BoE) fell by 350 tonnes during the year to 28 February 2015, after also falling by 755 tonnes during the year to end of February 2014. Therefore, by 28 February 2015, there was, according to the BoE’s own statement, £140 billion or 5134.37 tonnes of gold in custody of the BoE, or in other words ~ 410,720 Good Delivery gold bars.
The article also reviewed snapshots of the total amount of gold stored in the London vaults at various recent points in time.
Firstly, a reference on the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) web site for a date sometime before 2013 stated that there had been 9,000 tonnes of gold (i.e. 720,000 Good Delivery bars) stored in London with two-thirds of this amount, or 6,000 tonnes, stored in the Bank of England (about 482,000 bars), and 3,000 tonnes stored in London ex Bank of England vaults (238,000 bars). (Nick Laird of Sharelynx subsequently pointed out to me that the earliest reference to this 9,000 tonne figure was from a LBMA presentation from November 2011.)
Secondly, by early 2014, the LBMA web site stated that there were only 7,500 tonnes of gold in all London vaults, i.e. ~600,000 bars, and of this total, three-quarters or 5,625 tonnes were at in Bank of England, ~ 450,000 bars, and only one-quarter or 1,875 tonnes was stored at LBMA London gold vaults excluding the Bank of England’s gold vaults.
So, the entire London market including the Bank of England had lost 1,500 tonnes (120,000 bars) between 2011 and early 2014, with 375 tonnes less in the BoE and 1,125 tonnes less in the London market outside the BoE.
Finally, on 15 June 2015, the LBMA stated that “There are ~500,000 bars in the London vaults, worth a total of ~US$237 billion”. This ~ 500,000 bars equates to 6,256 tonnes. (On 15th June 2015, the morning LBMA Gold Price was set at $1178.25, which would make $237 billion worth of gold equal to 201.145 million ounces, which is 6,256 tonnes).
Therefore, another ~1,250 tonnes of gold (approximately 100,000 Good Delivery bars) departed from the London gold vaults compared to the early 2014 quotation of 7,500 tonnes of gold in the London vaults.
So overall, between the 9,000 tonnes quotation in 2011, and the 6,256 tonnes 2015 quotation, some 2,750 tonnes (~ 220,000 Good Delivery bars) disappeared from the London gold vaults. With 6,256 tonnes of gold stored in the entire London vault network in 2015, and with 5,134 tonnes of this at the Bank of England, that would leave 1,122 tonnes of gold in London outside the Bank of England vaults.
To reiterate, “the London gold vaults“, in addition to the Bank of England gold vaults, refer to the storage vaults of JP Morgan and HSBC Bank in the City of London, the vaults of Brinks, Malca Amit and Via Mat (Loomis) located near London Heathrow Airport, the vault of G4S in Park Royal, and the Barclays vault managed by Brinks.
Because the Bank of England reveals in its annual report each year the value of gold it has stored in custody for its customers (central banks, international official sector institutions, and LBMA member banks), then it is possible to compare 3 years of gold tonnage figures, namely the years 2011, 2014 and 2015, and then show within each year how much of this gold is stored at the Bank of England, and how much is stored in London but outside the Bank of England vaults.
Nick Laird of www.sharelynx.com / www.goldchartsrus.com has done exactly this in the following sets of fantastic charts which he has created to graphically capture the above London gold trends, and a lot more besides. These charts are just a subset of a suite of inter-related gold charts that Nick has created to address this critical subject in the London Gold Market.
Although the Bank of England is not a LBMA member, the Bank of England gold vaults are a critical part of the LBMA gold vaulting and gold clearing system, and LBMA bullion banks maintain gold accounts with the Bank of England which facilitate, among other things, gold lending and gold swaps transactions with central banks. Hence the above and below charts are titled “LBMA Vaulted Gold in London”.
My “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults” article had also quantified that nearly all of this ~1,122 tonnes consists of gold from physical gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in the London vaults. (previously rounded up to 1,125 tonnes for ease of calculation).
I had included 5 gold ETFs in my previous analysis namely, SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), Shares Gold Trust (IAU), ETF Securities – ETFS Physical Gold ETF (PHAU & PHGP), ETF Securities – Gold Bullion Securities (GBS & GBSS), and Source Physical Gold ETC (P-ETC), and also some smaller holdings at BullionVault and GoldMoney. In total these ETFs and other holdings accounted for just over 1,000 tonnes of gold in the London market.
However, I had missed a few other gold ETFs which also store their gold in the London vaults. Nick Laird, whose Sharelynx website maintains up-to-date gold ETF data and gold holdings, took the initiative to fill in the missing ETF blanks and Nick re-calculated the more comprehensive ETF holdings figures for London, which worked out at an exact 1,116 tonnes of gold, astonishingly close to the implied figure represented by the 1,122 tonnes outside the Bank of England vaults.
The additional gold backed ETFs also included in Nick Laird’s wider catchment were Deutsche Bank db Physical Gold ETC and associated Deutsche ETFs, ABSA gold ETF (of South Africa), Merk Gold ETF, and some smaller holdings from Betashares and Standard Bank. The following chart from Sharelynx shows the full data for physically backed gold ETFs storing their gold in London:
We then discussed an approach, in conjunction with Koos Jansen and Bron Suchecki, to identify known central bank gold stored in the Bank of England vaults by tallying up this storage data on a country level basis. So, for example, assuming 5,134 tonnes of gold stored at the Bank of England in early 2015, the aim would be to try to account for as much of this gold as possible using central bank sources.
As mentioned in the ‘How many gold bars‘ article, the Bank of England stated in 2014 that 72 central banks (including a few official sector financial organisations) held gold accounts with the Bank. It is not known if any of these gold accounts are inactive or whether any of these accounts have zero gold holdings. The LBMA stated in 2011 that “The Bank of England acts as gold custodian for about 100 customers, including central banks and international financial institutions, LBMA members and the UK government”. Therefore there could also be more than 25 LBMA member commercial banks with gold accounts at the Bank of England.
Some of the Bank of England 5,134 tonne total would therefore be gold held in LBMA member bank gold accounts at the Bank of England, for which data is not public. Likewise, a lot of central banks do not reveal where their gold is stored, let alone how much is stored in specific vaults such as at the Bank of England and Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
However, many central banks have more recently begun to provide some information on where they say their official reserve gold is stored. Other central banks have always been to some extent transparent. Overall, a variety of sources, where possible, can be used to source locational data regarding central bank gold storage locations. There will continue to be gaps however, since some central banks remain non-cooperative, even when asked directly about where they stored their gold.
Tallying this type of central bank gold storage data will probably be a work in progress. However, there has to be a cut-off point for doing a first pass through the data, and this is a first pass. As a group, the European central banks have been especially forthcoming with gold storage data, compared to even 3-4 years ago (except for Spain). For other central banks, I looked in various places such as their financial accounts, and I contacted some of them by email with varying degrees of success. About half of the 72 central banks on the Bank of England’s list were identified, again, with varying degrees of accuracy.
The following fantastic chart by Nick Laird captures an overview of this Bank of England gold storage data. Essentially the chart shows that the banks listed hold, or have stated that they hold, the respective quantity listed, and in total the named banks could account for x tonnes gold stored at the bank of England. This is labelled ‘Known Gold‘. Given ‘Known Gold’, this leaves the residual as ‘Unknown Gold‘.
The remainder of this article explains the logic and the sources behind each country, and why that country appears on the list. When a central bank claims to have stored gold at the Bank of England, or the evidence suggests that, it does not necessarily mean that the gold in question is held in custody in a gold set aside account or that it is allocated in identifiable bars, or even that it is actually there. Many central banks engage in gold lending, or have done so in the last 15-20 years, and have at times, or permanently, transferred control of that gold to LBMA bullion banks.
Until all central banks come clean about what form their gold holdings are in, which will never happen, then the amount of central bank gold that’s encumbered by bullion banks or under claims, liens, loan agreements etc will not be apparent.
Germany holds 3,384 tonnes of gold, and 12.9%, or 438 tonnes are stored at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank’s ongoing repatriation of gold from New York and Paris does not alter the amount of Bundesbank gold held at the Bank of England.
“Most of Danmarks Nationalbank’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, where it has been since it was moved for safety reasons during the Cold War. In March 2014, Danmarks Nationalbank inspected its stock of gold in the Bank of England.”
Therefore, the assumption here is that 62.7 tonnes of Danish gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Note the Danmarks Nationalbank’s assertion that in order for gold to be lent it has to be moved to the London, since London is the centre of the gold lending market.
In 1999 “Almost 99 per cent, or 93 per cent of the Nationalbank’s total gold stock, had been lent.” The same 1999 Danish central bank article also said that:
I have underlined the above sentence since it’s of critical importance to understanding that in gold lending, central bank gold lent to LBMA bullion banks at the Bank of England does not necessarily move out of the Bank of England vaults. Lent gold may or may not move out the door, depending on what the borrower plans to do with the borrowed gold.
It also means that the total gold in custody figure that the Bank of England reveals each year (for example £140 billion in February 2015), consists of:
a) central bank gold stored at the Bank of England
b) bullion bank gold stored at the Bank of England
c) central bank gold that has been lent or swapped with bullion banks (gold deposits and gold swaps) and that has not been moved out of the Bank of England vaults. This category of gold is still in custody at the Bank of England. The central bank claims to still own it, the bullion bank has control over it, and the Bank of England still counts it as being in its custody.
The Netherlands holds 612.5 tonnes of gold, and 18%, or 110 tonnes are stored at the Bank of England.
Notice that the UK gold reserves includes holdings of gold coin, as well as gold bars.
Ireland hold 6 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, a small amount of which is in the form of gold coins, but nearly all of which is in the form of gold bars stored at the Bank of England.
Recently, I submitted a Freedom of information (FOI) request to the Central Bank of Ireland requesting information such as a weight list of Ireland’s gold stored at the Bank of England. After the FOI request was refused and the Central Bank of Ireland claimed there was no weight list, I appealed the refusal and was provided with a SWIFT ‘account statement’ from 2010 that the Bank of England had provided to the Central Bank of Ireland. See below:
This statement shows that as of 31 December 2010, the Central Bank of Ireland held 453 gold bars at the Bank of England with a total fine ounce content of 182,555.914 ounces, which equates to an average gold content of 402.993 fine ounces per bar. It also equates to 5.678 tonnes, which rounded up is 5.7 tonnes of gold stored at the Bank of England.
The fact that no weight list could be tracked down is highly suspicious, as is the fact that Ireland had in earlier years engaged in gold lending, so did not, at various times in the 2000s have all of its gold allocated in the Bank of England. How a central bank can claim to hold gold bars but at the same time cannot request a weight list of those same bars is illogical and suggests there is a lot more that the Central Bank of Ireland will not reveal.
Belgium holds 227 tonnes of gold, most of which is stored at the Bank of England with smaller amounts held with the Bank of Canada and with the Bank for International Settlements. Banque Nationale de Belgique (aka Nationale Bank van België (NBB)) does not publish an exact breakdown of the percentage stored at each location, however, in March 2013 in the Belgian Parliament, the deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance gave the following response in answer to a question about the Belgian gold reserves:
“Most of the gold reserves of the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) is indeed held with the Bank of England. A much smaller amount held with the Bank of Canada and the Bank for International Settlements. A very limited amount stored in the National Bank of Belgium.”
Furthermore, there were a series of reports in late 2014 and early 2015 that would suggest that Belgium stores 200 tonnes of its gold at the Bank of England. Firstly, in December 2014, VTM-nieuws in Belgium reported that the NBB governor Luc Coene had said that the NBB was investigating repatriating all of its gold. See Koos Jansen article here.
On 4 February 2015, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad said that Belgium would repatriate 200 tonnes of gold from the Bank of England, but the next day on 5 February 2015, another Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported that NBB Luc Coene denied the repatriation report, and quoted him as saying:
“There are other and more effective ways to verify if the gold in London is really ours. We have an audit committee that inspects the Belgian gold in the UK regularly”.
Therefore, the assumption here, backed up by evidence, is that Belgium stores 200 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Australia holds approximately 80 tonnes of gold in its official reserves, with 1 tonne on loan, and 99.9% of gold holdings stored at the Bank of England. See 2014 annual report, page 33. According to a weight list of its gold held at the Bank of England, released via an FOIA request in 2014, Australia stores approximately 78.8 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
South Korea (Bank of Korea) holds 104.4 tonnes of gold, 100% of which, or 104.4 tonnes is stored at the Bank of England. The Bank confirmed this to me in an emailon 11 September 2015. See email here ->
International Monetary Fund
The IMF currently claims to hold 2,814 tonnes of gold after apparently selling 403.3 tonnes over 2009 and 2010 (222 tonnes in ‘off-market transactions and 181.3 tonnes in ‘on-market transactions’). Prior to 2009, IMF gold holdings had been 3,217 tonnes, and had been essentially static at this figure since 1980 [In 1999 IMF undertook some accounting related gold sale transactions which where merely sale and buyback bookkeeping transactions].
Although the IMF no longer provide a breakdown of how much of its gold is stored in each location where it stores gold, the amount of gold held by the IMF at the Bank of England can be calculated by retracing IMF transactions from a time when the IMF did provide such details. In January 1976, the IMF held 898 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England in London, 3,341 tonnes at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 389 tonnes at the Banque de France in Paris, and 144 tonnes at the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, India. Therefore, of the IMF’s total 4,772 tonnes holdings at that time, 70% was stored in New York, 19% in London, 8% in Paris and 3% in India. See here and here.
In the late 1970s, the IMF sold 50 million ounces of gold via two methods, namely, 25 million ounces by ‘public’ auctions, and 25 million ounces by distributions to member countries.
