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European Central Bank gold reserves held across 5 locations. ECB will not disclose Gold Bar List.

The European Central Bank (ECB), creator of the Euro, currently claims to hold 504.8 tonnes of gold reserves. These gold holdings are reflected on the ECB balance sheet and arose from transfers made to the ECB by Euro member national central banks, mainly in January 1999 at the birth of the Euro. As of the end of December 2015, these ECB gold reserves were valued on the ECB balance sheet at market prices and amounted to €15.79 billion. 

The ECB very recently confirmed to BullionStar that its gold reserves are stored across 5 international locations. However, the ECB also confirmed that it does not physically audit its gold, nor will it divulge a bar list / weight list of these gold bar holdings.

Questions and Answers

BullionStar recently put a number of questions to the European Central Bank about the ECB’s gold holdings. The ECB Communications Directorate replied to these questions with answers that appear to include a number of facts about the ECB gold reserves which have not previously been published. The questions put to the ECB and its responses are listed below (underlining added):

Question 1:The 2015 ECB Annual Report states that as at 31 December 2015, the ECB held 16,229,522 ounces of fine gold equivalent to 504.8 tonnes of goldGiven that the ECB gold holdings arose from transfers by the respective member central banks, could you confirm the storage locations in which this ECB gold is currently held (for example at the Bank of England etc), and the percentage breakdown of amount stored per storage location.”

ECB Response:The gold of the ECB is located in London, Paris, Lisbon, New York and Rome. The ECB does not disclose its distribution over these places. The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB and moving it was seen and is seen as too costly.

Question 2: “Could you clarify as to how, if at all, this gold is audited, and whether it physical audited by the ECB or by a 3rd party?”

ECB Response:The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.

Question 3: “Finally, can the ECB supply a full weight list of the gold bars that comprise the 504.8 tonnes of gold referred to above?”

ECB Response:The ECB does not disclose this information.

euro-sign-frankfurt

London, New York, Paris, Rome, Lisbon

Given that some of the information shared by the ECB has arguably not been in the public record before, each of the 3 ECB answers above is worth further exploration.

In January 1999, when the Euro currency was created (Stage 3 of Economic and Monetary Union), each founding member national central bank (NCB) of the Euro transferred a quantity of foreign reserve assets to the ECB. Of these transfers, 85% was paid to the ECB in the form of US dollars and Japanese Yen, and 15% was paid to the ECB in the form of physical gold.

Initially in January 1999, central banks of 11 countries that joined the Euro made these transfers to the ECB, and subsequently the central banks of a further 8 countries that later joined the Euro also executed similar transfers to the ECB.

All of the foreign exchange and gold reserves that were transferred to and are owned by the ECB are managed in a decentralised manner by the national central banks that initiated the transfers. Essentially, each national central bank acts as an agent for the ECB and each NCB still manages that portion of reserves that it transferred to the ECB. This also applies to the transferred gold and means that the gold transferred to the ECB never physically moved anywhere, it just stayed where it had been when the transfers of ownership were made.

That is why, as the ECB response to Question 1 states: “The gold of the ECB is stored there because it was already stored there before ownership was transferred to the ECB”.

What is probably most interesting about the latest ECB statement is that it names 5 city locations over which the ECB’s gold is stored. The 5 gold storage locations stated by the ECB are London, New York, Paris, Rome and Lisbon. Since the gold transferred to the ECB in 1999 by the national central banks would have already been stored in central banks gold vaults, these 5 city locations undoubtedly refer to the gold vaults of:

  • the Bank of England
  • the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
  • the Banque de France
  • the Banca d’Italia
  • Banco de Portugal

The fact the ECB’s gold holdings are supposedly stored at these 5 locations can be explained as follows:

ecb-transfers
Table 1: Central bank FX and Gold transfers to the ECB, January 1999

Between 4th and 7th January 1999, 11 central banks transferred a total of €39.469 billion in reserve assets to the ECB (in the form of gold, cash and securities). Of this total, 15% was in the form of gold, amounting to 24 million ounces of gold (747 tonnes of gold) which was valued at that time at €246.368 per fine ounce of gold, or €5.92 billion. The 85% transferred in the form of currencies comprised 90% US Dollars and 10% Japanese Yen. See pages 152 and 153 of ECB annual report 1999 for more details.

The 11 central banks that made the transfers to the ECB in January 1999 were the central banks of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Finland, Spain and Portugal. See Table 1 for details of these gold transfers, and the amount of gold transferred to ECB ownership by each central bank.

The value of reserves transferred to the ECB by each national central bank were based on a percentage formula called a ‘capital key’ which also determined how much each central bank subscribed to the founding capital of the ECB. This capital key was based on equally weighting the percentage of population and GDP each Euro founding member economy represented, therefore central banks such as Deutsche Bundesbank, Banque de France, and Banca d’Italia comprised the largest transfers, as can be see in Table 1. It also meant that these 3 central banks transferred the largest amounts of gold to the ECB, with the Bundesbank for example transferring 232 tonnes of gold to the ECB.

The Bundesbank gold transfer to the ECB in January 1999 took place at the Bank of England. The Bundesbank actually confirmed in its own published gold holdings spreadsheet that this transfer took place at the Bank of England. See spreadsheet Column 5 (BoE tonnes), Rows 1998 and 1999, where the Bundesbank gold holdings fell by 332 tonnes between 1998 and 1999 from 1,521 tonnes to 1,189 tonnes and also see Column 20 where gold lending rose from 149 tonnes to 249 tonnes. Therefore, between 1998 and 1999, 232 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Bundesbank gold account at the bank of England to the ECB account at the Bank of England, and 100 tonnes was added to the Bundesbank’s gold loans.

Paris and Rome

The Banque de France currently stores the majority (over 90%) of its gold reserves in its own vaults in Paris, so it it realistic to assume that when the Banque de France transferred 159 tonnes of gold to the ECB in January 1999, it did so using gold stored in the Banque de France vaults in Paris. Likewise, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia, which currently stores half of its gold reserves at its own vaults in Rome, transferred 141 gold stored in its Rome vaults to the ECB in 1999. This would explain the Paris and Rome gold holdings of the ECB. While a few ex French colony central banks are known to have historically stored gold with the Banque de France in Paris, none of the founding members of the Euro (apart from the Bundesbank) are on the record as having stored gold in Paris, at least not for a long time. The Banca d’Italia is not known for storing gold on behalf of other national central banks.

Lisbon and New York

The Banco de Portugal currently holds its gold reserves in Lisbon and also at the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and with the BIS. The ECB gold stored in Lisbon, Portugal most likely refers to the 18.2 tonnes of gold transferred by the Banco de Portugal to the ECB in January 1999, because a) that makes most sense, and b) the Banco de Portugal is not known as a contemporary gold custodian for other central banks.

Of the other 7 central banks that transferred gold to the ECB in January 1999, the central banks of Austria, Belgium and Ireland store most of their gold at the Bank of England so are the most likely candidates to have made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. See BullionStar blog “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for more details of where central banks are known to store gold.

The Netherlands and Finland currently store some of their gold reserves at the Bank of England and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and probably also did so in 1998/99, so one or both of these banks could have made transfers to the ECB at the FRBNY. Another contender for transferring gold held at the FRBNY is the Spanish central bank since it historically was a holder of gold at the NYFED. It’s not clear where the central bank of Luxembourg held or holds gold but it’s not material since Luxembourg only transferred just over 1 tonne to the ECB in January 1999.

Greece and Later Euro members

Greece joined the Euro in January 2001 and upon joining it transferred 19.5 tonnes of gold to the ECB. Greece is known for storing some of its gold at the FRBNY and some at the Bank of England, so Greece too is a candidate for possibly transferring New York held gold to the ECB. In theory, the ECB’s New York held gold may not have even arisen from direct transfers from Euro member central banks but could be the result of a location swap. Without the national central banks or the ECB providing this information, we just don’t know for sure how the ECB’s New York gold holdings arose.

Another 7 countries joined the Euro after Greece. These countries were Slovenia on 1st January 2007, Malta and Cyprus 1st January 2008, Slovakia 1st January 2009, Estonia 1st January 2011, Latvia 1st January 2014, and Lithuania 1st January 2015. The majority of these central banks made gold transfers to the ECB at the Bank of England. In total these 7 central banks only transferred 9.4 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so their transfers are not really material to the ECB’s gold holdings.

ECB Gold Sales: 271.5 tonnes

More importantly, the ECB sold 271.5 tonnes of gold between Q1 2005 and Q1 2009. These sales comprised 47 tonnes announced on 31 March 2005, 57 tonnes announced 31 March 2006,  37 tonnes over April and May 2007 announced 1 June 2007, 23 tonnes of sales completed on 30 November 2006, 42 tonnes announced 30 November 2007, 30 tonnes of completed sales announced 30 June 2008, and 35.5 tonnes completed in Q1 2009.

These sales explain why the ECB currently only holds 504.8 tonnes of gold:

i.e. 766.9 t (including Greece) – 271.5 t sales + 9.4 t smaller member transfers = 504.8 t

The ECB does not provide, nor has ever provided, any information as to where the 271.5 tonnes of gold  involved in these 2005-2009 sales was stored when it was sold. The fact that the ECB still claims to hold gold in Paris, Rome and Lisbon, as well as London and New York, suggests that at least some of the gold transferred by the Banque de France, Banca d’Italia and Banco de Portugal in 1999 is still held by the ECB.

If the ECB had sold all the gold originally transferred to it by all central banks other than France, Italy, Portugal and Germany, this would only amount to 197 tonnes, so another 74 tonnes would have been needed to make up the shortfall, which would probably have come from the ECB holdings at the Bank of England since that is where most potential central bank and bullion bank buyers hold gold accounts and where most gold is traded on the international market.

Even taking into account Greece’s 19.4 tonne gold transfer to the ECB in January 2001, and excluding the French, Italian, German and Portuguese transfers in 1999, the ECB’s 271.5 tonnes of gold sales would still have burned through all the smaller transfers and left a shortfall. So the ECB gold sales may have come from gold sourced from all of its 5 storage loacations.

It’s also possible that one or more of the original 11 central banks transferred gold to the ECB that was stored at a location entirely distinct from the 5 currently named locations, for example gold stored at the Swiss National Bank. If that particular gold was then sold over the 2005-2009 period, it would not get picked up in the current locations. It’s also possible that some or all of the 271.5 tonnes of gold sold by the ECB over 2005-2009 had been loaned out, and that the ‘sales’ were just a book squaring exercise in ‘selling’ gold which the lenders failed to return, with the loan transactions being cash-settled.

Draghi resumes ECB press conference after being attacked by protester

No Physical Audit of ECB Gold

Given that the Euro is the 2nd largest reserve currency in the world and the 2nd most traded currency in the world, the ECB’s gold and how that gold is accounted for is certainly a topic of interest. Although the ECB’s gold doesn’t directly back the Euro, it backs the balance sheet of the central bank that manages and administers the Euro, i.e. the ECB.

The valuation of gold on the ECB’s annual balance sheet also adds to unrecognised gains on gold in the ECB’s revaluation account. Given gold’s substantial price appreciation between 1999 and 2015, the ECB’s unrecognised gains on gold amount to €11.9 billion as of 31 December 2015.

It is therefore shocking, but not entirely surprising, that the ECB doesn’t perform a physical audit of its gold bars and has never done so since initiating ownership of this gold in 1999. Shocking because this lack of physical audit goes against even the most basic accounting conventions and fails to independently prove that the gold is where its claimed to be, but not surprising because the world of central banking and gold arrogantly ignores and bulldozes through all generally accepted accounting conventions. Geographically, 2 of the locations where the ECB claims to store a percentage of its gold are not even in the Eurozone (London and New York), and infamously, the Bundesbank is taking 7 years to repatriate a large portion of its gold from New York, so the New York storage location of ECB gold holdings should immediately raise a red flag. Furthermore, the UK is moving (slowly) towards Brexit and away from the EU.

Recall the response above from the ECB:

The ECB has no physical audit of its gold bars. The gold bars that the ECB owns are individually identified and each year the ECB receives a detailed statement of these gold deposits. The central banks where the gold is stored are totally reliable.

Imagine a physical-gold backed Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) such as the SPDR Gold Trust or iShares Gold Trust coming out with such a statement. They would be run out of town. References to ‘totally reliable’ are all very fine, but ‘totally reliable’ wouldn’t stand up in court during an ownership claim case, and assurances of ‘totally reliable’ are not enough, especially in the gold storage and auditing businesses.

The ECB is essentially saying that these ‘statements’ of its gold deposits that it receives from its storage custodians are all that is needed to for an “audit” since the custodians are ‘totally reliable‘.

This auditing of pieces of paper (statements) by the ECB also sounds very similar to how the Banca d’Italia and the Deutsche Bundesbank conduct their gold auditing on externally held gold i.e. they also merely read pieces of paper. Banca d’Italia auditsannual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories” (the FRBNY, the Bank of England, and the SNB/BIS).

The Bundesbank does likewise for its externally held gold (it audits bits of paper), and solely relies on statements from custodians that hold its gold abroad. The Bundesbank actually got into a lot of heat over this procedure in 2012 from the German Federal Court of Auditors who criticised the Bundesbank’s blasé attitude and lack of physical auditing, criticism which the Bundesbank’s executive director Andreas Dombret hilariously and unsuccessfully tried to bury in a speech to the FRBNY  in New York in November 2012 in which he called the controversy a “bizarre public discussion” and “a phantom debate on the safety of our gold reserves“, and ridiculously referred to the movies Die Hard with a Vengeance and Goldfinger, to wit:

“The days in which Hollywood Germans such as Gerd Fröbe, better known as Goldfinger, and East German terrorist Simon Gruber, masterminded gold heists in US vaults are long gone. Nobody can seriously imagine scenarios like these, which are reminiscent of a James Bond movie with Goldfinger playing the role of a US Fed accounting clerk.”

Where is the ECB Gold Bar Weight List?

Since, as the ECB states, it’s gold bars are “individually identified“, then gold bar weight lists of the ECB’s gold do indeed exist. This then begs the question, where are these weight lists, and why not release them if the ECB has nothing to hide?

Quickly, to define a weight list, a gold bar weight list is an itemised list of all the gold bars held within a holding which uniquely identifies each bar in the holding. In the wholesale gold market, such as the London Gold Market, the LBMA’s “Good Delivery Rules” address weight lists, and state that for each gold bar on a weight list, it must list the bar serial number, the refiner name, the gross weight of the bar, the gold purity of the bar and the fine weight of the bar. The LBMA also state that “year of manufacture is one of the required ‘marks’ on the bar”.

Recall from above that when the ECB was asked to provide a full weight list of its 504.8 tonnes of gold bars, it responded: The ECB does not disclose this information.

After receiving this response, BullionStar then asked in a followup question as to why the ECB doesn’t disclose a weight list of the gold bars. The ECB responded (underlining added):

“We would like to inform you that, while the total weight and value of the gold held by the European Central Bank (ECB) can be considered to be of interest to the public, the weight of each gold bar is a technicality that does not affect the economic characteristics of the ECB’s gold holdings. Therefore the latter does not warrant a publication.

It is a very simple task to publish such a weight list in an automated fashion. The large gold backed ETFs publish such weight lists online each and every day, which run in to the hundreds of pages. Publication of a weight list by the ECB would be a very simple process and would prove that the claimed bars are actually allocated and audited.

This ECB excuse is frankly foolish and pathetic and is yet another poorly crafted excuse in the litany of poorly crafted excuses issued by large gold holding central banks in Europe to justify not publishing gold bar weight lists. The Dutch central bank recently refused to issue a gold bar weight list since it said it would be too costly and administratively burdensome. The Austrian central bank in refusing to publish a weight list claimed as an excuse that it “does not have the required list online“. Last year in 2015, the German Bundesbank issued a half-baked useless list of its gold bar holdings which was without the industry standard required refiner brand and bar serial number details.  (For more details, see Koos Jansen BullionStar blogs “Dutch Central Bank Refuses To Publish Gold Bar List For Dubious Reasons“, and “Central Bank Austria Claims To Have Audited Gold at BOE. Refuses To Release Audit Reports & Gold Bar List“, and a Peter Boehringer guest post “Guest Post: 47 years after 1968, Bundesbank STILL fails to deliver a gold bar number list“).

The more evidence that is gathered about the refusal of central banks to issue industry standard gold bar weight lists, the more it becomes obvious that there is a coordinated understanding between central banks never to release this information into the public domain.

The most likely reason for this gold bar weight list secrecy is that knowledge of the contents of central bank gold bar weight lists could begin to provide some visibility into central bank gold operations such as gold lending, gold swaps, location swaps, undisclosed central bank gold sales, and importantly, foreign exchange and gold market interventions. This is because with weight list comparisons, gold bars from one central bank weight list could begin turning up in another central bank weight list or else turning up in the transparent gold holdings of vehicles such as gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds.

Conclusion

Instead of being fixated with the ECB’s continual disastrous and extended QE policy, perhaps some financial journalists could bring themselves to asking Mario Draghi some questions about the ECB gold reserves at the next ECB press briefing, questions such as the percentage split in storage distribution between the 5 ECB gold storage locations, why ECB gold is being held in New York, why is there no physical audit of the gold by the ECB, why does the ECB not publish a weight list of gold bar holdings, and do the ECB or its national central bank agents intervene into the gold market using ECB gold reserves.

The lackadaisical attitude of the ECB to its gold reserves by never physically auditing them is also a poor example to set for all 28 of the central bank members of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), and doesn’t bode well for any ESCB member central bank in being any less secretive than the ECB headquarters mothership.