In the four-year period between mid-1976 and mid-1980, the IMF sold 25 million ounces of gold to the commercial sector via 45 auctions. Thirty five of these auctions delivered gold at the FRBNY, 7 of these auctions delivered gold at the Bank of England, and 3 of the auctions delivered gold at the Banque de France.
Of the 7 auctions that delivered the IMF’s gold at the Bank of England, these auctions in total delivered 3.74 million ounces [Dec-76: 780,000 ozs, Aug-77: 525,000 ozs, Nov-77: 525,000 ozs, May-78: 525,000 ozs, Oct-78: 470,000 ozs, Mar-79: 470,000, and Dec 79:444,000 ozs], which is 116 tonnes. See IMF annual report 1980.
The IMF also sold 25 million ozs of gold to its member countries within four tranches over the 3 year period from January 1977 to early 1980. These sales, which were also called gold ‘distributions’ or ‘restitutions’ and covered between 112 and 127 member countries across the tranches, were initially quite complicated in the way they were structured since they involved IMF rules around quotas which necessitated the gold being transferred to creditor countries of the IMF and then transferred to the purchasing countries. In the later sales in 1979 and 1980 countries could purchase directly from the IMF.
Countries could choose where to receive their purchased gold, i.e. London, New York, Paris or Nagpur, however, the US, UK, France and India, which had the largest IMF quotas and hence the largest gold distributions, all had to receive their gold at the respective IMF depository in their own country. I don’t have the distribution figures to hand at the moment for the 25 million ozs sold to countries, but about 18 countries took delivery from the Banque de France in Paris, with the rest choosing delivery from New York and London.
Therefore an assumption is needed on the amount of gold the IMF ‘distributed’ to member countries from its Bank of England holdings between 1977 and 1980. Of the 25 million ounces distributed, the US received 5.734 million ozs, the UK received 2.396 million ozs (75 tonnes), France received 1.284 million ozs, and India received 805,000 ozs. Subtracting all of these from 25 million ozs leaves 14.78 million ozs which was distributed to the other ~120 countries. Since the IMF held 70% of its holdings at the FRBNY in 1976, 19% at the Bank of England and 8% at the Banque de France, apportioning these three weights to the remaining 14.78 million ozs would result in 10.76 million ozs (332 tonnes) being sold from the FRBNY, 2.867 million ozs (89 tonnes) from the Bank of England and 1.24 million ozs (38.5 tonnes) from the Banque de France.
Adding this 89 tonnes to the 75 tonnes received by the UK would be 164 tonnes distributed from the Bank of England IMF gold holdings. Add to this the 116 tonnes of London stored IMF gold sold in the auctions equals 280 tonnes. Subtracting this 280 tonnes from the IMF’s London holdings of 898 tonnes in January 1976 leaves 618 tonnes.
In 2009 the IMF said that it had sold 200 tonnes of gold to India, 2 tonnes to Mauritius, 10 tonnes to Sri Lanka,and then 10 tonnes to Bangladesh in 2010. The Bangladesh figures reflect its 10 tonne purchase. However, at the moment, there has been no exact confirmation that the 200 tonnes that India bought is in London. It probably is in London, but leaving this amount under the IMF holdings instead of in India’s holdings makes no difference. Subtracting the Bangladesh sale of 10 tonnes, and rounding down slightly, there are 600 tonnes of IMF gold (excluding the 2009 India 200 tonnes sale) storedat the Bank of England.
The IMF sales of gold to Sri Lanka and Mauritius in 2009 of a combined total of 12 tonnes probably came out of the IMF’s London holdings also. The IMF’s sale of 181.3 tonnes of gold in 2010 via ‘on-market transactions’ may also have come out of the IMF’s London stored gold. These ‘on-market transactions” look to have used the BIS as pricing agent, and the IMF have gone to great lengths to hide the full details of these sales from public view. More about that in a future article.
The Reserve Bank of India holds 557.75 tonnes of gold. Of this total, a combined 265.49 tonnes are stored (outside India) at the Bank of England and with the Bank for International Settlements. In 2009 India purchased 200 tonnes of gold from the IMF via an ‘off-market transaction‘. A slide from this presentation sums up this information.
The questions then are, is the 200 tonne purchase from the IMF stored at the Bank of England, and how much of the earlier 65.49 tonnes is stored at the Bank of England.
A 2013 article in the Indian Business Standard which was reprinted from “Reserve Bank of India history series. Volume 4, 1981-1997, Part A”, explains that in 1991, the Reserve Bank of India entered 2 separate gold loan deals, one deal with UBS in Switzerland (which required 18.36 tonnes of RBI gold to be sent to Switzerland) and the other deal with the Bank of England and Bank of Japan (where 46.91 tonnes was required to be sent to the Bank of England). Together those 2 transactions equals 65.27 tonnes which is 0.222 tonnes short of the 65.49 total.
After the gold loan deals expired, it looks like 18.36 tonnes of Indian gold were left in Switzerland and transferred to safekeeping or deposit with the BIS, and 46.91 tonnes of Indian gold was left at the Bank of England.
Regarding India’s purchase of 200 tonnes of gold in 2009, the IMF only has gold 4 depositories, namely, the Bank of England, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Banque de France, and the Reserve Bank of India in Nagpur, India. Given that the Indian gold stored abroad is “with the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements“, then for the 200 tonnes of IMF gold to end up being classified as ‘with’ the BIS, it would have to have either been transferred internally at one of the IMF depositories to aBIS account, or transferred via a location swap or a physical shipment to a BIS gold account at the vaults of the Swiss National Bank in Berne.
For now, the 200 tonnes of gold sold by the IMF to India in 2009 is reflected in the IMF holdings and not the India holdings. It does not make a difference to the calculations, since the 200 tonnes is still at the Bank of England.
Bulgaria has 40.1 tonnes of official gold reserves. The latest BNB annual report states that 513,000 ozs are in standard gold form, and 775,000 ozs are in gold deposits.
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), headquartered in Basle, Switzerland does not have run any gold vaults of its own. However, the BIS is a big player in the global central bank gold market, and it offers its central bank clientele gold safekeeping (and settlement) services using central bank vaults in London, New York and Berne. These services are possible because the BIS maintains gold accounts at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Swiss National Bank in Berne. BIS gold accounts can act like omnibus accounts in that many central banks can hold gold in sub-accounts under a BIS gold account at each of these institutions in London, New York and Berne.
Gold can then be transferred around locations using gold swaps where one of the counterparties to the gold swap is the BIS.
The BIS is involved with gold in 3 main categories.
a) the BIS holds gold in custody for customers, off of the BIS balance sheet
b) the BIS has its own gold holdings which are classified as its gold investment portfolio, and which are on its balance sheet
c) the BIS accepts gold deposits from central banks. These gold deposits appear as a liability on the BIS balance sheet. Then the BIS turns around and places these gold liabilities in the market under its own name. These placing are also in the form of gold deposits and gold loans with other institutions including commercial banks. These ‘assets’ are then classified on the BIS balance sheet as BIS’ “gold banking” assets.
a) In its latest annual report, as of the end of March 2015, the BIS stated that it holds 443 tonnes of gold under earmark for its central bank customers on a custody basis. This gold is not on the BIS balance sheet. i.e. it is ‘off-balance sheet’ gold held by the BIS.
b) The BIS also holds 108 tonnes of its own gold (on balance sheet within an investment portfolio). This BIS gold is either kept in custody or transferred to bullion banks as gold deposits. The BIS does not provide granular data in its annual report as to how much of its own gold is ever put into gold deposits.
c) As of 31 March 2015, the BIS had 510 tonnes of gold assets on its balance sheet. Of this total, 108 tonnes was the BIS’ own gold, leaving 403 tonnes as banking assets (i.e. customer gold . Of this same 510 tonnes total, 55 tonnes were classified as gold loans, so 457 tonnes were not gold loans. If all 55 tonnes of gold loans were from customer gold, this would leave 348 tonnes of customer backed gold banking assets. On the same date (31 March 2015), the BIS held 356 tonnes of gold deposits from customers (sight deposits and short-term deposits) on the liability side of its balance sheet which originate entirely from central banks depositing gold with the BIS in sight and term deposits.
The question then is how to reflect BIS gold storage holdings at the Bank of England. While most if not all gold deposit transactions between central banks/BIS and bullion banks take place in London, the data is not readily published.
It was therefore decided, in the spirit of being conservative, to make an assumption on the BIS gold, and only use BIS customer custody gold and BIS own gold as inputs, and because BIS has gold accounts with 3 vaults (London, NY and Berne), to then just divide by 3 and say that one-third of BIS own gold and one-third of BIS ‘central bank custody gold’ is in London This would be 183.66 tonnes, i.e. (108+443)/3.
Therefore, this model states that 183.66 tonnes of BIS gold is stored in the Bank of England. This is probably being very conservative, especially given that no on-balance gold deposited by BIS customers is reflected in this figure.
In September 2010, the IMF sold 10 tonnes of gold to Bangladesh Bank, bringing total gold holdings up from 3.5 tonnes to 13.5 tonnes. The fact that this gold is stored at the Bank of England shows that the IMF sold this gold from its holdings that were stored at the Bank of England. (Note, Bangladesh has recently added some small amounts of domestic confiscated gold to its reserves).
Mexico’s central bank, Banco de Mexico (Banxico) currently hold 122.1 tonnes of gold. At the end of 2012, Mexican official gold reserves totalled 4,034,802 ounces (125 tonnes), of which only 194,539 ounces (6 tonnes) was in Mexico, and 119 tonnes abroad.
With Banxico now holding 122 tonnes according to the World Gold Council, and not 125 tonnes, the assumption is that the 3 tonne reduction came from domestic holdings.
Poland holds 102.9 tonnes of gold in its reserves. Poland’s central bank (Narodowi Bank Polski (NBP)) published a guide to Poland’s gold in 2014 in which it confirmed that nearly all of its gold is at the Bank of England. See pages 86-90 of the guide.
“How much gold did Poland possess before 1998? Approximately 746,463 ounces, of which almost 721 thousand was invested in deposits in commercial banks. In turn, the gold kept in the country was mainly coins, gold bars and various types of gold “scrap” bought by NBP.” (page 86)
Before 1998, only 25,463 ozs of NBP gold was kept in Poland, and 721,000 ozs (22.43 tonnes) was deposited with bullion banks. Poland then bought 80 tonnes of gold in 1998, bringing its gold reserves up to nearly 103 tonnes. The purchase was done as follows:
“…we used the services of a bank which constantly carries out similar transactions. Next, we made a location swap and the whole of NBP’s foreign gold reserves were deposited onto our account in the Bank of England.” (page 88)
It is likely that the NBP is referring to the BIS as the bank which purchased the gold on behalf of Poland, and then transferred it from one of the BIS gold accounts at the Bank of England to the NBP gold account at the Bank of England.
So that is 102.9 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Note also that, the Polish central bank explains that “It can be assumed that the gold that has been placed on the market at any time is precisely the gold that is held by the central banks in London“. In other words, central banks that have places gold on deposit (lent it) have done so with gold that they have stored in the Bank of England. See the following screenshot:
Note 6.1 on page 136 of the 2013 NBP annual report states:
“Gold and gold receivables The item comprises gold stored at NBP and deposited in a foreign bank account. As at 31 December 2013, NBP held 3,308.9 thousand ounces of gold (102.9 tonnes).”
This statement about the “gold stored at NBP and deposited in a foreign bank account” has been in a few of the recent NBP annual reports. In April 2013, before the NBP had published the guide to its gold, I asked the NBP by email, based on the statement, to clarify if the gold held abroad is held in custody, for example at the Bank of England or FRBNY or held in time deposits with commercial banks?”
The NBP responded: “Narodowy Bank Polski does not make gold time deposits with commercial banks”.
This may be true if the NBP is using sight deposits, but the 2013 answer, like so many other central banks currently, avoided providing any real information to the question.
Given that nearly all NBP’s 102.9 tonnes of gold was in the Bank of England when the 80 tonnes purchase was made in 1998, the assumption here is that still is the case, and that for simplicity, 100 tonnes of Poland’s gold is at the Bank of England.
Romania has 103.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves.
In percentage terms, as at 31 December 2014, 27% of Romania’s gold was in ‘standard form’ which presumably means Good Delivery Bars (400 oz bars), 14% in gold coins, and 59% in ‘Deposits’ abroad. (59% of 103.7 tonnes is 61.2 tonnes)
Note the gold deposits with Bank of Nova Scotia and Fortis Bank Bruxelles in 2005 and additionally with the same two banks and with Barclays and Morgan Stanley NY in 2004.
Since the percentage breakdownbetween Romania’s bullionbankdeposits (59%), standardbars (27%) and coins (14%) hasn’t varied much since 2005, and was at a similar mix over various years that I checked such as 2011 and 2014, the conclusion is that Romania has had more than 50% of its gold on constant deposit since at least 2004 (i.e. the original allocated gold is long gone).
The 2005 annual report also states that there were 61 tonnes of Romanian gold stored at the Bank of England. Since Romania had just under 105 tonnes of gold in 2005, this 61 tonnes was referring to the gold deposits, which central banks, as illustrated in numerous other examples, continue to count as their gold even though it has been lent to bullion banks.
Romania therefore had or has 61 tonnes of gold stored at the bank of England.
Note also the reference to central vault, which probably refers to a vault in Bucharest.
The Philippines hold 225 tonnes of gold in its official reserves. In November 2000, when the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) held 225 tonnes of gold, it explained in a press release titled ‘Shipment of Gold Reserves‘ that it ended up storing 95% of its gold at the Bank of England due to the use of location swaps with a counterparty (probably the BIS) that took delivery of BSP gold, and transferred gold to the BSP account at the Bank of England.