If gold does re-emerge at the core of a revitalised international monetary system and takes on a currency backing role in the future, the haphazard and non-disclosed distribution of the ECB’s current gold reserves over 5 locations, the lack of physical gold audits, and the lack of public details of any of the ECB gold holdings won’t really inspire market confidence, and is proving to be even less transparent than similar metrics from that other secretive large gold holding bloc, i.e the USA.

From Gold Trains to Gold Loans – Banca d’Italia’s Mammoth Gold Reserves

Italy’s gold has had an eventful history. Robbed by the Nazis and taken to Berlin. Loaded on to gold trains and sent to Switzerland. Flown from London to Milan and Rome. Used as super-sized collateral for gold backed loans from West Germany while sitting quietly in a vault in New York. Leveraged as a springboard to prepare for Euro membership entry.  Inspired Italian senators to visit the Palazzo Koch in Rome. Half of it is now in permanent residency in downtown Manhattan, or is it? Even Mario Draghi, European Central Bank (ECB) president, has a view on Italy’s gold. The below commentary tries to make sense of it all by bringing together pieces of the Italian gold jigsaw that I have collected.

2,451.8 tonnes

According to officially reported gold holdings, and excluding the gold holdings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Italy’s central bank, the Banca d’Italia, which holds Italy’s gold reserves, is ranked as the world’s third largest official holder of gold after the US and Germany, with total gold holdings of 2,451.8 tonnes, worth more than US$ 105 billion at current market prices. Notable, Italy’s gold is owned by the Banca d’Italia, and not owned by the Italian State. This contrasts to most European nations where the gold reserves are owned by the state and are merely held and managed by that country’s respective central bank under an official mandate.

Italy’s gold reserves have remained constant at 2451.8 tonnes since 1999. Although the Banca d’Italia has been a signatory to all 4 Central Bank Gold Agreements and could have conducted gold sales within the limits of the agreements between 1999 and the present, it did not engage in any gold sales under either CBGA1 (1999-2004), CBGA2 (2004-2009), or CBGA3 (2009-2014), and as of now, has not conducted any sales under CBGA4 (2014-2019). With 2,451.8 tonnes of gold, the Banca d’Italia holds marginally more than the Banque de France, which claims official gold holdings of 2,435.8 tonnes.

Gold as a percentage of total reserves for both banks is very similar, with Italy’s gold comprising 69.7% of total reserve assets against 67.2% for France. Similarly, German’s gold reserves, at 3,378.2 tonnes, are 70.1% of its total reserves. See the World Gold Council’s Latest World Official Gold Reserves data for details.

So it appears that the big three European gold holders consider their gold to be a critical part of their foreign reserves and are keeping the ratio of their gold to total reserves within around the 70% mark.

Towards Transparency?

In April 2014, Banca d’Italia published a 3 page report about Italy’s gold reserves titled “Le Riserve Auree della Banca D’Italia” (published only in Italian). The report highlights that Italy’s gold is held in four storage locations, one of which is in Italy.

Specifically, in the report, Banca d’Italia confirmed that 1,199.4 tonnes of its gold, approximately half the total, is held in the Bank’s vaults which are located in the basement levels of its Palazzo Koch headquarters in Rome. The majority of remainder is stored in the Federal Reserve Bank’s gold vault in New York. The report also states that small amounts of Banca d’Italia gold are stored at the vaults of the Swiss National Bank in Berne, Switzerland, and at the vaults of the Bank of England in London.

As to why Italian gold is stored abroad in New York, London and Berne and not in other countries, is explained by historical data, and explained below.

++ Bankitalia: Visco, statuto riafferma indipendenza ++

Palazzo Koch

In its Palazza Koch vaults in Rome, the Banca d’Italia claims to store 1199.4 tonnes of gold. Of this total, 1195.3 tonnes are in the form of gold bars (represented by 95,493 bars), and 4.1 tonnes are in the form of gold coins (represented by 871,713 coins). While most of the bars in Rome are prism-shaped (trapezoidal), there are also brick-shaped bars with rounded corners (made by the US Mint’s New York Assay Office) and also ‘panetto’ (loaf-shaped) ‘English’ bars. The average weight of the bars in Palazzo Koch is 12.5 kg (400 oz), with bar weights ranging from relatively small 4.2 kgs up to some very large 19.7 kgs bars. The average fineness / gold purity of the Rome stored bars is 996.2 fine, with some of the holdings being 999.99 fine bars.

The Banca d’Italia also states that 141 tonnes of gold that it transferred to the ECB in 1999 as a requirement for membership of the Euro is also stored in Palazzo Koch. This would put the total gold holdings in the Palazzo Koch vaults at 1340 tonnes. Gold transferred to the ECB by its Euro member central banks is managed by the ECB on a decentralised basis, and is held by the ECB in whatever location it was stored in when the initial transfers occurred, subject to various location swaps which may have taken place since 1999.

The Vault is revealed

While the Banca d’Italia’s 3 page report appears to be the first official written and self-published confirmation from the Bank which lists the exact storage sites of its gold reserves, these four storage locations were also confirmed to Italian TV station RAI in 2010 when an RAI presenter and crew were allowed to film a report from inside the Bank’s gold vaults in Rome.

This RAI broadcast was for an episode of ‘Passaggio a Nord Ovest’, presented by Alberto Angela.

Translation of Video

For those who don’t speak Italian, such as myself, I asked an Italian friend to translate Alberto Angela’s video report and the other voice-overs in the report. The translation of the above video is as follows:

Banca D’Italia features a secret and extremely important place which represents Italy’s wealth: it’s our gold reserve.

We’ve had a special permission to visit this place, called “the sacristy of gold.” Here there’s a big protected door, and three high personnel from Banca d’Italia who are opening the door for me. Three keys are needed to open the door of the vault, one after the other and operated by three different people. Obviously we can’t show the security systems nor the faces of these men, but the door is huge, at least half a metre, and leads to another gate where again three keys must be used. Past this, that’s where our country’s gold is kept. 

Here we are. It’s exciting to get in here, the environment is simple, sober. [general commentary, then camera shows a large amount of gold]

This is not all the gold we own, as part of it is also stored in The Federal Reserve in the US, in the Bank of England in the UK and in Banca dei Regolamenti Nazionali in Switzerland. I’m speechless when exploring the sacristy, … you don’t see this every day. 

The value of all this gold is established by the  European Central Bank, that also establishes its price. The overall value appears in the end of year balance. In 2005 the gold was valued at 20 miliardi of Euros (billions)

There are three types of lingotti (square-shaped gold). {he says how much the bars weigh}

They feature some signs on them, to say that they have been checked. Some are almost 100% gold, pure gold. There’s also a serial number on the gold, and a swastika on some of them as the Nazi took away all our gold, transferring it first to the north of Italy and then to Germany and Switzerland. At the end of the war part of it came back featuring the Nazi sign.

This gold represents the symbol of our wealth, without this we wouldn’t be able to deal with the rest of the world, it’s a symbol for Italy, a guarantee, like a family’s jewelry. They can be used to get loans as happened when Italy asked for a loan from Germany and they demanded, as a guarantee, the value in gold. So the name Germany was put on this gold at the time.

{the reporter then talks about going from gold to notes and ‘convertibility’ – trust in the States is now the guarantee for exchanges, and not gold, says the voice. It’s a relation of trust … Banca d’Italia keeps an eye on this. After Maastricht, a lot of our gold has left Italy to join the other countries’ gold to create the communitarian reserve of the Euro}”

Note that the reporter, Angela, states that in addition to Rome, the Italian gold is stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, the Bank of England in London, and at the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland. The reporter uses the exact words “Banca dei Regolamenti Nazionali”.

The BIS and SNB

This BIS as Italy’s gold custodian was also confirmed in 2009 by Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, which published an article about Italy’s gold, stating that it was held in Rome, at the Federal Reserve in New York, in the ‘vaults’ of the BIS in Basel, and in the vaults of the Bank of England.

This apparent inconsistency between a) the Banca d’Italia’s report, which claims that its gold in Switzerland is at the Swiss National Bank (SNB) in Berne, and b) the RAI broadcast, which states that some Italian gold is stored with the BIS in Switzerland, is technically not a contradiction since the BIS does not maintain its own gold storage facilities in Switzerland. The BIS just makes use of the SNB’s gold vaults in Berne.

If you look on its website, under foreign exchange and gold services, the BIS specifically states that it uses ‘Berne’ as one of its safekeeping facilities for gold, i.e. it offers its clients “safekeeping and settlements facilities available loco London, Berne or New York”. Loco refers to settlement location of a precious metals transaction. By confirming that its Swiss storage is with the BIS, and that it also stores gold at the Swiss National Bank in Berne, the Banca d’Italia has, maybe inadvertently, confirmed that the BIS makes use of the Swiss National Bank’s gold vaults, and that the SNB vaults are in fact in Berne. while its knwn that the SNB gold vaults are in Berne, the SNB rarely, if ever, talks about this.

However, in 2008, Berne-based Swiss newspaper “Der Bund” published an article revealing that the SNB’s gold vaults are in Berne underneath the Bundesplatz Square. Bundesplatz Square is adjacent to the SNB’s headquarters at No. 1 Bundsplatz. BIS literature, such as the official BIS history publication “Central bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements, 1930 – 1973” also confirms that the SNB gold vaults are in Berne and that the BIS and the Banca d’Italia have held gold accounts with the SNB in Berne since at least the 1930s. Note that the SNB actually has two headquarters, one in Berne, the other in Zurich at Börsenstrasse.Its quite possible that some of the SNB custodied gold is also stored in the vaults of its Zurich headquarters under Paradeplatz or Bürkliplatz.

Simple Questions met with Ultra-Secrecy

In April 2014, in two emails, I asked the Banca d’Italia’s press office specifically about this SNB / BIS situation, and also about the Banca d’Italia gold stored in New York, (and also about gold leasing – see separate section below). My questions were as follows:

“The Banca dItalia states in its April (2014) gold document that the Italian gold held in Switzerland is stored at the Swiss National Bank in Berne. Previous profiles of the Banca dItalia gold storage arrangements in an RAI TV broadcast in 2010 and in a La Republica newspaper article in 2009 state that the Italian gold in Switzerland is deposited with the Bank of International Settlements (BIS).

Given that the BIS use the SNB vaults in Berne to store gold deposited with them (since they don’t have their own gold storage facilities in Switzerland), then the reference to the SNB is not surprising.

However, my question is, does the Banca dItalia store its gold in Berne as gold sight deposits with the BIS or as earmarked custody gold with the SNB, or a combination of the two?”

“Is the gold of the Banca d’Italia that is held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York held under earmark (custody), or held in a sight account?”

The Banca d’Italia responded (simultaneously on all questions):
“This is to inform you that unfortunately Banca d’Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
Regards
Press and External Relations Division, Secretariat To The Governing Board And Communications Directorate, Bank of Italy”

By ‘website note’, the press and external relations division was referring to the 3 page report on gold reserves (see above) that the Bank published in April 2014.

Nazi Bars in Rome

The RAI television broadcast from 2010 was also notable in that it revealed that the Banca d’Italia holds bars of varied origins in its Rome vaults, including bars stamped with the official Bank of England stamp, and bars from the US Assay Office in New York including a featured bar from 1947. There are also Russian bars shown in the RAI video, one of which is shown in the video with the CCCP lettering, the hammer and sickle stamp, and the letters HKUM.

More surprisingly perhaps, is the fact that the Banca d’Italia also holds Nazi gold bars from the Prussian Mint in Berlin. The RAI broadcast video shows a 1940 Nazi bar from Berlin, stamped with the eagle and swastika insignia and with Prussian mint markings. The Nazi bar holdings can be explained by the fact that the Italian gold was confiscated by the Nazis during World War 2 and ended up being moved out of Rome up to the north of Italy and then most of it was transported onwards to Berlin in Germany or else to Switzerland. Following the war, some of the gold given back to the Italians as part of the Tripartite Commission payouts happened to be Prussian Mint bars stamped with the Nazi symbol (see below for historical account of Italian gold movements during World War 2).

riserve auree1
A view of the gold on shelves in the Palazzo Koch vaults, Rome

The Foreign held Italian gold

The Banca d’Italia gold document does not specify how much of the Italian gold is held in New York, London and Berne, apart from stating that most of the gold that is not stored in Rome is stored in New York. Note that this is even less transparent than the brief information that the Deutsche Bundesbank publishes about its gold reserves storage locations. However, the Banca d’Italia document does state that “the bulk” of foreign stored gold is in New York (“la parte più consistente è custodita a New York“), and that  “contingents of smaller size” are located in London and Berne (“Altri contingenti di dimensioni più contenute si trovano a Berna, presso la Banca Nazionale Svizzera, e a Londra presso la Banca d’Inghilterra“).

While one could argue about the meaning of ‘the bulk’ in terms of quantity, essentially the Banca d’Italia gold document implies that the London and Berne holdings are not very large. More specifically, it is possible using historical data and records of Italian gold movements to infer that there is little Italian gold in London and Berne.

Not a lot in London

It does not look like Banca d’Italia holds anything other than a very small amount of gold in London. During the late 1960s, mainly between 1966 and 1968, the Banca d’Italia transported most of the gold that it had stored at the Bank of England vaults back to Italy. Regular shipments were exported and delivered by MAT (the secure transport company) to the Banca d’Italia’s vaults in both Rome and Milan, sometimes about 4 tonnes at a time, sometimes 10 tonnes at a time. Historic Bank of England gold account “set-aside” ledger entries (C142/5 Bullion Office Set Aside Ledger, A-K, 1943-1971) show that by the end of 1969, the Banca d’Italia only held 988 gold bars in London, weighing 396,000 ozs,  or approximately 12.34 tonnes. In support of the veracity of this statement, see the specific ledger entry below.

banca-d-italia-boe-dec-1969-12-3-tonnes

During the Banca d’Italia’s gold transport period out of the Bank of England, various other transfers were also made from the Banca d’Italia gold account to the BIS gold account at the Bank of England. Since Italian gold reserves have not in total changed very much since December 1969, it is realistic to assume that the Banca d’Italia’s London gold holdings have not changed dramatically since December 1969, unless there have been location swaps executed since that time between London and New York or between London and Berne. This would generally only have been done for a specific reason such as to allow Italian gold lending through the London market. Significant gold lending only began in London in the mid-1980s, and the Banca d’Italia has never been on public record as having engaged in gold lending on the London Gold Lending Market.

Another possibility is that the Italians now use the BIS gold account(s) to hold gold in London in the same way that they do in Berne. This would allow the statement that some of the Italian gold is held in London to be true, even though the gold would, in this case, be held via the BIS gold account at the Bank of England, and not directly by a Banca d’Italia gold custody account in London.

Little in Berne

There does not appear to have been any Italian gold left in Berne after WWII (see historical details below), so whatever Italian balance is currently in Berne has been built up since 1946. Of relevance to the gold vaults in Berne, both the central banks of Finland (Bank of Finland) and Sweden (Riksbank) recently published the international locations of their gold reserves, and revealed that only very small percentages of their gold is kept in the Swiss National Bank vaults in Switzerland. Of the Riksbank’s 125.7 tonnes of gold reserves, only 2.8 tonnes (2.2%) is stored in the SNB vaults. For the Bank of Finland, only 7%, or 3.4 tonnes of its 49.1 tonnes of gold reserves are stored with the SNB in Switzerland.

Mostly in Manhattan

If this Swedish-Finnish 2-7% range of allocations held at the SNB was applied to the Italian gold that held outside Italy, it would result in between 25 tonnes and 87.6 tonnes of Italian gold being held at the SNB vaults in Berne. Factoring in 12 tonnes held at the Bank of England and a small amount held in Berne, this would imply nearly 1,200 tonnes of Italian gold at the Federal Reserve in New York.

There were at least 543 tonnes of Italian gold at the Federal Reserve in New York in the mid-1970s, since this was the quantity of Italian gold collateral that the Bundesbank held at the New York Fed during its first gold loan to Italy between 1974 and 1976 (see discussion below of the 1970s West Germany – Italy gold loan). If the quantities in London and Berne are as low as they appear to be, this 543 tonnes used as collateral might not have even been half the gold that Italy has custodied with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

A gold vault in Milan

It’s notable that the Banca d’Italia has used a vault in the city of Milan to store gold as recently as the late 1960s, although there is no mention of a Milan vault in the Banca d’Italia’s 2014 gold document. This would either imply that the gold stored in Milan in the 1960s was transported to Rome at a later date, or else that the Rome statistics may represent combined holdings stored in Rome and Milan, and are just rolled up to Rome for reporting purposes, since Rome is the head office of the Banca d’Italia. The Banca d’Italia’s Milan vault did feature as a key part of Italian gold movements during World War 2 (see below).

Historical Italian Gold

Like other central banks, the Banca d’Italia states that it uses 4 storage locations partly due to historical reasons and partly based on a deliberate strategy gold storage diversification strategy.

Although the Banca d’Italia held 498 tonnes of gold in 1925, Italian gold reserves fell to 420 tonnes in 1930, and continued to decline throughout the 1930s, falling to 240 tonnes in 1935, before another sharp fall to 122 tonnes in 1940 at the beginning of World War 2. With both Rome and Northern Italy under German occupation in 1943, the German occupiers pressurised the Banca d’Italia’s governor Azzolini to move the Italian gold north. Ultimately this led to 119 tonnes of Italian gold being transported by train from Rome to the Banca d’Italia’s vaults in Milan. But the transfer to Milan turned out to be just an interim stopover since the Germans continued to pile on pressure to move the Italian gold to Berlin.