Since 2000, the BSP gold reserves have risen, fallen, and risen again and now total 195 tonnes. Assuming the ‘95% of its gold’ storage arrangement is still in place, then the Philippines has 95% of 195 tonnes, or 185 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Greece claims to hold 112.6 tonnes of gold. In 2013, the Greek finance ministry on behalf of the Greek central bank stated that half of Greece’s gold reserves were ‘under custody’ of the Bank of Greece, and the other half was ‘under custody’ of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), the Bank of England and (very vaguely) Switzerland. Who actually controls Greece’s gold reserves at this point in time is anybody’s guess.
Given that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was listed by the Greek MinFin as a foreign gold storage location ahead of the Bank of England, the assumption here is that of the 50% of Greece’s gold held abroad, the FRBNY holds more of this portion than the Bank of England. And so the assumption is that the Bank of England holds 40% of the foreign half, i.e. 20% of the total of Greece’s gold, with the FRBNY holding 50% of the foreign half. Taking 112 tonnes of gold as Greece’s total gold holding, 40% of this is 22.4 tonnes stored at the Bank of England. (Note, Greek gold reserves keep increasing incrementally each month by small amounts. As I am not sure what these increases relates to, a recent rounded figure of 112 tonnes has been chosen).
The Banca d’Italia holds 2.451.8 tonnes of gold. Although in 2014, the Banca d’Italia released a document in which it confirmed that some of this gold is held at the Bank of England, there is no evidence to suggest that Italy’s gold in London amounts to more than a few tonnes left over from 1960s transactions.
Bank of England gold set-aside ledgers show that in 1969 there were less than 1000 ‘Good Delivery’ gold bars in the Banca d’Italia gold account at the Bank of England, weighing less than 400,000 ozs in total. This is equal to about 12 tonnes. Most of the Italian gold at the Bank of England was flown back to Rome (and Milan) in the 1960s.
Since there is no public documentation that Banca d’Italia has ever engaged in gold lending (as far as I am aware), then there would be no need for Italy to keep a lot of gold at the Bank of England. Nearly all of Italy’s foreign held gold (over 1,200 tonnes) looks to be in New York (assuming it hasn’t been swapped or used as loan collateral). Italy could have engaged in non-public gold transactions from the Bank of England using gold location swaps from the FRBNY, or from Rome, but there is no evidence of this.
So, this model assumes 12 tonnes of Italian gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Brazil hold 67.2 tonnes of gold reserves. In 2012, Banco Central do Brasil told me by email that all of its gold reserves were in the form of ‘fixed term gold deposits at commercial banks only’. Since the gold would be required to be stored at the Bank of England for these gold deposit transactions to take place, Brazil therefore holds 67.2 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England. See email below:
Banco Central del Ecuador conducted a 3 year gold swap with Goldman Sachs in June 2014 where it swapped 466,000 ozs for US dollar cash This swapped amount of gold has been factored into the World Gold Council data for Ecuador, and the Ecuadorian reserves dropped by 14.5 tonnes in Q2 2014. from 23.28 tonnes to 11.78 tonnes. This swapped amount of 14.5 tonnes is most probably stored at the Bank of England, since Goldman Sachs proposed a similar deal with Venezuela in 2014 where the gold was required to be at the Bank of England for the swap to be initiated.
Bolivia Central de Bolivia holds 42.5 tonnes of gold, all of which is permanently on deposit with bullion banks. The Bolivian Central Bank is very transparent in explaining where its gold is ‘invested’. Hence, it has (until recently) even provided in its financial accounts, the names of the bullion banks which happened to hold its ‘gold deposits’ and the amounts held by each bank.
A recent Banco Central de Bolivia report for 2014 is less revealing and only shows the country distribution of the gold deposits, with 39% in the UK and the rest in France. While this probably refers to the headquarters of the actual bullion banks in question, i.e. Natixis is French etc, it could mean the gold is being attributed to the Bank of England and the Banque de France, so, a conservative approach here is to attribute 39% of 42.5 tonnes to the Bank of England, i.e. 16.6 tonnes stored at the Bank of England.
Peru holds 34.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves.
At the end of December 2013, Banco Central de Reserva del Peru held 552,191 ounces (17 tonnes) of gold coins which were stored in the Bank’s own vault, and 562,651 troy ounces of “good delivery” gold bars (17.5 tonnes) which were stored in banks abroad, of which 249,702 ounces were in custody and 312,949 ounces in the form of short-term interest bearing deposits. See 2013 annual report.
Since the gold bars are all ‘good delivery’ bars (which is not the case at the FRBNY), and since Peru has still recently been engaging in gold lending, then the evidence suggests that 17.5 tonnes of Peru’s gold is stored at the Bank of England.
Latvia hold 6.62 tonnes of gold in its official reserves after joining the Euro on 1 January 2014 and after transferring just over 1 tonne of gold to the European Central Bank (ECB). All of Latvia’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, therefore Latvia stores 6.62 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Before this transfer of gold to the ECB, Latvia had 248,706 ozs of gold, and it transferred 35,322 ozs to ECB, leaving 213,384 ozs.
The ECB holds 504.8 tonnes of gold. This gold was transferred by the Euro members to the ECB at the launch of the Euro by 1 January 1999. All the ECB gold is de-centrally managed, meaning that it stays where it was when transferred and is still locally ‘managed’ by the bank which transferred that gold to the ECB. Some banks may have transferred gold stored at FRBNY in fulfillment of their requirement, some banks may have transferred gold at the BoE, and countries such as France and Italy may have transferred amounts which are still stored at Banque de France and Banca d’Italia etc. Some of the ECB gold, such as the smaller amount transferred by Latvia, is in the Bank of England. Other amounts of the ECB’s gold are most certainly also at the Bank of England in London.
It would be a separate project to track these transfers. The 1 tonne of Latvian gold transferred to the ECB at the start o 2014 was included in the figures here just as a placeholder, so as to acknowledge that ECB gold is at the Bank of England. Given that the Euro is a competing currency to the US Dollar, the ECB may have more gold than not stored in Europe and not at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, since ECB gold would logically be safer not stored in the main Reserve Bank of a competing currency bloc.
In its 2014 annual report, the Bank of Iceland said that “The Bank resumed lending gold for investment purposes in June 2014“, and “The Bank loaned gold to foreign financial institutions during the year”.
The Bank of Iceland lent 99.7% of its gold during 2014 because this is the percentage of the gold reserves which are not payable on demand, but are payable in less than 3 months. See below screenshot.
For the purposes of this exercise, Iceland stores 2 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England.
Ghana’s central bank, the Bank of Ghana, holds 8.7 tonnes of gold in its official reserves (precisely 280,872.439 ozs). Of this total, 39.3%, or 3.42 tonnes is held at the Bank of England, with 27.5% at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and 29.5% with investment bank UBS. See 2014 annual report.
Interestingly, Ghana refers to its gold account at the Bank of England as a ‘gold set aside’ account, which is the correct name for a Bank of England gold custody account of allocated gold. Probably more interestingly is that most central banks do not use this ‘set aside’ term.
A number of central banks refuse to confirm the location of their gold reserves. I will document this in a future posting. Some of the large holders undoubtedly hold quite a lot of gold at the Bank of England, as do a number of smaller holders. Countries that could fit into this category include Spain, France, Colombia, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Pakistan, Egypt, Slovenia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa. In fact any central bank which has engaged in gold lending is a candidate for having some of its gold stored at the Bank of England.
Spanish people take note. Spain refused to say where its 281.6 tonnes of gold is stored, and Banco de España has the dubious record of being Europe’s least transparent bank as regards gold reserves storage locations. Maybe a project for Spanish journalists.
Banque de France keeps 9% of its 2,435 tonnes of gold reserves abroad, and has in the past engaged in gold lending. So this 9%, or 219 tonnes, is probably stored at the Bank of England.
The ECB and BIS no doubt have more gold stored at the Bank of England than the figures currently reflect. This would also increase the ‘known gold’ total. Egypt is another country which has had a gold set aside account at the Bank of England so is in my view an obvious candidate for the list.
Adding to the known total is therefore a work in progress.
It’s now been 6 months since the LBMA Gold Price auction, the much touted replacement to the London Gold Fixings, was launched on an ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) platform on Friday 20 March 2015.
For anyone not au fait with the gold price auction, the LBMA Gold Price is a twice daily auction that produces the world’s most widely used gold price benchmark, which is then used as a daily pricing source in gold markets and gold products across the globe.
The 6 month anniversary of the LBMA Gold Price’s launch thus provides an opportune time to revisit a few unresolved and little-noticed aspects of this recently launched auction a.k.a. global benchmark.
Manipulative Behaviour and the FCA
From 1 April 2015, the LBMA Gold Price also became a ‘Regulated Benchmark’ of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) along with 6 other systemically important pricing benchmarks, namely, the LBMA Silver Price, ISDAFix, ICE Brent, WM/Reuters fx, Sonia, and Ronia. These 7 benchmarks join the infamously manipulated LIBOR in now being ‘Regulated Benchmarks’.
Manipulating or attempting to manipulate prices in a Regulated Benchmark is now a criminal offence under the Financial Services Act 2012.
The specifics are set out in Chapter 8 of the FCA’s Market Conduct sourcebook (“MAR”), with the details on ‘identifying potentially manipulative behaviour’ covered in MAR 8.3.6 which says that a benchmark administrator must:
“identify breaches of its practice standards and conduct that may involve manipulation, or attempted manipulation, of the specified benchmark it administers and provide to the oversight committee of the specified benchmark timely updates of suspected breaches of practice standards and attempted manipulation“
“notify the FCA and provide all relevant information where it suspects that, in relation to the specified benchmark it administers, there has been:
(a) a material breach of the benchmark administrator’s practice standards
(b) conduct that may involve manipulation or attempted manipulation of the specified benchmark it administers; or
(c) collusion to manipulate or to attempt to manipulate the specified benchmark it administers.”
and furthermore that the arrangements and procedures referred to above:
“should include (but not be limited to):
(1) carrying out statistical analysis of benchmark submissions, using other relevant market data in order to identify irregularities in benchmark submissions; and
(2) an effective whistle-blowing procedure which allows any person on an anonymous basis to alert the benchmark administrator of conduct that may involve manipulation, or attempted manipulation, of the specified benchmark it administers.”
Section 91 of the UK Financial Services Act 2012 deems it a criminal offence to intentionally engage “in any course of conduct which creates a false or misleading impression as to the price or value of any investment” which creates “an impression may affect the setting of a relevant benchmark”.
Recent Manipulation of Auction Starting Price
All of these FCA rules and the criminalisation of price manipulation offences sound very good in principle.
“4. Findings since go-live: IBA shared with the Committee that:
• IBA, and some direct participants, had observed the price of futures spiking during the minutes immediately before the afternoon gold auction starts.
IBA are now de-emphasising use of the futures as a related market to consider when determining the starting price .”
The fact that IBA has deemed it necessary to follow this course of action (i.e. de-emphasise the use of futures as a starting price determinant), and the fact that some entity or entities have been pushing around futures prices as a means of influencing the LBMA Gold Price starting price suggests that nothing has changed in the gold market since the introduction of the new auction, and that the same players who were actively manipulating the gold price back in 2012 are still doing so, despite this becoming a criminal offence under UK law.
4.12. At the start of the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing at 3:00 p.m., the Chairman proposed an opening price of USD1,562.00. However, the proposed price quickly dropped to USD1,556.00, following a drop in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures (which was caused by significant selling in the August COMEX Gold Futures market, independent of Barclays and Mr Plunkett).
“4.18. …before the price was fixed, there were a number of further changes in the levels of buying and selling in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing, which coincided with an increase in the price of August COMEX Gold Futures.
4.19. As a result of these changes, the level of buying at USD1,558.50 exceeded the level of selling (155 buying/45 selling), and the proposed price was likely to move higher. Given that the price of August COMEX Gold Futures was trading around USD1,560.00 at this time, if the Chairman did move the proposed price in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing higher, it was likely to be to a similar price level (which was higher than the Barrier).”
You can read the entire FCA account of the saga of the 28 June 2012 afternoon fixing here, and think about the consequences and meaning of the IBA move to de-emphasis futures prices and what it signals.
Publicly Available Procedures – Not!
Which brings us to the procedures for establishing the auction starting price and subsequent prices for each round of the auction. On 28 April 2015, the IBA LBMA Gold Price web page, under ‘Auction Process’, stated that:
“The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round based on publicly available procedures.“
I was interested in reading these publicly available procedures, and learning about the price sources and price hierarchies used within the set of price determinants, so on 28 April 2015, I emailed the IBA communication group and asked:
“I have a question on the LBMA Gold Price methodology.
On the IBA LBMA Gold Price web page (https://www.theice.com/iba/lbma-gold-price) under ‘Auction Process’, point 1 states that “The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round based on publicly available procedures“.
Can you direct me to where these ‘publicly available procedures’ are view-able?
Incredibly, IBA received my email that day, and then changed point 1 under ‘Auction Process’ by deleting the original reference to ‘publicly available procedures’ and by copying and pasting in the FAQ answer that I had referred to about ‘in line with current conditions and activity in the auction.”
IBA then responded to my email on the same day, 28 April, without answering the question. The IBA response was:
“Please note the updated text: ‘The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction’. Thank you for pointing this out.“
So, not only did IBA avoid explaining the ‘publicly available procedures‘, they also covered it up and had the cheek to thank me for pointing it out to them. You can see for yourself the reactionary and firefighting tactics used by IBA in perpetuating non-transparency.
Furthermore, the fact that the original web page said that the procedures were publicly available and then they pulled it suggests that at least someone with responsibility in IBA, maybe naively, originally had been of the view that the pricing procedures were to be publicly available.