The fascist government that controlled Northern Italy at that time initially resisted the German plan, but negotiated a compromise and agreed to move 92.3 tonnes of gold to a castle in Fortezza, in the far north of Italy near the Austrian border, close to the Brenner Pass and likewise very close (via Austria) to the German border.

Eventually the fascist government capitulated fully to the German demands and 49.6 tonnes of Italian was moved from Fortezza to the Reichsbank vaults in Berlin, followed by an additional transfer of 21.7 tonnes, so in total 71.3 tonnes of Italian gold ended up in the Reichsbank in Berlin. See here for graphic showing these wartime movements of Italian gold, and a comprehensive discussion (in Italian).

In the 1930s, the Bank for International Settlements Bank had invested substantially in Italian short-term treasury bills, which had a built-in gold conversion guarantee. Likewise, the Swiss National Bank held or was the representative for claims on some of the Italian gold. With the German pressure on the Italian gold in 1943, the BIS and SNB both became anxious about their investments and requested that their Italian gold-related be fully converted into gold with a view to moving the converted gold to the SNB vaults in Berne, Switzerland.

The Gold Trains to Berne

After intense negotiations, which the Banca d’Italia also supported (since it would allow some of the Italian gold to go to Switzerland and so avoid Berlin), the SNB and BIS succeeded in releasing the gold transfers, and over 72 years ago on 20th April 1944, 23.4 tonnes of Italian gold was sent by train from Como in Italy to Chiasso in Switzerland and then onwards by another train to Berne.

This required four railcars, two with 89 crates of gold weighing 12,605 kgs for the BIS (1,068 bars in total), and two other railcars of gold bars for the SNB which probably contained 9-10 tonnes – since this was the balance of Italian gold which did not go to Berlin or to the BIS but which had been moved to Fortezza from Milan.

A few days later on 25th April 1944, the Banca’Italia also executed an additional intra-account transfer in the Berne vault to the benefit of the BIS. This was part of a location swap with the BIS. To quote the official BIS historical narrative:

On 25th April 1944, the Bank of Italy transferred an additional 3,190 kgs of fine gold from its own gold account with the Swiss National Bank in Berne to the BIS gold account there.” (Central Bank Cooperation at the Bank for International Settlements, 1930-1973, Gianni Toniolo, BIS).

The actual transfer comprised 244 gold bars containing 2,966 kgs. An additional 233 kgs was debited from the Banca d’Italia sight account with the BIS, which suggests that the Italians only had 2,966 kgs in physical gold stored in Berne with the balance having to come from their sight deposit with the BIS (i.e. unallocated storage). (See “Note on gold shipments and gold exchanges organised by the Bank for International Settlements, 1st June 1938 – 31st May 1945.

The above suggests that the Banca d’Italia had no gold in Berne at the end of WWII. In fact, after WWII ended in 1945, the Italians essentially had very little gold anywhere except for small amounts that were left in Fortezza and found by the Allies, which was then returned to the Italians. Italy started buying gold again in 1946 with a 1.8 tonne purchase from the Banque de France. The Italians also began receiving gold back as reparations from the Tripartite Commission for the Restoration of Monetary Gold (TGC), getting 31.7 tonnes a few years after WWII ended, and another 12.7 tonnes in 1958. Since 71.4 tonnes had been taken by the Germans to Berlin, the Italians ended up with a net loss of about 27 tonnes due to theft and/or other war losses.

Some of these post-WWII gold reparations contained the Nazi Prussian Mint bars which are now stored in the Banca d’Italia’s Rome vaults. The initial gold bar reparations for Italy in the late 1940s came from the TGC account set up at the Bank of England. Records from the Clinton Library show that Italy received 575 Prussian bars set-aside from the TCG account in its early allocations. Prussian bars also made it to the Federal Reserve in New York. The same records show that were over 2,500 Prussian Mint bars held under earmark at the FRBNY for various customers as of January 1956 including the BIS, IMF, SNB, Bank of England, Netherlands and Canada among others. Some of these bars were later remelted into US Assay Office bars. (The Gold Report, Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, July 2000, Clinton Library).

In a similar way to other major European central banks, the Banca d’Italia’s gold reserves were mainly built up during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although the Banca d’Italia was a relatively important official gold holder during the first half of the 20th century, it ‘only’ held 402 tonnes of gold as of 1957. But starting in 1958 and running through to the late 1960s, Italy’s gold reserves rose by nearly 600% to exceed 2,560 tonnes in 1970. See page 19 of “Central Bank Gold Reserves, An Historical perspective since 1845, by Timothy Green, Research Study No. 23, published by World Gold Council, for data on Italian gold reserve totals during the 1950s and 1960s.

Since 1970, Italy’s gold holdings have remained fairly constant, although at times some of the Italian gold has been used in various financial transactions such as:

  • gold collateral against a loan from Germany during the 1970s
  • contributions to the European Monetary Cooperation Fund (EMCF)
  • contributions to the European Central Bank (ECB)

The gold collateral transactions with Germany and the EMCF and ECB contributions explain why, in the absence of purchases or sales, Italy’s historic gold holdings statistics appear to fluctuate widely at various times since the mid-1970s.

l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC)

Until the 1960s, most, if not all of Italy’s official gold reserves were held not by the Banca d’Italia, but by an associated entity called l’Ufficio Italiano dei Cambi (UIC). In English, UIC translates as the “Italian Foreign Exchange Office”. The UIC was created in 1945. One of its tasks was the management of Italy’s foreign exchange reserves (also including gold).

Therefore the Italian gold purchases in the 1950s and 1960s were conducted for the account of the UIC, not the Banca d’Italia. However, during the 1960s there were two huge transfers of gold from the UIC to the Banca d’Italia, one transfer in 1960 and the second in 1965. In total, these two transactions represented a transfer of 1,889 tonnes from the UIC to the Banca d’Italia. The UIC’s main function then became the management of the national currency and not the nation’s gold. The UIC ceased to exist in January 2008 when all of its tasks and powers were transferred to the Banca d’Italia.

DB

Gold Collateral for the Bundesbank – 1970s

In 1974, Italy required international financial aid to overcome an economic and currency crisis and ended up negotiating financial help from the Deutsche Bundesbank. This took the form of a dollar-gold collateral transaction, with the Bundesbank providing a US$ 2 billion loan secured on Italian gold collateral of equivalent value. On 5th September 1974, Karl Klasen, President of the Bundesbank, sent the specifics of the collateral agreement to Guido Carli, Governor of the Banca ‘dItalia. The details of the transaction were as follows:

US$ 2 billion was transferred from the Bundesbank to the Banca d’Italia for value date 5th September. Simultaneously, for value date 5th September, the Banca d’Italia earmarked 16,778,523.49 ounces of gold (about 522 tonnes) from its gold holdings stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York into the name of the Bundesbank, and received a gold claim against the Bundesbank for the same amount.  (2A96 Deutsche Bundesbank Files, 1974, Bank of England Archives).

The gold collateral was valued at $149 per ounce based on a formula of 80% of the average London gold fixing price during July and August 1974. The loan was for a six month maturity but could be rolled over up to three times, i.e. up to two years in total. It turns out that the loan was rolled over up to the maximum two years allowed. Not only that, but the entire gold-backed dollar loan was renewed in September 1976 with larger gold collateral of 17.5 million ounces or about 543 tonnes. This gold loan renewal in 1976 was underwritten by the UIC, and the 543 tonnes of gold was transferred from the Banca’Italia to the UIC prior to the loan renewal. Note that Paolo Baffi had become Governor of the Banca d’Italia in 1975, taking over from Guido Carli.

In September 1978, at the 2 year maturity date of the renewal, the 543 tonnes of gold was returned to the ownership of the Italians but instead of being transferred to the Banca d’Italia, the 543 tonnes was transferred to the balance sheet of the UIC, since the UIC had been involved in underwriting the entire loan agreement. This 543 tonnes of gold stayed on the UIC books and was revalued over the years, thereby creating a large capital gain for the UIC.

Gold capital gain Controversy – 1997/98

When the gold held by the UIC was sold to the Banca d’Italia in 1997, the UIC realised a capital gain of 7.6 billion Lira which then became taxable. The UIC then owed the Italian Exchequer 4 billion Lira, 3.4 billion Lira of which was transferred to the Italian State in November 1997. At the time in 1997, Italy was preparing for entry to the Euro, and needed to keep its deficit under the 3% ceiling required by the Maastricht Treaty criteria. Eurostat ruled that this windfall transfer to the Italian Exchequer was not allowed to be offset against the government deficit. See here for January 1998 statement from Eurostat.

However, a European Parliament parliamentary set of question in March 1998 to the European Council seems to suggests that the UIC tax payment to the Italian Exchequer was offset against Italy’s public sector deficit, and that it helped to keep the Italian deficit under the critical 3% Masstrict ceiling, thereby helping Italy to qualify for Euro membership. The parliamentary questions were from Italian politician Umberto Bossi:

“Does the Council intend to finally ascertain the nature of this transaction?

Does the Council intend to establish whether it is permissible to encourage tax revenues of this kind to be offset against the public sector deficit?

If not, does the Council not consider that this incident shows yet again that Italy has not changed its ways and is prepared to stoop to dubious accounting practices in order to enter Europe?”

The answer to this parliamentary question in June 1998 seems vague, but did not deny that the tax windfall generated by the capital gain on the 543 tonnes of gold may have helped improve the Italian fiscal condition in the run-up to Euro qualification and entry.

EMCF and EURO

As referenced above, Italian gold has been contributed to various European monetary experiments since the 1970s. This explains why the yearly official total figures of Italian gold fluctuate widely over the 1970s-1990s period, and indeed have also fluctuated since 1999.

In 1979, Italy’s gold reserves dropped by 20% and stayed that way until 1998 when they increased again to the previous 1979 level. This was due to Italy contributing to the European Monetary Cooperation Fund (EMCF) which was a fund within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System (EMS). In exchange for providing 20% of their gold and dollar reserves to the EMCF, member countries received claims denominated in European Currency Units (ECUs). [The ECU was an abstract precursor to the Euro]. The gold that was transferred to the EMCF was accounted for as gold swaps, but there was no physical movement of gold, it was just a book entry to represent a change in ownership to the EMCF.

In 1999, with the advent of the Euro (initially as a virtual currency), central bank members of the Eurozone had to again transfer gold, this time to the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB stipulated that each member had to transfer foreign reserves assets, and 15% of these transfers had to be in the form of gold. In Italy’s case it transferred 141 tonnes of gold to the ECB, so Italy’s gold reserves fell by this amount.

The gold owned by the ECB is not centrally stored and managed by the ECB. It stays wherever it was when transferred by each member country, and the ECB delegates the management of its gold reserves to each member central bank, so essentially, it’s just another accounting transaction. It’s unclear whether the ECB gold managed by the Banca d’Italia on behalf of the ECB is “managed” any differently to the non-ECB gold (i.e. its unclear whether the same investment policy always applies to both gold holdings). One person who would certainly know the answer to that questions is Mario Draghi, current president of the ECB, former governor of the Banca d’Italia, and also born in Rome, home of the Palazzo Koch gold vault.

Is any Italian Gold pledged or leased out?

Banca d’Italia annual reports follow International Monetary Fund reporting conventions and classify the gold in its balance sheet as ‘gold and gold receivables‘. In September 2011, when I asked the Banca d’Italia to clarify what percentage of the asset category ‘gold and gold receivables’ in its 2010 balance sheet referred to gold held, and what percentage represented gold receivables, the Bank’s press office replied succinctly that “it’s only gold, no receivables.”

Following the publication of the Bank’s three page gold document in April 2014, I asked the Banca d’Italia press office a number of questions (see above), one of which was about gold leasing:

Are any of the Bank’s gold reserves subject to lease agreements, and if so, what percentage of the gold is leased out? Is any of the Bank’s gold swapped or pledged in any other way?

As mentioned above, the Banca d’Italia’s response was:

This is to inform you that unfortunately Banca d’Italia will not be giving information in addition to the website note.
Regards
Press and External Relations Division, Secretariat To The Governing Board And Communications Directorate, Bank of Italy”

 

Gold Audits

The Banca d’Italia states in its 3 page gold document that external auditors verify the gold held in Rome each year in conjunction with the Bank’s own internal auditors. For the gold held abroad, the external auditors are said to audit this using annual certificates issued by the central banks that act as the depositories (the  depositories being the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Bank of England, and either the BIS or perhaps the SNB depending on the type of certificate that is issued for BIS deposits).

This approach is analogous to the methodology used to audit the German gold reserves stored abroad, i.e. there is no independent physical audit of the gold stored abroad by the Bundesbank. The paper-pushing auditors merely audit pieces of paper.

As regards the Banca d’Italia’s gold holdings at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), these holdings could either be in the form of a “Gold Sight Account” or a “Gold Ear-Marked Account”, as explained here by the Bank of Japan in 2000 when it switched its gold holdings at the BIS from a gold sight account to a gold earmarked account:

“The Bank of Japan has recently transferred its claims against the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) embodied in a “Gold Sight Account” to a “Gold Ear-marked Account” with the BIS.” (July 2000)

If the Banca d’Italia’s gold holdings at the BIS are just in a sight account, then this is just a claim on a balance of gold, not a holding of specific gold bars.

It’s also surprising to me that the mainstream media have taken a significant, albeit superficial, interest in the Bundesbank’s ongoing exercise to repatriate 300 tonnes of its gold reserves from New York to Frankfurt, but zero interest in the fact that the Banca d’Italia supposedly has a huge amount of gold stored in New York that has never physically audited it and does not even see a need to repatriate it.

Banca d’Italia office in Manhattan

Like the Bundesbank,  the Banca d’Italia also maintains a representative office in New York, at 800 Third Avenue – 26th Floor, New York – NY 10022 (see representative office contact details here). The head of this representative office is Giovanni D’Intignano (see LinkedIn). Therefore, it should be very easy for the Banca d’Italia to ask the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to conduct an on-site physical gold audit of the Italian gold at the vaults of the New York Fed, all 1000 plus tonnes of it.

In fact, the Banca d’Italia also maintains another of its only 3 representative offices abroad in London at 2 Royal Exchange, London EC3V 3DG, which is right across the road from the Bank of England’s headquarters and gold vaults. It should therefore also be a simple matter for the Banca d’Italia to also organise a physical on-site audit of its gold reserves stored at the Bank of England in London, something the Bank of England has been allowing its gold storage customers to do since 2013.

Political Awakening

There has been a developing political trend recently in Italy for more transparency on the Italian gold and also calls for its ownership and title to be protected against control by outside entities.

In January 2012, Italian politican Rampelli Fabio (co-signed by Marco Marsilio) submitted some written questions to the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, a department headed at the time by Mario Monti (Monti was also simultaneously Italian Prime Minister at that time), asking the following questions about the Italian gold (questions 4-14567 : Italian version and English version):

“When and under what agreement or statutory provision were the storage location decisions (regarding New York, London and BIS Switzerland) taken and whether that strategic decision is still considered to serve the interests of Italy?

Who owns the gold reserves held at Palazzo Koch (in Rome) and the gold reserves held at the foreign locations?

Does Italy have full availability to the gold reserves held at the Bank of Italy and at the foreign locations?”

Even though these questions were submitted nearly 5 years ago, the official status of the questions on the parliamentary website still says “In Progress”,  suggesting that they have not been answered by the Ministry of Finance. I can find no other evidence elsewhere either that these questions were ever answered.

Senators visit Palazzo Koch vault

Three Italian senators of the political party Movimento Cinque Stelle visited the Banca d’Italia gold vaults in Rome on 31 March 2014 and are calling for the ownership of the gold to be transferred from the Banca d’Italia to the Italian public so that its control cannot be compromised. See video below of their before and after visit which was broadcast from outside the Palazzo Koch vault in Rome.

These 3 representative (in the above video) are Senator Giuseppe Vacciano, Senator Andrea Cioffi and Senator Francesco Molinari.  I do not have a direct English translation of this video, however, anyone interested can translate this page from Italian,  which was published on 3 April 2014, and features Senator Vacciano explaining the senators’ vault visit.

In his report, Vacciano confirm some interesting facts, such as that the Italian gold belongs to the Banca d’Italia and not the Italian State.  The ownership issue is also confirmed by the Banca d’Italia’s 3 page gold report (see above) which states:

“La proprietà delle riserve ufficiali è assegnata per legge alla Banca d’Italia” – (Ownership of official reserves is assigned by law to the Bank of Italy)

Unusually for a central bank, Banca d’Italia’s share capital is held by a diverse range of Italian banks and other financial institutions as well as by the Italian state

Vaccciano also confirmed that in the vault they saw some South African gold bars, many American gold bars, and “several bearing the Nazi eagle”. And in a similar way to the RAI reporter Alberto Angela, who said in 2010 that he was speechless when viewing the gold in the sacristy, Vacciano says:

from a purely human perspective, we could see with our own eyes a quantity of precious metal that goes beyond an ordinary perception … I must say that arouses feelings that are difficult to explain“.

Italian Citizens

The Italian business community and public appear to be quite aware of the importance of the country’s gold reserves. In May 2013, the World Gold Council conducted a survey of Italian business leaders and citizens which included various questions about the Italian gold reserves. The findings showed that 92% of business leaders and 85% of citizens thought that the Italian gold reserves should play an important role in Italy’s economic recovery. There was very little appetite to sell any of the gold reserves, with only 4% of both citizens and business leaders being in favour of any gold sales. Finally, 61% of the business leaders and 52% of the citizens questioned were in favour of utilising the gold reserves in some way without selling any of them. The World Gold Council interpreted this sentiment as allowing the possibility for a future Italian gold-backed bond to be issued with Italian gold as collateral. The Italian gold could thus play a role similar to that used to collateralise the international loans from West Germany to Italy in the 1970s.