I emailed IBA again and said:
“This FAQ answer (to the question “How are the prices set for each round of the auction?) doesn’t really explain anything at all.
My question though is, apart from this one line FAQ answer, are there no more in depth ‘publicly available procedures’ available that explain how the opening price is set, what the price sources used are, what pricing hierarchy is used to select an opening price etc..?”
I’ve looked on your web site and in the FAQs and can’t find them. The only brief reference to price determination in the FAQs is that the chairperson”sets the price in line with current market conditions and activity in the auction.”
To which IBA replied:
“This information is not available on our website. However, as you seem to have a few questions, would you be interested in me setting up an off the record briefing with IBA in the next few weeks?”
I did not take IBA up on that offer since I do not think that an off the record briefing is appropriate for something that should be in the public domain. It also highlights the extent to which the vast majority of the financial media are happy to use unidentified sources, off the record briefings, and quotes, and willingly act as the mouthpieces for entities that they are too scared of offending lest they will not get ‘access’ to write their next regurgitated press release for, nor get invited to that entity’s Christmas party.
“‘The names of those selected to oversee ICE’s new gold price benchmarking process will not be disclosed, Finbarr Hutcheson, president of ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), said.
“We are keeping that anonymous – we don’t think that it’s meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running that auction and, frankly, the more we kind of feed the story, there’s just going to be more speculation around that,” he said at a briefing at its offices here.
“There’s a legitimate desire to know but actually we don’t want this process to focus on any individual or names of people,” he added.
Not “meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running the auction“? What sort of statement is that in a free market? If there is a legitimate desire to know, as Hutcheson concedes there is, then why hide the identities?
If anyone needs reminding, the predecessor to the LBMA Gold Price auction was a trading process which, on 23 May 2014, the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) saw fit to fine Barclays £26 million “for failings surrounding the London Gold Fixing.” This was also the first and only precious metals trading process in the UK ever to receive a fine from the FCA.
I would suggest that given the history of a ‘proven to have been manipulated daily gold price auction’, whose successor on launch day primarily consisted of the 4 incumbent participants that comprised the previous Gold Fixings auction (including Barclays), then it certainly is meaningful to the marketplace to know who’s running the new auction.
“’We have a panel of chairpeople that we are going to use and we have internal expertise as well on that, but we are not disclosing the names of those chairmen,’ Hutcheson said. “It will rotate through the panel but we have a significant bench of available external expertise with back-up if you like.”
Hutcheson declined to name how many chairpeople are on the panel.
But if the oversight committee were to feel that it was appropriate for the names to be disclosed, this stance may change, he suggested.”
And why would the oversight committee feel it to be appropriate or not to divulge the names of the chairpersons of the most important gold pricing benchmark in the world?
The Changing of the Guard
Its interesting to see how ICE Benchmark Administration’s description of the chairpersons evolved over a short period after the LBMA Gold Price auction was launched on 20 March.
This was the initial version of the ICE IBA web site description of the Chairperson on 20 March (see screenshot 1 below also):
“The chairperson has extensive experience in the gold market, and is appointed by IBA, and therefore independent of the auction process.”
A week later, a revised, more lengthy version of the Chairperson description had appeared on the ICE IBA web site (see screenshot 2 below also):
“The Chair is appointed by IBA and is independent of any firm associated with the auction, including direct participants. The chair is externally sourced, but works with the IBA team to deliver a robust process for determination of the LBMA Gold Price.”
The Chair facilitates the determination of the LBMA Gold Price by providing his extensive market experience to assist in setting the price in each round of an IBA gold auction.”
By July, the second paragraph of the second version above had been changed to read:
“Both the initial and subsequent round prices are selected by the Chair using their extensive market experience and applied based on an agreed pricing framework.”
So, there is a panel of chairpeople, as Hutcheson told Bulliondesk, who are 4 ‘ex-bankers’ according to Reuters, and who have ‘extensive experience in the gold market’ according to the IBA web site. So these people were previously bankers (which means investment bank staff) who gained their experience of the gold market in investment banks, and who have extensive knowledge of how a gold auction works, and since they are working with London-based IBA on a London-based daily auction, the chairpersons are either London-based or live proximate to London. And finally, according to one of the web site versions above, it’s a ‘He’ or set of ‘Hes’ so we know they are male.
And yet these same people are said to be “independent of any firm associated with the auction, including direct participants.”
Given that there are now 11 direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, namely, Barclays, Bank of China, Goldman Sachs, HSBC Bank USA, JPMorgan Chase Bank, Morgan Stanley, Societe Generale, Bank of Nova Scotia – ScotiaMocatta, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Standard Chartered and UBS, how could ex-bankers based in London with extensive experience of the gold market collectively be independent of all of these banks?
And that’s just the direct participants. What about all the firms associated with the auction, for example, indirect participants who route their auction orders via direct participants?
It would be interesting to hear what IBA and the LBMA define as ‘independent’. Is there any precedent on a definition of ‘independent’ for persons connected to a daily gold auction? Luckily, there is.
“appoint up to two independent qualified individuals to serve on the Committee. A person will be considered to be independent for the purposes of these Terms of Reference if he/she is not, and has not been at any time in the preceding year, an employee or consultant of any Member and does not otherwise have a personal interest in the fixing price or the Fixing Process.”
While this document was referring to a committee whose Members were the directors of the banks running the former auction, at least there is some semblance of a definition of the concept of ‘independent‘ when applied to a gold auction.
So using that yardstick, it would be interesting to measure up the ex-banker chairpersons in the current auction as to how long exactly have they and their handler have been ‘ex’ bankers. Less than a calendar year before 20 March 2015 (i.e. 01 January 2014) would not cut it under a “has not been at any time in the preceding year, an employee or consultant of any Member” test.
And it also begs the question, why is the automated algorithm alluded to by ICE not being used in this LBMA Gold Price auction instead of a human chairperson?
Chairperson description 1
Chairperson description 2
Chairperson description version 3
You will notice from the first description screenshot of the chairperson (above) that on 20 March 2015, ICE IBA stated that:
“Feedback from the market is that the price in the first round of the auction, as well as the prices for the following rounds, is of paramount importance.
As a result, BA has appointed a chairperson from Day 1. In due course, IBA will evaluate developing an algorithm in consultation with the market.“
Then notice that in the second version screenshot about the chairperson, there is no mention of any algorithm. It just vanished.
A slightly different version of the algorithm text appeared in the IBA gold price FAQ document published at launch time:
“Why are you using a Chairperson and not an algorithm for day one?
Feedback from the market is that the setting of the initial price of the first round of the auction, as well as prices for the following rounds, are important. As a result, it is appropriate to have a Chairperson on day one. In due course, IBA will consult on automating the auction process using an automated algorithm.”
A point of information at this juncture. When IBA and LBMA refer to ‘the Market’ they are referring exclusively to LBMA members of the wholesale gold market and not to any of the other hundreds of thousands of global gold market participants who rely on the LBMA Gold Price benchmark as a pricing source. In fact it seems that ‘the Market’ means whatever the LBMA Management Committee decide it means.
It is also worth pointing out that many of the LBMA’s claims on consulting ‘the Market’ are just empty rhetoric, and the consultations are purely for window dressing for decisions that they have already decided on, a case in point being the EY bullion market review commissioned by the LBMA earlier this year that was announced on 27 April and wrapped up by June 2015. This is not too dissimilar to the way FIFA operates, as one correspondent pointed out.
In the case of the above ‘feedback from the market’ about wanting a chairperson, this could very well mean the 4 members of London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL) who all transitioned from the old auction to the new auction as if nothing had changed. It appears that they did not want anything to change. The old London Gold Fixing with 4 members had a chairperson (most recently Simon Weeks from Scotia) who rotated annually through the directors of (LGMFL), i.e. from Barclays, Scotia Mocatta, HSBC and SocGen.
Finbarr Hutcheson had also referred to this price calculation ‘Algorithm’ on 19 March, the day before the LBMA Gold Price launch. To quote Bulliondesk again:
“The panel of the independent chairs will be responsible for overseeing the process although ICE has indicated that it will be looking to make the process electronic in future.“
The LBMA Silver Price Algorithm
The LBMA Silver Price auction has a separate administrator, Thomson Reuters and a separate platform provider, CME Group. Thomson Reuters has this to say about the opening price on page 8 of its LBMA Silver Price methodology guide:
3.7 Starting Price
The auction platform operator (CME Benchmark Europe Ltd) is responsible for operating the LBMA Silver Price auction, including entering the initial auction price.
The initial auction price value is determined by the auction platform operatorby comparing multiple Market Data sources prior to the auction opening to form a consensus price based on the individual sources of Market Data. The auction platform operator enters the initial auction price before the first round of the auction begins….
For intra-auction prices for each round, the methodology guide says that:
3.8 Manual Price Override
In exceptional circumstances, CME Benchmark Europe Ltd can overrule the automated new price of the next auction round in cases when more significant or finer changes are required. When doing so, the auction platform operator will refer to a composition of live Market Data sources while the auction is in progress.
In the LBMA Silver Price methodology, only the first round is manually input. Subsequent rounds are calculated automatically by the ‘platform’. See page 7 of the guide:
“3.4 End of Round Comparison
[bullet point 2] If the difference between the total buy and sell quantity is greater than the tolerance value, the auction platform determines that the auction is not balanced, automatically cancels orders entered in the auction round by all participants, calculates a new price, and starts a new round with the new price.”
So this is different to the LBMA Gold Price where:
“The chairperson sets the starting price and the price for each round in line with current market conditions and the activity in the auction.”
Six months after the fanfare launch on 20 March 2015, unanswered questions remain:
How robust is the LBMA Gold Price auction mechanism, when within 3 months of launch date, IBA have to tinker with the price sources used to determine the starting price, and de-emphasise one price source due to volatile and seemingly delibrately manipulative futures price movements?
Why does the LBMA Gold Price auction needs a human chairperson throughout the auction and the LBMA Silver Price does not?
What happened to the plans for introducing an algorithm into the auction?
Why have ICE gone to great lengths to prevent the public knowing the identities of the chairpersons?
Why did ICE backtrack on a reference to ‘publicly available procedures‘ that would have explained how the starting price and round prices are determined?
What’s going to happen when the initial six months of the chairpersons’ rotating duties run out on Monday 21 September, as Reuters alluded to back in March?
To that list some further questions could be added:
Where are the Chinese banks ICBC and China Construction, Bank which both expressed interest in becoming direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction, going to join?
Where are all the gold mining and gold refining entities that have expressed interest in being direct participants going to join, participants that the ICE auction platform can accommodate right now?
When will the LBMA Gold Price auction move to central clearing on an exchange distinct from LMPCL’s monopoly on clearing predominantly unallocated metal?
When will the prohibitive credit lines enforced by the LBMA be removed as as to allow other non-bank participants to directly participate in the auction without maintaining credit arrangements with the incumbent bullion banks?
These are just some of the questions which financial journalists cannot bring themselves to write about when covering this topic.
There is a growing assumption in the financial media that a number of Chinese banks will be joining the new LBMA Gold Price auction as direct participants when the auction launches in London on Friday 20th March. This assumption is based on various sources, but primarily on a number of general comments made by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) in February, and also some comments made by the LBMA last October.
ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA), the administrator for the LBMA Gold Price, issued a press release on 2nd February in which the Chief Executive of the LBMA, Ruth Crowell said:
“I’m delighted to see a high level of interested participants for the March launch. The intention and the interest has been very positive and creates a more diverse pool of participants which includes Chinese banks. We look forward to having enhanced numbers of participants for day one for the LBMA Gold Price.”
There are, however, a number of dangers in assuming that some of the Chinese banks will be direct participants in the new gold auction at launch date, not least of which is that the identities of the direct participants will only be revealed on 20th March, but also the fact that the LBMA’s comments above didn’t specifically say that Chinese banks will be direct participants on launch date. The LBMA’s comments merely said that Chinese banks were interested in participating in the auction.
ICE Benchmark has just published an FAQ document on its website, and in answer to “Who are the direct participants in the auction?”, it states “direct participants will be announced on the day of launch.” Note that the LBMA refers to the entities that will participate at launch date as ‘phase one participants’.
Indeed, the vague nature of the reference to Chinese banks in the 2nd February press release forced the major financial media outlets to be non-committal about the Chinese banks as direct participants on launch date.
‘There’s a “more diverse pool” of participants, including from China, interested in being part of the LBMA Gold Price, Ruth Crowell, chief executive of the London Bullion Market Association, said in a statement Monday. The LBMA declined to comment on the number and names of those in talks for the new mechanism that will start in March.’
“The replacement for the near-century-old London gold fix will start in March, with the hope of attractingat least 11 members, including Chinese banks for the first time.”
“The presence of Chinese banks would give the world’s second-largest consumer of the precious metal a greater say in the global gold price.”
There is also a danger in assuming that the LBMA’s use of the word ‘participant‘ refers to ‘direct participant in the auction‘, although it’s totally understandable that most people would make this assumption. As is often the case, the LBMA’s communications and press release language leaves a lot to be desired when addressing anything to do with the gold and silver fixings, and needs to be read and interpreted carefully. Furthermore, in my view, neither the LBMA nor ICE have publicised and explained the concept of direct participant properly.
Therefore, many commentators on the new Gold Price auction don’t seem to realise that there is a difference between being a direct participant in the auction and another type of participant in the auction. At the end of the day, this other type of ‘participant’ is basically just a client of a direct participant.
Although ICE says in its FAQ document that “the auction is designed to allow as broad participation as possible”, it does not elaborate.
Where it does elaborate is in the executive summary of its proposal that it used in October to secure the administration of the new Gold Price auction. Here, ICE states that one of the key advantages of its offering is:
“A fair and sustainable fee structure, designed to encourage direct participation from a diverse cross-section of market participants and broad use of the price as a benchmark.”