Mario Draghi – Last Word

For now, the last word on the Italian goes to Draghi. Even Mario Draghi, former governor of the Banca d’Italia, and current president of the European Central Bank, has a similar view to the Italian public about not selling the Italian gold. In the video below of a 2013 answer to a question from Sprott’s Tekoa Da Silva, Draghi says that he never thought it wise to sell Italy’s gold since it acts as a ‘reserve of safety’. However, as would be expected from a smoke-and-mirrors central banker, Draghi doesn’t reveal very much beyond generalities, and certainly no details of storage locations or whether the Italian gold comprises gold receivables as well as unencumbered gold.

 

IMF Gold Sales – Where ‘Transparency’ means ‘Secrecy’

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.”

DSK has left the building
DSK has left the building

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.

An article titled “IMF ‘On-Market’ Gold Sales Move Ahead” in the ‘IMF Survey Magazine’, also dated 17 February 2010 reiterated this spurious transparency claim:

Transparent approach

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.

On 21 December 2010, the IMF issued a press release titled ‘IMF Concludes Gold Sales’ which stated:

“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.

Veneziani’s questions to the IMF are documented in his follow-up Business Insider article titled “Five Questions About Gold The IMF Refuses To Answer”, dated 27 April 2010. These questions included:

  • 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.

International Monetary Fund

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.

IMF SB March 2010

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:

– 24.08 MT (Q1) – 47.34 MT (Q2) – 67.66 MT (Q3) – 52.2 MT (Q4) =  – 191.28 metric tonnes (MT)

…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 67.66 tonnes 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.

As the Banque de France’s Alexandre Gautier commented in his 2013 speech to the LBMA annual conference in Rome:

“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.”

Magic 7

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“.

Footnotes IMF SM gold sales on market
Footnote ‘2’ of IMF ‘monthly gold sales’ documents, February – May 2010

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

Hello Archives,

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
Hello Archives,

 
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.

In the meantime, we want to make sure you have checked publicly available documents on the same topic accessible from the IMF.org: https://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2009/pr09310.htm

12 August: me

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?

Sincerely”

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.

Sincerely,

IMF Archives”

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.”

A second shorter 1999 IMF paper on the modalities of gold sales, titled “Concluding Remarks by the Chairman Modalities of Gold Sales by the Fund, Executive Board Meeting 99/75, July 9, 1999, BUFF/99/81″ gave some indication on which approach (modality) the Executive Board were leaning to at that time to execute gold sales:

“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 to channel 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 bank or the BIS.

IMF Comedians

In conclusion, for sheer comedy reading,  there is a tonne of material in the IMF’s latest ‘transparency’ smoke and mirrors claims, dated 24 March 2016, which contains such comedy gems as:

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.

HSBC’s London Gold Vault: Is this Gold’s Secret Hiding Place?

HSBC’s main gold vault in London regularly comes under the media spotlight for a number of reasons. These reasons include:

a) the HSBC London vault stores a very large amount of gold on behalf of gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds, primarily the well-known SPDR Gold Trust (GLD)

b) along with the Bank of England vaults and JP Morgan vault, the HSBC vault is one of the 3 largest gold vaults in London

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 , New York, New York 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 late 2014, the HSBC entity that was the custodian of the SPDR Gold Trust was “HSBC Bank USA NA (London branch)”. NA means National Association. On 21 November 2014, effective 22 December 2014, the custodian for the SPDR Gold Trust switched from HSBC Bank USA, National Association to HSBC Bank plc.

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:

CUSTODIAN BANK
HSBC Bank USA
Thames Exchange
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.

HSBC moves out of the City of London – 2002/2003

A Property Week article from 20 April 2000, titled “JLL to mastermind HSBC’s City exodus“, covered the huge HSBC move out of the City to Canary Wharf in the early 2000s:

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.

An article by engineering company Arup  HSBC Headquarters – Canary Wharf – Arup), describing the new HSBC Canary Wharf building, dated 21 April 2004 stated:

“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 Headquarters - Canary Wharf
Arup diagram of HSBC Headquarters, Canary Wharf. lower section and basement

HSBC Gold Vault Photos

December 2004:

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:

DSC_0130_800.jpg

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20051125081854/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0130_800.jpg

And another photo, taken at the same time, of Stuart Thomas in the vault in December 2004:

dsc_0178_800.jpg

Notice the very old piping around the top of the walls.

Source:https://web.archive.org/web/20051125082702/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/dsc_0178_800.jpg

In fact, there are lots more photos of the inside of the ‘old’ vault on the StreetTRACKS website here https://web.archive.org/web/20060518124841/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/us/media/gb_media.php

June 2005:

See five photos below of vault in June 2005:

DSC_0008_800.jpg

‘Old’ vault looks quite beaten with concrete pillars, old floor, old air conditioning unit, and awful decor, and some type of desk an chair and wiring on the very right hand side of the photo.

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174208/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0008_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174517/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0010_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070117114104/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0023_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174136/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0034_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070112174218/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0056_800.jpg

October 2005:

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

DSC_0137_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070223040356/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0137_800.jpg

6 more vault shots of gold bars stacked on pallets:

http://web.archive.org/web/20061110002622/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0061_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070109203025/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0055_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070110123058/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0042_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070110204026/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0149_800.jpg

DSC_0149_800.jpg

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.

http://web.archive.org/web/20061110002907/http://www.streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0037_800.jpg

http://web.archive.org/web/20070111113411/http://streettracksgoldshares.com/images/DSC_0065_800.jpg

DSC_0042_800.jpg

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.
June 2007 photos intro
However, I did source the photos in other dated instances from a similar link, and uploaded them. See below.

2007 George Milling-Stanley and possibly a bearded Stuart Thomas – June 2007

dsc_0127_800.jpg

George Millin-Stanley’s watch puts the time at 11:45am.

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0127_800.jpg

Milling-Stanley and 3 others – probably from State Street and BONY – June2007

dsc_0102_800.jpg

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0102_800.jpg

New vault – wide angle shot 2007

dsc_0018_800.jpg

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0018_800.jpg

2nd wide angle new vault shot 2007

dsc_0005_800.jpg

https://static.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/dsc_0005_800.jpg

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’.

George Milling-Stanley in New Vault

Southwark Bridge and The Queen Street Place Vaults

Southwark Bridge is a bridge over the River Thames connecting the City of London (financial district) on the north bank of the river, to the area of Southwark on the south bank. The first Southwark Bridge (Queen Street Bridge) opened in 1819 and was an arched bridge with “vaults under the north abutment of the bridge“. There is also a reference to the vaults under Queen Street Place in a 1908 Corporation of London Record Office record.

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.

Q St Vaults

vintners and vaults

 

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.

Vault Q 1992

 

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.

http://www.planning2.cityoflondon.gov.uk/online-applications/buildingControlDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=ZZZZWDFHXC664

10 Queen Street Place - Alteration to Vaults application - 15 September 2004

10 Queen Street Place - Alteration to Vaults application - Date 15 September 2004

Fit Out of Vaults under Queen Street Place

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.

http://www.planning2.cityoflondon.gov.uk/online-applications/buildingControlDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=ZZZZWDFHXC269

Fit out of vaults between 10 Queen Street Place and Vintners Place - Vaults application - 4 November 2005

Fit out of vaults between 10 Queen Street Place and Vintners Place - Vaults application - Date 4 November 2005

Thames Exchange – 10 Queen Street Place

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.

The Plans of the Vaults under Queen Street Place

Detailed plans of the vaults under Queen Street Place before and after the ‘Alterations’ and ‘Fit Out’ can be seen here ( Vault Plans – Before 10 Queen Street Place – Vaults – Lower Ground Floor Plan – Before alterations) and here (Vault Plans – Proposed 10 Queen Street Place – Vaults – Lower Ground Floor Plan – After alterations). Both sets of plans were drawn up by Hurley, Robertson Architects. Click on the links to bring up the actual pdf files of the full plans.

vaults before a
Vaults under Queen Street Place – old layout – dated 28 November 2002

 

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.

 

vaults before b
Vaults under Queen Street Place – old layout zoomed in

 

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).

vaults after a
Vaults under Queen Street Place – proposed vaults – 2006 updates

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.

vaults after b
Vaults under Queen Street Place – proposed vaults – 2006 updates – zoomed in

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“.

 

GT4

 

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.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/44343442

2. Gold’s Secret Hiding Place

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

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000077579

5. Version 5 is just a 31 second trailer about the CNBC 2011 gold series, published in March 2012, with gold vault footage only appearing for a few seconds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUSqbqYOnRY&feature=youtu.be

2005 vs 2011

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.

Fruiterers Passage

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.