“We have designed our commercial model to promote direct participation in the fixing process and broad usage of the benchmark. And, in designing the commercial model, we have considered the particular nature of the London Gold Fix and its usage in the financial markets.”
It goes on to say:
“Traditional clients such as miners, refiners, jewelers and central bankscan choose to become a direct participant and deal anonymously in the gold auction. Alternatively, if sponsored by a direct participant, they can be given their own screens and manage their own positions by trading through their sponsor.”
“One of the key benefits of WebICE is its ability to allow clients to participate in the auction process with the same information and order management capabilities as the direct participants. This reduces both operational and regulatory risk for direct participants, even before increasing the number of direct participants or moving to a centrally cleared model.“
Interestingly, ICE reveals its view that even though the Gold price auction will not at this time use a centrally cleared model, this should not require the use of credit lines because until a centrally cleared model is introduced,“weaker credit names can be accommodated via pre-collateralisation.” The concept of credit lines is explained below and is another example of where the LBMA has avoided explaining the concept to the global gold public.
On its web site, ICE Benchmark Administration touches on the concept of sponsored clients:
“Clients managing their own orders, sponsored by a direct participant – direct participants can choose to provide WebICE screens to their clients, allowing them to enter orders directly into the auction (orders still route through their sponsor/direct participant)….When client orders trade, their counterpartywill always be their sponsoring direct participant.”
Bank of China, ICBC and China Construction Bank
At this point it’s worth highlighting that there are only three Chinese banks that could realistically become direct participants in the new LBMA Gold Price auction right now, namely, Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and China Construction Bank (CCB). Bank of China is a commercial bank and should not to be confused with the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) which is the Chinese central bank.
The reason why only Bank of China, ICBC and China Construction Bank can join the Gold Price auction as direct participants is that these are the only three Chinese banks that are ‘Full’ members of the LBMA, and the LBMA, at a minimum, will not allow any non LBMA members to participate in the auctions as direct participants.
These three Chinese banks have full membership due to being ‘Ordinary’ members of the LBMA. The other category of full membership of the LBMA is of course the LBMA market makers, or which there are currently fourteen of these.
As explained below, these three Chinese banks qualify for directly participating in the recently launched LBMA Silver Price auction, so the Silver Price participant criteria are a good proxy by which to measure the eligibility of the Chinese banks to be direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction.
There are of course other giant Chinese banks that are major players in the gold market, such as Bank of Communications and Agricultural Bank of China, however, as they are not LBMA members or even LBMA associates, they would not be able to qualify to be direct participants under the LBMA’s strict and exclusionary auction participant rules.
LBMA Silver Price bait and switch operation
As a quick recap, the current scandal ridden London Gold Fixing which is being discontinued from 19th March is still, at the time of writing, being run twice daily by Barclays (who was fined by the FCA for manipulating the gold price in 2012 during the Gold Fixing), HSBC, The Bank of Nova Scotia, and Société Générale. In April 2014, Deutsche Bank, which also held a seat in the Gold Fixing, resigned from the Fixing and renounced its fixing seat as of mid May 2014.
Deutsche bank then gave up its seat in the Silver Fixing on 14th August. When the new LBMA Silver Price auction was launched on 15th August last year (administered by Thomson Reuters with CME Group as the auction calculation agent), there were only three initial participants, namely, the HSBC Bank USA NA, Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotia Mocatta) and Mitsui & Co Precious Metals Inc.
Two of these participants, HSBC and Scotia, had been the incumbent members of the triumvirate London Silver Market Fixing Limited company, along with Deutsche Bank. Mitsui, the Japanese bank, in some ways just took the place of Deutsche Bank, or at least, that is how it was viewed in the media.
Despite misleading claims from the LBMA on August 15th that it “fully expects the list of price participants will grow over the coming weeks” and that “these participants include banks, trading houses, refiners and producers”, this wider cross-sectional direct participation in the Silver auction never happened.
In a very low-key on-boarding process, only three additional entities joined the new Silver auction following the launch on 15th August, and all three of these entities were bullion banks that joined without the fanfare of press releases from the LBMA or press releases from the banks in question.
UBS joined the Silver auction on 26th September, JP Morgan Chase Bankjoined the Silver auction on 14th October, and The Toronto Dominion Bank joined the auction on 6th November.
What’s very interesting about these six banks is that they are all represented on the LBMA’s 10 person Management Committee.
The current Management Committee of the LBMA consist of Grant Agwin of Johnson Matthey (Chairman), Steven Lowe of Bank of Nova Scotia-ScotiaMocatta (Vice-Chairman), Peter Drabwell of HSBC Bank USA NA, Kevin Roberts of JP Morgan Chase Bank, Philip Aubertin of UBS AG, Robert Davis of Toronto Dominion Bank, Jeremy East of Standard Chartered Bank, Simon Churchill of Brinks Ltd, and Ruth Crowell (Chief Executive).
Note: Anne Dennison of Mitsui was appointed as a director of the LBMA on 25th September 2014, but then this appointment was terminated on 20th December 2014.
Readers may wonder if some or all of these six bullion banks were pre-selected or encouraged to participate by the LBMA even before the LBMA Silver Price auction was launched in August. The answer to that would be a definitive ‘Yes’, since, from as early as July 2014, the LBMA and the CME Group had already identified a group of 6 to 7 bullion bank ‘first tier participants’ that they had agreed would be the initial pipeline of benchmark participants to receive LBMA accreditation to take part in the new Silver auction.
This information was conveyed by CME to the London silver market during the CME’s pre-launch information and training sessions. As for wider silver market participation in the auction, this was never part of the phase 1 plan for the silver auction. Phase 2 of the Silver auction using a central counterparty clearing system was also quietly dropped by the LBMA and CME Group despite initial lip-service claiming such as a development was on the immediate horizon.
On 14th August 2014, a day before the Silver Price auction go-live, Reuters ran an article stating that while UBS was looking at the possibility of joining the Silver auction, the other giant Swiss Bank, Credit Suisse, would definitely be joining the auction:
“Credit Suisse said on Thursday (August 13) that it would be taking part in the new process, while UBS said in an email that “it is currently evaluating the feasibility of becoming an auction member in the near future.”
In the end, UBS joined but Credit Suisse seems to have had a change of mind.
What are the chances that all six participants that did join the LBMA Silver Price auction would all be bullion banks that are represented on the LBMA Management Committee? Or said another way, what are the chances that six of the seven banks represented on the LBMA Management Committee (apart from Standard Chartered) would end up as the only participants in the new LBMA Silver Price auction? In a random world, the chances of that would be remarkably small.
“From a Controls Perspective”
Keeping in mind the above silver auction participant list of banks and this statistically improbable overlap with the make-up of the LBMA Management Committee, the Financial Times (subscription) published an interview with LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell on Monday 13th October 2014, in which she said that:
“several Chinese banks were also interested in joining the Silver Price alongside JP Morgan, HSBC, UBS, Mitsui & Co Precious Metals, and the Bank of Nova Scotia.”
Crowell told the FT that:
“It will take some time from a controls perspective for them [Chinese banks] to get where they need to be. But I would imagine they will look to do both gold and silver simultaneously,” said Mrs Crowell. “It will make the London market that much more international.”
As to how much time equals ‘some time’, or what ‘controls perspective’ referred to, Crowell did not elaborate. As discussed below, there are no criteria from a ‘control perspective’ that the large Chinese bank members of the LBMA would not qualify under to participate directly in the gold and silver auctions.
However, it’s notable above that there was an LBMA view that the Chinese participants would join both the Gold and Silver Price auctions at the same time.
On Tuesday 14th October, the day after the above FT interview was published, the Bullion Desk also published an article about the interest by the Chinese banks in the new London daily fixings, in which it stated:
“Several Chinese banks are set to join the London Bullion Market Association’s (LBMA) gold and silver pricing benchmarks, with a spokesman indicating that they are simply waiting for the administration to be decided.
A handful of Chinese banks indicated to LBMA chief executive Ruth Crowell during a recent visit to China that they would like to take part in the daily silver pricing benchmarks, the spokesman said.
The interested parties are, however, waiting to discover who will be awarded the administration of the gold pricing benchmark before also taking part in the twice-daily gold pricing sessions, he added.”
The Bullion Desk article again refers to the Chinese wanting to participate in both the Silver and Gold daily auctions, but even more interestingly, it appears that the Chinese banks placed a high value on knowing which administrator was going to run the Gold Price auction.
Its unclear why the Chinese would be so concerned about the identity of the auction administrator. It’s possible they did not approve of one administrator i.e. CME Group, running both auctions. It may also have been a red-herring on the part of the LBMA to raise this as an issue, however now that this information is known, i.e. ICE Benchmark Administration, it would be interesting to know how the Chinese view this outcome.
“Among those that are interested in participating in the discovery processes are several Chinese banks that the LBMA recently met in China.
These were initially interested in contributing to gold price discovery, but then said they would like to get involved in the silver process, Crowell said.
“It’s been very welcome to see that quite a few banks in China are very interested in taking part. They said they definitely wanted to be there on day one for gold and that they’d look to get involved in silver as well,” she added.
“We spoke about what we did with regard to silver and how we had started the process for gold, so the natural question was, well, will it be more open? There will be more participation. There will be levels of transparency [in gold] that you are seeing with the silver auction,” she said.”
So, the LBMA has gone on record as stating that the Chinese ‘definitely’ want to be participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction on Day one (which is 20th March 2015).
If the Chinese had indeed been curious as to which administrator would be chosen to run the Gold Price auction, perhaps they will be curious about the fact that ICE Benchmark Administration has just announced that over the short-term, it is planning to employ a human (as opposed to an automated) chairperson in the daily Gold Price auctions. However, ICE will not reveal at this time who they have selected as this chairperson. The identity of the chairperson will only be revealed on launch day, 20th March.
The chairperson’s role in the auctions is to “set the starting price and the price for each round based on a set of rules that will be pre-determined and publicly available.”
ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) state that:
“IBA has appointed a chairperson for Day 1. In due course, IBA will evaluate developing an algorithm, in consultation with the market. The chairperson has extensive experience in the gold market, and is appointed by IBA and therefore independent of the auction process.”
Again, to reiterate, ICE will not reveal publicly until launch day as to who this chairperson is. With “extensive experience in the gold market”, it would be unfortunate and probably unacceptable to many entities in the wider global gold market (including the Chinese banks) if this chairperson (for example former Barclays director of the London Gold Market Fixing Limited Jonathan Spall), was closely connected to the LBMA or closely connected to one of the LBMA bullion banks or the soon to be discontinued Gold Fixing, since that would not demonstrate the degree of independence that IBA is claiming.
The Participant Criteria
The main requirement for Bank of China, ICBC and China Construction Bank in becoming participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction at launch on Day 1 would be for them to meet the LBMA’s Participant criteria as well as ICE Benchmark Administration’s Participation criteria.
Given that the LBMA and IBA have not yet published these Gold Price auction criteria in the form of a methodology guide, the best approach right now is to look at how the Chinese banks would fulfill the participant and participation criteria that were formulated in July/August 2014 for the LBMA Silver Price auction. Since, as explained above, the Chinese banks actively want to participate in the daily Silver Price auction, they will have to go through this application process anyway.
Additionally, the Silver Price accreditation criteria can be assumed to be very similar to the criteria of the Gold Price auction since the two auction processes are basically identical.
In August 2014 a document titled “Commodities Benchmark Methodologies: LBMA Silver Price” was published under the name of Thomson Reuters, the administrator of the LBMA Silver Price benchmark. This methodology guide was jointly written by the LBMA, Thomson Reuters, and the CME Group and discusses the methodology that the three partners have established for the silver price benchmark, including the criteria that qualifies an applicant to be authorised as a silver auction participant.
This LBMA Silver Price Methodology document states that:
Participation in the auction is open to all silver market participants who meet the following conditions:
- meet the Benchmark Participant criteria set out by the LBMA
- meet the Participation criteria set out by Thomson Reuters as the Administrator
- meet the requirements set by CME Benchmark Europe Ltd to use the technology platform and participate in the auction market place.
The market participants are accredited by the LBMA; access to the auction platform is approved by CME Benchmark Europe Ltd.
It’s critical to note that these three sets of criteria/requirements are the official basis under which the LBMA plays the role of gatekeeper in deciding which applicants to allow to join the Silver Price auction process, and which to keep out. It’s also important to note the distinction between participant criteria and participation criteria:
And now the most important part. The LBMA’s Benchmark Participant criteria for the Silver auction are as follows:
A participant has to be a Full Member (Ordinary or Market Making) of the LBMA.
The participant also needs to have a Loco London Clearing account
Applications are subject to review and ultimate approval by LBMA
The participant has to accept and implement the Thomson Reuters LBMA Silver Price Participant Code of Conduct
Participation is additionally subject to the requirements set by CME Benchmark Europe Ltd for use of the technology platform and for participation in the auction (e.g., in respect of credit arrangements)
So, all three Chinese banks, as Ordinary members of the LBMA, are also Full members of the LBMA, and therefore fulfill the first criterion to be direct participants in the auction.
By definition, to become an Ordinary member of the LBMA “members must be companies or organisations which are actively involved in the London bullion market. For entities which trade, this means trading gold or silver bullion or related derivatives such as forwards and options in the loco London market.” Additionally an Ordinary member, when trading bullion and derivatives has to trade “in the loco London market with at least three existing members.”
So, given that the three Chinese banks are Ordinary members of the LBMA, by definition they trade, settle and clear gold and silver in the loco London market and by definition they maintain loco London clearing accounts. This fulfills the second criterion for direct participation in the auctions.
All Full members of the LBMA (Ordinary and Market Making members) have to pass ‘know your customer’ (KYC) procedures and ‘declare conformance with the Non-Investment Products Code’ before being accepted as members. Again, by definition, the three Chinese banks fulfill these requirements also since they are already Ordinary members.
Therefore, to become direct participants in the auction, the three Chinese banks would just need to receive LBMA approval and sign up to the ICE auction platform and its participation criteria, which would essentially refer to adopting something that could be called the Gold Price Participant ‘Code of Conduct’, which is just a subset of IOSCO benchmark principles that specifically address ‘code of conduct’.
In the IOSCO Principles, there is a “Submitter Code of Conduct”, which states:
“The Administrator should develop guidelines for Submitters (“Submitter Code of Conduct”), which should be available to any relevant Regulatory Authorities, if any and Published or Made Available to Stakeholders.”
And given that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has decided very recently that the participants in the Silver and Gold Price auctions are not even defined as submitters, then the codes of conduct are even less severe than, for example, in the new LIBOR process. Adhering to the Code of Conduct just allows the administrator (IBA) to maintain a set of internal controls in the auction platform that allows for the collection of the price inputs in an IOSCO compliant way.
In summary, there is nothing in the LBMA participant criteria or administrator participation criteria to exclude Bank of China, ICBC and China Construction bank from being direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price and Silver Price auctions.
One final point on this matter is that the new gold and silver auctions, like the old gold and silver fixing auctions, make use of bilateral credit lines between all of the auction participants. What this means is that to participate in the auctions, an entity has to have large credit lines set up with all other participating entities, which essentially creates a mutual pool of credit, and all the participants share this pool of credit.
The LBMA could easily have introduced a central clearing platform for the trades in the new auctions so as to have prevented the need for large credit lines (both the ICE and the CME systems allowed this, as did the LME solution), but the bullion banks chose to ignore this solution, and are conveniently using the need for credit lines as an excuse to keep out smaller participants who might want to participate directly, such as refiners, miners etc but who do not have credit lines established.
It also conveniently protects and ring-fences the London Precious Metal Clearing Company’s AURUM unallocated metal clearing platform which is another critical point, but beyond the scope of this current discussion.
Again however, the large Chinese banks would have no problem running large credit lines with the other bullion bank participants, since Bank of China, ICBC and China Construction are some of the largest banks in the world with very high investment grade credit ratings and strong tier 1 capital ratios.
The Big 3 in London
Let’s look at the three Chinese banks that are Full Members of the LBMA, i.e. Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction.
All three of these Chinese banks have their UK headquarters in the City of London, near the Bank of England and incidentally very near the LBMA’s offices also. Bank of China is at 1 Lothbury, China Construction is at 111 Old Broad Street, and ICBC is at 81 King William Street. These three locations form a triangle, and are literally 5 minutes walk from each other, and coincidentally, the LBMA offices at Royal Exchange Buildings are right at the heart of this triangle.
China Construction Bank
China Construction Bank became an ordinary member of the LBMA on 7th October 2014, and is classified by the LBMA as a bank entity (as opposed to a broker) and is categorised under country classification of China. China Construction’s headquarters is in Beijing.
China Construction Bank (London) Ltd had been based at Heron Quays in Canary Wharf (east of the City) but in June 2014, the Bank purchased a building at 111 Old Broad Street, in the City (of London) to use as its new European headquarters.
On its London website, China Construction Bank (CCB) states that:
“We are also active in money market business and provide a Euro time zone platform for CCB’s foreign exchange and precious metal trading.”
CCB is active in the offshore RMB market and in 2012 received the designation as the “first clearing bank outside Asia for the Chinese currency”. In June 2014, CCB was also designated by the Chinese central bank as the London RMB clearing bank. CCB London is the 2nd largest Chinese bank in the UK.
In 2013, CCB was ranked 5th in the “Top 1000 World Banks” by the Banker Magazine, and ranked as 2nd by the Banker in 2014.
Both CCB entities are permitted to arrange, deal and transact in investments in the UK including commodities.
Although China Construction Bank Corporation was authorised by the FCA and PRA on Monday 22nd December, it only announced this authorisation in a press release on 2nd February 2015,
“On 22 December 2014, the UK’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) officially approved the establishment of China Construction Bank Corporation, London Branch….. Concurrently, the application for a Whole-firm Liquidity Modification waiver for the branch has been approved.”
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)
ICBC is an Ordinary Member of the LBMA and was admitted as an ordinary (Full) member of the LBMA in late 2012. See press release 23rd December 2012. ICBC is classified by the LBMA as a bank, and is categorised under country China, with its headquarters in Beijing.
Bank of China is a Full ordinary member of the LBMA, is classified as a bank by the LBMA, and interestingly, in the LBMA schema is categorised by the LBMA under country UK, and not China. Its Headquarters is 1 Lothbury, which is the street behind the Bank of England. Bank of China issued RMB bonds though its London branch in January 2014. This followed similar RMB issuance from ICBC and CCB.
Bank of China has been an ordinary member of the LBMA since the 1990s. On its London website it states:
“The major currencies that we can provide for FX spot are: Australian Dollar (AUD), Canadian Dollar (CAD), Swiss Franc (CHF), Chinese Renminbi (RMB)….etc…etc… Swedish Krona (SEK), U.S. Dollar (USD), Singapore Dollar (SGD), Silver (XAG), Gold (XAU), South African Rand (ZAR), etc.
There are similar statements for Swaps and Forwards.
All three Bank of China entities are permitted to arrange, deal and transact in investments in the UK including commodities.
The 11 to 13 Entities
On 7th November 2014, upon announcement of ICE (IBA) being ‘selected’ as administrator of the LBMA Gold Price, Ruth Crowell said “we are pleased to haveeleven entities intending to be Phase One Participants.” These entities (bullion banks) had signalled their interest to the LBMA before, during and after the period from October 24th (an LBMA closed-door seminar about the new gold auction and the various proposals) up to 4th November (LBMA committee meetings to discuss the vote and agree on the winning entry). The “Phase One Price Participants” as the LBMA refers to them, were also involved in these discussions in and around 4th November.
Since this announcement about the “eleven entities intending to be Phase One Participants” was only three weeks after Crowell’s statement that “it will take some time from a controls perspective for them [Chinese banks] to get where they need to be”, this would suggest that the Chinese banks were not part of this group of 11 phase one participants.
While covering the LBMA’s conference in Lima, Peru which was held over the two day period 11th – 12th November, Bullion Desk, who were at the conference, quoted Finbarr Hutcheson, ICE Benchmark Administration president, as saying:
“During the consultation process, 11 companies came forward as prospective direct participants. And over the past two days we’ve heard from two more, bringing the total up to 13.”
The same article quoted Ruth Crowell as saying:
“The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has already received interest from 13 banks or other firms looking to become direct participants in the new gold price benchmark auction.
“We’re now actively recruiting because the last thing we want is for everyone to be staring at a blank screen on that first day. Bringing participants on-board is our number one priority,” Ruth Crowell, LBMA chief executive, said on Monday at the association’s conference here.”
However, and this is an important point, there were no representatives from Bank of China, ICBC, or China Construction in attendance at the LBMA’s Lima conference in November, so the 2 additional interested parties that expressed an interest during the conference were by definition not Chinese, unless they had contacted IBA remotely while the IBA and LBMA executives were in Lima, which seems highly unlikely. See 2014 conference delegate List pdf, and also another version here.
It would be unusual for Chinese banks to be planning to imminently join the Gold Price and Silver Price auctions but not attend the LBMA conference, since this conference was attended by senior executives of the winning administrator, ICE Benchmark Administration, as well as senior representatives from the CME Group and Thomson Reuters.
Small delegations from some Chinese banks did chose to go to theLBMA’s Singapore Bullion Market Forum in June 2014. Here, ICBC’s Zhou Ming, General Manager, Precious Metals Department actually made a presentation, and other ICBC precious metals staff, as well as China Construction staff, attended, but no one from Bank of China.
There was one Bank of China senior executive, Steven Haydon, at the 2013 LBMA annual event in Rome. The LBMA’s 2012 Conference, which was held in Hong Kong, was attended by Yan Wang of Bank of China, London, as well as Xiaoyang Liu and Zheng Zhiguang of ICBC China. But overall the attendance of Chinese Bank delegates at these LBMA conferences over recent years has been patchy at best.
Who approves the Direct Participants? The LBMA!
In its FAQ document, ICE also explains that there is an LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee, and reveals that “the first meeting of the LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee was held on February 27, 2015″.
According to the FAQ, one of the roles of this Oversight Committee is to approve the criteria for new direct participants:
“The LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee’s responsibilities include conducting regular reviews of all aspects of the determination of the LBMA Gold Price, overseeing any changes, setting and overseeing the rules and practice standards, approving the criteria for new direct participants and overseeing IBA’s adherence to its published methodologies”.
The ICE executive summary of its proposal for the Gold auction goes even further and says that:
“It is through the Oversight Committee that the LBMA will continue to have significant involvement in the auction process, including, among many other things, changes to the methodology, approval of direct participants, and the decision on whether to move to a centrally cleared model (until that time, weaker credit names can be accommodated via pre-collateralisation).”
So although the Oversight Committee is responsible for “approving the criteria for new direct participants”, the LBMA is responsible for the specific “approval of direct participants”. There is a difference.
Why is there an Oversight Committee and what type of entities are on the committee? Again, the ICE proposal explains:
“Under the UK benchmark regulation, the governance structure for a regulated benchmark must include an Oversight Committee, made up of market participants, industry bodies, direct participant representatives, infrastructure providers and the administrator.“
At the time of writing, neither ICE nor the LBMA have published any details of the identities of the members of the Oversight Committee or who they represent, nor have they published any agenda or minutes of the first meeting that took place on 27th February. And this is the new world of transparency for the LBMA Gold Price?
Who will the 11 – 13 entities be in the Gold Price auction?
It should be noted that in the new Silver and Gold auctions, the participants take part for their own bullion trades and those of their clients, and they are not obliged to represent other non-participant entities. So, for example, if bullion bank A is a participant in the new gold auction, it does not have to take gold fixing orders from bullion bank B for the fixing. Bullion bank B is expected to apply to become a participate itself (unless the LBMA don’t let them participate). The wider and more extended the participation, the more robust the data.
It is quite obvious that the vast majority of the 11-13 entities on Day 1 in the new Gold Price auction (if there are even that many taking part), will be the existing LBMA Market Makers.
In coverage by the Financial Times on 11 July, the day on which the LBMA awarded the CME Group and Thomson Reuters the contract to run the new Silver Price auction, the Financial Times said the following:
“Since there is no centralised clearing for precious metals markets, initial users of the new silver benchmark are likely to be the 11 LBMA spot market making members, including JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and UBS. They can currently only trade through the fixing members.”
On 12 August, just before the launch of the LBMA Silver Price auction, the Financial Times again highlighted this key point about the lack of central clearing in the CME Group’s Silver Price platform, when it stated in nearly the same language, but adding in JP Morgan:
“Since there is no centralised clearing for precious metals markets, the initial users of the new benchmark are expected to be the 11 market making members of the LBMA, which include Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and UBS”.
Therefore, using a list of the LBMA Market Makers is a very good starting point for estimating the identities of the inner core of LBMA bullion banks that in all likelihood will make up the bulk of the 11 – 13 ‘Day 1′ ‘direct participant’ entities in the Gold Price auction.
This is notwithstanding the fact that, again, there was no need for the LBMA not to introduce a centrally cleared model on Day 1 so as to broaden participation, and also since as ICE said, until a “move to a centrally cleared model”, was introduced “weaker credit names can be accommodated via pre-collateralisation”.
Starting with the four existing banks in the current gold fixing, who are sure to re-enter the new auction, the first names on the 11-13 list are Barclays, HSBC, Scotia Mocatta, and SocGen. Since Deutsche Bank left the table, it would be surprising if Deutsche came back to the new gold auction so soon. Therefore I am leaving Deutsche off of my list.
Next to add to this list would be JP Morgan. JP Morgan is one of the six precious metals clearers in London in LPMCL, it runs an LBMA precious metals vault in central London, and it is a participant in the Silver auction.
Next add UBS and Credit Suisse, two huge players in the gold market, especially in Switzerland. Next up would be Goldman Sachs (J. Aron) which is a large player in the gold market and Mitsui, an existing participant in the Silver auction.
All of these banks trade spot market make in the London gold market. I would leave out Bank of America Merrill Lynch for the moment, for no particular reason except it only market makes options in the London gold and silver market.
Fast-Tracking Market Makers into the Gold auction?
To become an LBMA market maker, an Ordinary member LBMA bank has to undergo a three-month probationary period, during which it has to quote bids and offers in silver and gold to all other LBMA market makers. More importantly,all of the other market makers must approve the appointment of a new LBMA market making member.
In a very under covered story, three additional bullion banks very recently became LBMA market making members, namely Citibank, Morgan Stanley and Standard Chartered.
‘Officially’, this 3 month probation is the process that Citibank NA, Morgan Stanley & Co International and Standard Chartered would have gone through recently before they were all successfully reclassified as LBMA market making members in late 2014 and early 2015, which increased the number of LBMA market makers from 11 to 14.
This flurry of activity of Ordinary member bullion banks being reclassified as LBMA market making members is unprecedented and suggests that these three banks may have been preparing in some way to be participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction. That’s a 27% jump in the number of market makers from 11 to 14 in five months, with all 3 occurring in the run-up to the launch of the new Gold Price auction.
Before these three reclassifications, the previous transitions by an Ordinary member to become a market maker were Merrill Lynch in 2011, Credit Suisse in 2010, and Mitsui in 2007. That was three new market makers over four years as opposed to three over five months.
Of the 14 current market makers, 13 are spot market makers but only five of these banks make markets in the three products: spot, forwards and options. These banks are HSBC, UBS, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Barclays.
In 2006, the LBMA rules on market makers were altered so that a market maker didn’t have to make markets in all three products.
The other nine banks make markets in one or two of the three products. Credit Suisse, Scotia, SocGen, Standard Chartered, Deutsche, Mitsui, Citi and Morgan Stanley are market makers in spot markets. Scotia also market make in forwards, while Credit Suisse, Deutsche, Standard Chartered and Morgan Stanley also trade options as market makers. Mitsui, SocGen and Citi just do spot market making. Merrill Lynch is only a market maker in options, and notably, does not do spot.
I would add the three newcomer market makers of Citi, Morgan Stanley and Standard Chartered to the ‘direct participant’ list for the Gold auction, since their transitions to market maker status could well be related to some LBMA criteria whereby the LBMA have decided to fast track market makers into the Gold auction.
The running total at this stage is 12 bullion bank entities, and no ‘Ordinary’ bank members have yet been considered.
A few of the above may not be on the list. Likewise, other bullion banks such as Commerzbank, Natixis, ANZ, Standard Bank or BNP Paribas may well be on the list. Until LBMA and ICE actually publish the list, the only alternative is to speculate.
What you can take away from this guessing game list however is that the numbers of 11 and 13 entities being thrown around in November of 2014 by the LBMA and ICE probably did not include the Chinese banks. That is not to say that things might not have moved on since last November and Chinese banks may now be on the direct participant list. A series of delays in launching the Gold Price auction may indicate that participant negotiations were still going on behind the scenes.
Multiple Delays in Launch
The expected launch date for the Gold Price auction was pushed back a number of times between November 2014 and February 2015. One possibility for the delays, in my view, was due to ongoing or reignited negotiations with the Chinese banks. Following the LBMA’s closed-door ‘Market Seminar’ on 24th October, the LBMA said that the new gold solution would be implemented in December/January (see page 4 of presentation). Then in the LBMA’s Lima Conference slides from 11th November it said that the implementation time-frame would be January/February (see timeline in presentation page 2 – Implementation expected for January/February).
“‘Mid-February is estimated for the [launch]. We’ve said that is a comfortable deadline, but if it can happen sooner, then great,’ Ruth Crowell, ceo of the LBMA, told delegates at the Mines and Money conference.”
However, there was no other LBMA or ICE public reference to the Gold Price auction again for nearly two months when, on 2nd February, ICE issued a press release in which it said that “the new LBMA Gold Price…is expected to be launched in March 2015“, without providing a definite date or an explanation for the delays.
The actual launch date was only confirmed on 19th February when the LBMA announced that the auction would be launched on 20th March. Then the first LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee meeting took place on 27th February.
Some people might point to a letter that the LBMA sent to the FCA, dated 30th January, in which it highlighted some regulatory confusion from an FCA paper called CP14/32 about whether the participants in the Gold Price auction would be treated as benchmark submitters or not, and about which the LBMA claimed that lack of clarification on this issue would cause delays in potential participants signing up for the auction.
ICE confirmed to me however that participant sign-off was an internal matter for the participants and they did not appear to think that this submitter matter was an issue.
Anyway, the FCA confirmed in policy statement PS15/6 that this submitter definition was not applicable to the Gold Price auction, so it did turn out to be a non-issue, and does not explain why the launch date has been delayed so long. The gold and silver market knew from August 2014 when the “Fair and Efficient Markets Review” recommendations were published, that the gold and silver price benchmarks were in scope for FCA regulation from 2015.
In the FCA’s policy statement PS15/6, the FCA added “additional perimeter guidance to clarify further who in our view is, or is not, a submitter, and in particular, in respect of auction participants”. Specifically, the FCA said:
“a person who, in the context of an auction or otherwise, submits bids or offers solely for the purpose of transacting in a commodity or financial instrument or any other asset for their own, or their client’s, behalf will not normally be providing information in relation to a specified benchmark” (2.7.20E (A) G) (Annex E – Amendments to the Perimeter Guidance manual: specified benchmark activities)
Therefore, participants in the LBMA Silver Price and Gold Price auctions are not classified as benchmark submitters, and do not have to be regulated as such, so there is no reason why this should now hold up or delay approval of any direct participants for the Gold Price auction.
As the LBMA said itself on 2nd February:
“The systems and controls that the Administrator puts in place for non-submitters, namely, the criteria that must be met to participate, the contractual framework, for example the rulebook, participants agreement and code of conduct, should provide appropriate controls to maintain the integrity of these non-submission based benchmarks.” (i.e. the LBMA Gold and Silver Price auctions)
Despite all the above regulatory questions being answered and having had at least 4-5 months of advance preparation to join the new auction, the LBMA is now making more soundings that “Not all participants in ICE gold benchmark will be in place ‘on day one’.
This latest update come from Bullion Desk, who state:
“Some of the parties intending to participate in the new ICE gold benchmarking process may not be able to do so in the first auction on March 20, the LBMA has confirmed.
Internal sign-offs, regulatory procedures and credit lines with other participants may not be completed in time, it said.
“New participants unfortunately don’t have the framework in place like the current members of the London Gold Fix do,” an LBMA spokesman said. “The current members were ahead of the game on that front.”
‘It’s fair to say that we will likely have more participants involved after the initial launch. We can’t guarantee that all interested parties will be there on day one,’ he added.”
“I think it is fair to say there a lot of hoops for new participants to jump through,” the spokesman added.
This is another astounding part of the entire Gold auction participant drama, that the LBMA is now saying that regulatory procedures and credit lines, and “a lot of hoops” are delaying participants from completing what should really have been a very simple open and transparent process to allow any credible gold market participant worldwide to sign up and participate in an open and transparent new gold price discovery process.
“New participants unfortunately don’t have the framework in place like the currentmembers of the London Gold Fix do” according to the LBMA. Isn’t that the whole point, that participants should not need any existing framework to take part? The old London gold fix has been proven to have been corrupted and manipulated. There should be no legacy connection to it in the new system and no excusing from the LBMA or anyone else that potential participants are in some way dis-advantaged because they were not part of the old five fixers club. This is truly unbelievable.
And why should there be “a lot of hoops for new participants to jump through”? The entire fiasco is starting to look like it was designed by the LBMA to be as complex as possible so as to deter new participants from joining the auctions as direct participants.
ICBC and Standard Bank
Which brings us back to the Chinese banks. Bullion Desk said on 12th March 2015 in the same update as above that:
“Among others, several Chinese banks are said to be interested in joining some of the traditional members of the current fix in the new system.
Rumours have circulated that one of those banks is Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), one of the biggest banks in the world and a major participant in the gold market.”
When Deutsche Bank was attempting to sell its Gold and Silver Fixing seats early in 2014, ICBC was eager to secure Deutsche’s Gold Fix seat through its interest in Standard Bank of South Africa. ICBC was also at that time rumoured to be interested in becoming a market making member of the LBMA. Neither of these events ever materialised however.
“South Africa’s Standard Bank, now selling a controlling stake in its markets unit to China’s ICBC, is emerging as a frontrunner to buy Deutsche Bank’s place in the global gold price-setting process, sources familiar with the matter said.”
“Market sources said Standard Bank, in conjunction with ICBC, is in prime position to buy the Deutsche seat. ‘Standard Bank is a shoo-in for the fixing seat – they want it, and it would be acceptable to the other members,’ a senior gold market source told Reuters. ‘It’s just whether they can agree a fee.'”
“‘ICBC have wanted to be a market-making member of the LBMA for a while,’ said another senior gold market source, who saw the bank as having potential interest in the fixing seat.“
The same article also pointed out that the previous time a Gold Fixing seat was sold was in 2004 when Rothschild sold its seat to Barclays for the princely sum of $1 million; small change for a giant Chinese bank such as ICBC.
However, on 28th April 2014, Reuters reported that Deutsche Bank had resigned its gold seat since, according to one of their sources:
“It was a case of not being able to agree on terms”.
It seems hard to believe that there was an inability to agree on the price of Deutsche’s Gold Fix seat, given the deep pockets of all the parties concerned. Some other factors must have been at play. Could it have been that the London Fixing banks did not want ICBC (through Standard) to purchase the seat?
It’s very unusual that given ICBC’s desire to become an LBMA market maker, that it has not yet done so, especially considering the rush by Citi, Morgan Stanley and Standard Chartered to become market makers in the last few months.
“‘We hope to play a bigger role in the global precious metals market and become a major market maker, like Barclays,’ Shen Shisheng, ICBC vice-general manager of financial markets, told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Shanghai.”
Standard Bank Plc, classified under the UK, is also an Ordinary member of the LBMA. On 2nd February 2015, ICBC announced that it acquired 60% of Standard Bank Plc:
“The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) announced on Monday the acquisition of a 60-percent stake in Standard Bank Plc.
Based in London, Standard Bank Plc is the international commodities and foreign exchange arm of Standard Bank Group (SBG), the largest African banking group by assets.”
ICBC already owns 20% of the Standard Bank Group. With this new 60% acquisition of a commodities and fx business through Standard Bank Plc, ICBC could well be planning to join the Gold Price auction via the Standard Bank route.
ICBC were also rumoured to be interested in purchasing Deutsche’s empty precious metal vault in Park Royal, London, which is operated by G4S, which could be another interesting development for the Chinese bank as a route into becoming a member of London Precious Metals Clearing Company (LPMCL).
“ICBC confirmed it had already laid the foundations for its participation in a press release on Monday.”
Monday here refers to Monday 2nd March. There will undoubtedly be a sense of shock and injustice if the LBMA and ICE do not include at least one or two Chinese banks, such as ICBC, on the list of day 1 participants, which, don’t forget, is only being published on launch day, and not before.
The LBMA Gold Price auction should comprise a broad participation auction of banks, trading houses, refiners, miners, jewelers and other gold market participants trading as direct participants if they so choose. It should not be a narrow auction made up solely of incumbent London-based bullion banks which is a system that has proven to have been manipulated and was successfully prosecuted by the FCA.
With prolific LBMA bullion bank representation on the Shanghai Gold Exchange including UBS, Goldman Sachs, Scotia Mocatta, Standard Chartered, HSBC, ANZ, Natixis, and the opening up of the Chinese gold market and Shanghai Gold Exchange to foreign banks, it would be unfortunate if a series of LBMA Gold Price structural barriers such as credit lines, FCA regulatory issues, and ‘a lot of hoops to jump through’ provided the LBMA Management Committee with an excuse not to approve the large Chinese banks to directly participate in the LBMA Gold Price auction on Day 1 on Friday March 20th.
With the current structure of the London gold price fixings disappearing in the very near future, there is an unusual story that I’d like to share about the gold fixings. It concerns the Bank of England’s ‘gold activities’ in the daily London Gold Fixings during the 1980s, and my attempts to get the Bank to explain what these ‘gold activities’ consisted of.
These ‘gold activities’ of the Bank came to light within some comments that senior Bank of England employee Oliver Page wrote about fellow senior Bank of England colleague and contemporary Terry Smeeton:
Before looking at Mr. Smeeton’s ‘gold activities’, it’s worth getting a sense of the roles of Terry Smeeton and Oliver Page at the Bank of England by briefly looking at the career profiles of these two gents.
Terry Smeeton and Oliver Page
In the 1980s and 1990s, Terry Smeeton was one of the Bank of England’s experts on the gold market, and he rose to attain the position of Head of Foreign Exchange and Gold at the Bank. Smeeton joined the Bank of England in 1960 and remained at ‘The Old Lady’ until retiring in 1998. After leaving Threadneedle Street in March 1998, Smeeton went on to be a non-executive director of Standard Bank from July 1998 to September 2007, and in 2002 was appointed as advisory board member to the Dubai Metals and Commodities Centre (DMCC) and head of the centre’s Gold Management committee. Terry Smeeton passed away in September 2007.
In the 1990s while still at the Bank, Smeeton was also the Bank of England’s representative on the G-10 Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, as these Committee meeting minutes from 1997 highlight.
Frank Veneroso of Veneroso Associates, who is well-known for his in-depth analysis of the gold lending market, has stated that it was actually comments about the gold lending market made by Terry Smeeton in 1995 that triggered Veneroso to undertake his ground-breaking gold lending market analysis. Veneroso has also highlighted previously that Smeeton was critical of HM Treasury’s 1999 decision to auction off a substantial part of the UK’s gold reserves.
Oliver Pagejoined the Bank of England in 1968 and went on to be Chief Manager, Reserves Management in 1989, and Deputy Director, Supervision and Surveillance in 1996. In 1998, when the Financial Services Authority (FSA) was established, Page moved from the Bank of England to become the FSA’s Director of its Complex Groups Division (later called Major Financial Groups Division), and was also the FSA’s representative on the Basel Committee of Banking Supervisors. Page received an OBE in 2004, and retired from the FSA in April 2006, after which he became a non-executive director of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International. Oliver Page passed away in 2012.
After Terry Smeeton died in September 2007, Oliver Page wrote Mr. Smeeton’s obituary which was published in the industry journal ‘Central Banking’, and on the journal’s website.
In the obituary, Oliver Page said of Smeeton:
“On his work, the foreign exchange and gold markets were his great enthusiasms. So his work in the Bank of England, mainly in the Foreign
Exchange Division, suited him perfectly. The gold markets were an aspect of the financial world where he became internationally renowned.
While I was in the foreign exchange division in the 1980s, I was responsible for the risk management and performance system used to monitor activity. Through this period, Terry’s gold activities, often partly aimed at helping the London Market’s daily gold fixes, produced an overall profit.
So he was not just a talker on gold, he was a successful operator. He was very disappointed when large-scale gold sales were made in the 1990s at what turned out to be the 30-year low of the market.”
Certain phrases in Page’s tribute to Smeeton, specifically in relation to the gold fixings, struck me as very odd and raised a number of questions in my mind:
Firstly, what were Smeeton’s ‘gold activities‘ in the daily gold fixes ‘through this period’ during the 1980s?
Secondly, what was the Bank of England foreign exchange and gold division doing entering the London gold fixings to ‘help’ the daily gold fixes? And why did this activity happen ‘often’?
These ‘gold activities’ do not sound like normal Bank of England customer deals being placed into the daily fixings. However it does sound like central bank intervention into the price setting process.
(Note that at this time in the 1980s, NM Rothschild was the permanent chair of the fixings and the Bank used Rothschild as its broker. The other four fixing members during the 1980s were Mocatta, Sharps Pixley, Samuel Montagu/Midland, and Johnson Matthey/Mase Westpac. Rothschild departed from the gold fixings in 2004.)
Thirdly, why exactly is it so noteworthy for Oliver Page to have mentioned that Smeeton “produced an overall profit” from his ‘gold activities‘. Could it be that Smeeton’s activities were not primarily motivated by profit maximisation? Regular Bank of England ‘buy and hold’ or sell orders on behalf of central bank customers would not fall under the ‘noteworthy at having made a profit’ category.
Interestingly, in the London Gold Pool in the 1960s (which comprised both a buying syndicate and a selling syndicate), making a profit on the Pool’s gold transactions was considered a bonus, since that was not the primary purpose of the Pool’s consortium.
The Fix is In
In February 2012, after reading Oliver Page’s observations on Smeeton, I emailed the Bank of England, and asked them to explain Mr. Page’s 1980s references to Mr. Smeeton. My question was:
“What were Terry Smeeton’s “gold activities” while he was in the foreign exchange department that “partly aimed at helping the London Market daily gold fixes” and that produced “an overall profit” over the period, while being monitored by Oliver Page using the risk and performance monitoring system?”
The Bank of England “Public Information & Enquiries Group” responded as follows:
“The Bank of England does not have a rolein the daily fixing of gold prices. There are five members (listed below) of the Gold Fixing, all of whom are Market Making members of the LBMA:
• Bank of Nova Scotia • Barclays Capital • Deutsche Bank AG London • HSBC USA NA London • Societe Generale”
Since the bank didn’t address my question, I responded back to the Bank with a second email, reiterating the question:
“But if the Bank of England has no role in the fixing then what role was Terry Smeeton in the foreign exchange department playing,with “gold activities” that “partly aimed at helping the London Market daily gold fixes” and that produced “an overall profit” over the period, while being monitored by Oliver Page using the risk and performance monitoring system?
A different person from the Bank’s Public Information & Enquiries Group then responded to my second email as follows:
“The Bank no longer plays a role in the daily gold fixing. But for many years the Bank had a supervisory role in the London gold market,and was involved in the fixing process, as described in the following excerpt from the Bank’s Quarterly Bulletin (1964, p16 ‘The London Gold Market‘):
'The Bank of England are not physically represented at the fixing. But they are able, like any other operator, effectively to participate in the fixing by passing orders by telephone through their bullion broker and at the fixing they use exclusively the services of the chairman of the market, namely, Rothschilds.
The Bank operate for a number of different parties; they are first the managers of the Exchange Equalisation Account, which may be a natural buyer or seller of gold :
secondly, they are the agent for the largest single regular seller of gold in the world, namely the South African Reserve Bank, which is responsible for the disposal of new production in South Africa :
thirdly, they execute orders for their many other central bank customers :
fourthly, the Bank aim, as in the case of the foreign exchange and gilt-edged markets, to exercise, so far as they are able, a moderating influence on the market, in order to avoid violent and unnecessary movements in the price and thus to assist the market in the carrying on of its business.'
From 1968, the Bank was a less regular participant in the daily gold fixings, although contact between the Bank and the members of the gold market remained close.
In particular, the Bank (including Mr Smeeton in his role in the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division) continued to execute orders for central bank customers of the Bank, and to manage gold held in the Exchange Equalisation Account.
The Bank no longer has supervisory responsibility for the London bullion market. Responsibility for the regulation of the major participants in the market lies with the Financial Services Authority (FSA) under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.
Guidelines for the conduct of gold business not covered by the Act are set out in The London Code of Conduct for Non-Investment Products (the NIPs code).”
Avoiding the Question
Yet again, the second response from the Bank of England didn’t address my question directly, but while circumventing a direct answer, it did contain some very interesting information. Let’s examine the Bank’s second response in more detail.
1. There was no attempt in the Bank’s answer to address the crux of the issue, i.e. what Smeeton was doing in the 1980s ‘helping’ the fixing with ‘gold activities’ that produced an overall profit and that required risk management.
Executing physical gold orders for the Exchange Equalisation Fund (EEA) or for other bank customers via one of the five gold fixing members is not an activity that could reasonably be described as ‘helping’ the fixing and not the type of activity that would be noteworthy as ‘producing an overall profit’, or that would need risk management monitoring.
Nor is gold lending between central bank customers of the Bank of England and the London gold market bullion bank participants something that would have required the Bank’s foreign exchange and gold desk, and Terry Smeeton, to ‘help’ the twice daily London gold price auction fixings.
Gold lending only began in the London gold market in the early to mid 1980s and initially was only undertaken on a limited scale.
So, why the reluctance by the Bank to answer my question directly?
2. Interestingly, the Bank’s response contained an extract (see grayed area above) from a 1964 Bank of England publication about the London Gold Market which explained the four main reasons why the Bank was involved in the gold fixings, and referred to the Bank of England as being “a moderating influence” on the gold market so as “to avoid violent and unnecessary movements in the price.”
Was the inclusion of this 1964 extract about the Fixings by the Bank’s Enquiries and Information Office a tacit admission from the Bank that it continued to be a ‘moderating influence’ on the gold price into the 1980s and perhaps beyond? Why include this Fixing explanation from 1964 to explain a question about the 1980s?
3. The Bank’s email response to me also mentioned 1968 and stated that “From 1968, the Bank was a less regular participant in the daily gold fixings”. This reference to 1968 is a reference to the collapse of the London Gold Pool in March 1968 before which the Gold Pool (managed by the Bank of England) attempted to control the gold price and keep it near $35 per ounce. Since I had asked about the 1980s and not 1968, the inclusion of this reference is, in my view, highly unusual but telling.
The comment from the Bank that since 1968 “contact between the Bank and the members of the gold market remained close” is also noteworthy.
4. The Bank’s response said that Smeeton executed orders for central bank customers and also ‘managed gold’ held in the Exchange Equalisation Account. The Bank did not elaborate on what was meant by ‘managing’ EEA gold. (Note, the UK gold reserves are owned by HM Treasury and held within the Exchange Equalisation Account which is somewhat similar to the US Exchange Stabilization Fund. The Bank of England acts as custodian of the UK gold reserves on behalf of HM Treasury.)
If you look at the data on UK official gold reserves over the 1980s, such as in ‘Central Bank Gold Reserves: A historical perspective‘ by Timothy Green, you will see that the official UK gold reserves were totally static throughout the 1980s at between 591 tonnes and 592 tonnes. i.e. They did not change (see table below, last row). In fact, most of the large gold holding countries maintained static gold reserve holdings throughout the 1980s which would suggest very little customer order activity for the Bank of England gold order desk.
Therefore the unchanging nature of the EEA gold reserves during the 1980s again does not explain the Bank’s reference to Smeeton as ‘managing’ the EEA gold in the 1980s.
What were these ‘Gold activities’?
I had previously come across the Bank of England’s 1964 London gold market essay and it’s reference to the Bank acting as a ‘moderating influence’ on the gold price. The same passage that the Bank quoted to me is also in a 1976 book called “The Arena of International Finance” by Charles Coombs (page 46). Coombs was head of foreign open market operations at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from the 1950s until the 1970s.
The Bank of England’s 1964 essay is from it’s Q1 quarterly bulletin and was published in March 1964. This was soon after the launch of the London gold pool but the reference to the role of the Bank as a ‘moderating influence’ against ‘violent and unnecessary movements in the price’ goes back to before the beginning of the London Gold Pool.
Prior to the Gold Pool commencing operations in 1962, the Bank of England was already single-handedly intervening into the London good market aiming to ‘smoothen’ the gold price so that it reverted to near $35 per ounce, by participating in the daily fixing (there was only one fixing at that time, the morning fixing). The Bank aimed to keep the London price near the U.S. Treasury gold window price so as to prevent speculative arbitrage between the two prices (excluding 1/4% US Treasury fee and transport costs).
It was based on these Bank of England operations that Charles Coombs at the Federal Reserve Bank suggested to the Bank of England in 1961 that they consider creating a gold pool amongst the U.S. and major European central banks.
Charles Coombs stated in his 1976 book, ‘The Arena of International Finance’ (page 50), that in 1960:
“The Bank of England, having assumed some responsibility for selling gold to maintain orderly market conditions, was in the awkward position of being squeezed out of the market by other central bank buyers whenever gold became available.”
A recent history of the Bank of England also refers to the Bank of England’s intervention prior to the commencement of the London Gold Pool in 1962:
“The selling consortium was in operation to prevent an unduly rise in the price when demand was strong. It had to be specifically activated by the members. It’s operations did not affect the extent of intervention in the market and the Bank continued to intervene in its own judgement.”
(Source: Page 190, ‘The Bank of England: 1950s to 1979′ by Forrest Capie, Cambridge University Press).
The Bank of England have historically used the terms ‘smoothing operation’ and ‘stabilisation operation’ when referring to operations and interventions into the gold and foreign exchange markets. A price smoothing operation is a softer, less radical version of a price stabilisation operation.
Upon reading Oliver Page’s comments about Smeeten, my initial theory was that Terry Smeeton and the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division had also been intervening into the daily gold fixings during the 1980s so as to smoothen the gold price, via offering and bidding from a special account that sold/lent at one price (high) and bought back again at a lower price (low).
Since I asked the Bank to explain Oliver Page’s comments and they declined to do so, this even crystallised my theory somewhat. I usually prefer not to speculate. My approach is to clarify information first and try to validate it. Only if it cannot be validated can some speculation come into play. But if the Bank of England can’t answer a simple question directly, then they are inviting speculation.
My speculation thesis is that in the 1980s, Smeeton and the Bank were using a pool of gold to create artificial supply into the gold fixings so as to influence the gold price, either selling gold directly during the fixings, or lending gold short-term to the chair or lending short-term to some of the four other fixing members.
Intervention of course is two-way, so could also consist of creating demand in the fixings so as to support the price. Keeping a price within a trading ‘band’ is often a goal of financial market intervention. The mechanics of a demand side intervention would merely be the opposite of the possible tactics illustrated below.
Supplying or selling metal into the fixings and buying it back later is a gold trading tactic that would (in the Bank’s eyes) “partially help the fixings” while “producing an overall profit” for the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division, and also a set of transactions where the trading P & L would need monitoring and risk management (from Oliver Page). The profit creation would be generated by selling high and buying low, much like a trader’s short sell trade and similar to what the Bank of England and the London Gold Pool selling syndicate did in the 1960s.
Within this scenario, I think Smeeton could have been doing a number of things via these ‘gold activities’:
- influencing the opening price of the fixing in the hours before a fixing by trading in the market so that the fixing Chair would call a certain opening price targeted by the Bank
- putting in orders to the fixing from a special gold account so as to affect overall supply and demand and target a certain opening price
- using an open line to the Chair to put in offers based on the market’s natural business and the quotes from the order books on the call
- lending to some of the five gold broker participants on a short-term basis from the EEA account or another account so as to influence supply (the five brokers all had allocated gold accounts at the Bank of England from the late 1970s onwards)
- and finally, buying back or squaring off the above transactions at some point so as to try to “produce an overall profit”
By the 1980s the five London gold brokers and fixing members all maintained allocated gold accounts at the Bank of England and had storage space in the Bank’s vaults. This development occurred in the late 1970s, and was done initially for security reasons so as to minimise the transport of gold bullion around the City of London.
It would therefore be very straightforward in the 1980s for the Bank to manage transfers and allocations between a gold pool account and gold accounts of one or more of the five London gold market brokers held at the Bank.
[In fact, gold transfers between the Bank of England and the London gold market regularly happen to this day in a different guise via the Bank acting as clearer of last resort with the six bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL).]
As to whether a 1980s Bank of England gold pool would be sourced from EEA gold, or include other customer gold, or would be a distinct separate account is not that important. Even if such an operation within the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division was stand-alone and not coordinated with other central banks, the G10 central banks would obviously be briefed on it given their perennial close coordination on gold market issues via Basel.
The February 1998 edition of the LBMA’s Alchemist magazine features an interview with Terry Smeeton just before he retired from the Bank of England in March 1998. In the interview, on pages 2 and 3, when asked about his view on the relationship between the Bank and the London gold market, particularly in light of gold market supervision moving from the Bank to the FSA in 1998, Smeeton said:
“When I started in the Bank of England’s foreign exchange area, we really only had the operational role, which we still, of course, have today. There was no formal supervision of the gold market, but the Bank has always maintained a maternal eye on the market, and that remained the case until the Financial Services Act and the introduction of the Section 43 regime.”
Could this Bank of England ‘maternal eye’ that Terry Smeeton refers to have extended to intervention into the gold fixings in the 1980s so as to be a ‘moderating influence’, and to “avoid violent and unnecessary movements” in the gold price?
To answer that question, you’d have to ask the Bank of England. And they probably wouldn’t tell you one way or the other.
45 New Bridge Road Singapore059398Singapore Company Registration No.: 201217896Z
Phone: +65 6284 4653