Fruity

dsc_0005_800.jpg

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.

CCT 1

Sign

Size Matters

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.

QSP 3D
Bird’s Eye View – Queen Street Place looking north from Southwark Bridge – 10 Queen St Place on right, Vintners Place on left

See also some cross-sectional plans that were part of the 2004 Blackstone Thames Exchange planning applications (Cross Section width 10 Queen St Place – from river view and Cross Section length 10 Queen St Place).

QSP night shot
Night shot – Queen Street Place without traffic

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.

Conclusion

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.

SPDR 2

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.

 

The Gold Vaults of London: Malca-Amit

Following on from the recent blog post “G4S London Gold Vault 2.0 – ICBC Standard Bank in, Deutsche Bank out“, which discusses the G4S precious metals vault located on Abbey Road in the Park Royal area of London, its instructive to also look at where the other London Gold Market vaults are located.

According to the vaulting pages on the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) website:

“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?

Having looked at G4S, let’s continue by examining the London vault of Malca-Amit. On its website page which featuring its London vault, Malca-Amit states that:

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.

circles

 

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.

On 20 September 2012, the LBMA issued an advisory document titled “Best Practice Guidelines; Used by “Loco London” Vaults Opening a new vault for the storage of precious metals“, in which it was advised that “If you wish to store the higher value precious metals then you may find that insurers insist that your vaults are subterranean“. This obviously wasn’t an issue for Malca-Amit’s insurers, since the Malca-Amit vault is in a building that’s above ground.

The Alchemist continues:

“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 plane

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.

This planning document is posted on the www.gov.uk website, and on page 10, it states:

OK0230285 SN
MALCA-AMIT (UK) LTD
Director(s): STEPHAN KAZES, RAPHEL AMIT.
UNIT C3, TAMIAN WAY , HOUNSLOW TW4 6BL

New operating centre: ARENA BUILDING, PARKWAY TRADING ESTATE, AERODROME WAY, CRANFORD LANE, HOUNSLOW TW5 9QA

(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?

Arena

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

APPLICANT DETAILS

Name Mr Mark Nevitt CGNU Life Assurance Ltd

 Address C/O Aviva Investors No.1 Poultry London EC2R 8EJ

Architect     LDA Ltd Chartered Architects, Surrey”

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.

 

Malca Amit Arena Parkway TW5 9QA
Malca Amit Arena Parkway TW5 9QA

 

Fencing

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]

APPLICANT DETAILS

Name     Malca Amit

Address   100 Hatton Garden EC1N 8NX

Architect          Pinnegar Hayward Design, Birmingham

Application Received 31/05/2013

Decision Approved 13/09/2013

The ‘delegated report’ submission states that:

“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 which runs off the access road. This would be 3m wide rising barrier which would be 1m high, RAL 9003 (white) finish with contrasting red banding. There would 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.

UKAS 1

UKAS 2

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:

Edinburgh Assay Office Heathrow sub office 1st floor Arena Parkway

Cached version of Issue 009

UKAS Issue 009 4 June 2015 Edinburgh Assay Arena Parkway

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.

The Edinburgh Aassy Office’s Heathrow sub-office was profiled in January 2015 in an article on website Jewellery Focus, complete with photo of the office in the Arena building. Notice the Malca-Amit warehouse floor in the background of the photo with the office on the 1st floor. The one year anniversary of the Edinburgh Assay Office sub-office in the Malca-Amit premises was also recorded in an end of January 2016 article from Professional Jeweller titled “Edinburgh Assay Office celebrates one year of Hallmarking in Transit at Heathrow”.

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.

 

Update on Bundesbank Gold Repatriation 2015

Deutsche Bundesbank has just released a progress report on its gold bar repatriation programme for 2015 – “Frankfurt becomes Bundesbank’s largest gold storage location“.

During the calendar year to December 2015, the Bundesbank claims to have transported 210 tonnes of gold back to Frankfurt, moving circa 110 tonnes from Paris to Frankfurt, and just under 100 tonnes from New York to Frankfurt.

As a reminder, the Bundesbank is engaged in an unusual multi-year repatriation programme to transport 300 tonnes of gold back to Frankfurt from the vaults of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), and simultaneously to bring 374 tonnes of gold back to Frankfurt from the vaults of the Banque de France in Paris. This programme began in 2013 and is scheduled to complete by 2020. I use the word ‘unusual’ because the Bundesbank could technically transport all 674 tonnes of this gold back to Frankfurt in a few weeks or less if it really wanted to, so there are undoubtedly some unpublished limitations as to why the German central bank has not yet done so.

Given the latest update from the German central bank today, the geographic distribution of the Bundesbank gold reserves is now as follows, with the largest share of the German gold now being stored domestically:

  • 1,402.5 tonnes, or 41.5% now stored domestically by the Bundesbank at its storage vaults in Frankfurt, Germany
  • 1,347.4 tonnes, or 39.9%, stored at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York
  • 434.7 tonnes or 12.9% stored at the Bank of England vaults in London
  • 196.4 tonnes, or 5.8%, stored at the Banque de France in Paris

In January 2013, prior to the commencement of the programme, the geographical distribution of the Bundesbank gold reserves was 1,536 tonnes or 45% at the FRBNY, 374 tonnes or 11%, at the Banque de France, 445 tonnes or 13% at the Bank of England, and 1036 tonnes or 31% in Frankfurt.

The latest moves now mean that over 3 years from January 2013 to December 2015, the Bundesbank has retrieved 366 tonnes of gold back to home soil (189 tonnes from New York (5 tonnes in 2013, 85 tonnes in 2014, and between 99-100 tonnes in 2015), as well as 177 tonnes from Paris (32 tonnes in 2013, 35 tonnes in 2014, and 110 tonnes in 2015)). The latest transfers still leave 110 tonnes of gold to shift out of New York in the future and 196.4 tonnes to move the short distance from Paris to Frankfurt.

In the first year of operation of the repatriation scheme during 2013, the Bundesbank transferred a meagre 37 tonnes of gold in total to Frankfurt, of which a tiny 5 tonnes came from the FRBNY, and only 32 tonnes from Paris. Whatever those excessive limitations were in 2013, they don’t appear to be so constraining now. In 2014, 85 tonnes were let out of the FRBNY and 35 tonnes made the trip from Paris. See Koos Jansen’s January 2015 blog titled “Germany Repatriated 120 Tonnes Of Gold In 2014” for more details on the 2014 repatriation.

Those who track the “Federal Reserve Board Foreign Official Assets Held at Federal Reserve Banks” foreign earmarked gold table may notice that between January 2015 and November 2015 , circa 4 million ounces, or 124 tonnes of gold, were withdrawn from FRB gold vaults. Given that the Bundesbank claims to have moved 110 tonnes from New York during 2015, this implies that there were also at least 14 tonnes of other non-Bundesbank withdrawals from the FRB during 2015. Unless of course the other gold was withdrawn from the FRB, shipped to Paris, and then became part of the Paris withdrawals for the account of the Bundesbank. The FRB will again update its foreign earmarked gold holdings table this week with December 2015 withdrawals (if any), which may show an even larger non-Bundesbank gold delta for year-end 2015.

Notably, the latest press release today does not mention whether any of the gold withdrawn from the FRBNY was melted down / recast into Good Delivery bars. Some readers will recall that the Bundesbank’s updates for 2013 and 2014 did refer to such bar remelting/recasting events.

Today’s press release does however include some ‘assurances’ from the Bundesbank about the authenticity and quality of the returned bars:

The Bundesbank assures the identity and authenticity of German gold reserves throughout the transfer process – from when they are removed from the storage locations abroad until they are stored in Frankfurt am Main. Once they arrive in Frankfurt am Main, all the transferred gold bars are thoroughly and exhaustively inspected and verified by the Bundesbank. When all the inspections of transfers to date had been concluded, no irregularities came to light with regard to the authenticity, fineness and weight of the bars.”

This above paragraph in today’s press release was actually lifted wholesale from the Bundesbank’s gold repatriation press release dated 19 January 2015 , minus one key sentence:

The Bundesbank assures the identity and authenticity of German gold reserves throughout the transfer process – from when they are removed from warehouses abroad until they are stored in Frankfurt am Main. As soon as the gold was removed from the warehouse locations abroad, Bundesbank employees cross-checked the lists of bars belonging to the Bundesbank against the information on the bars removed. Finally, once they arrived in Frankfurt am Main, all the transferred gold bars were thoroughly and exhaustively inspected and verified by the Bundesbank. When all the inspections had been concluded, no irregularities came to light with regard to the authenticity, fineness and weight of the bars.”

So, was there no list of bars this time around?

But why the need at all for such a general comment on the quality of the bars while not providing any real details of the bars transferred, their serial numbers, their refiner brands, or their years of manufacture? Perhaps remelting/recasting of bars was undertaken during 2015 and the Bundesbank is now opting for the cautious approach after getting some awkward questions last year about these topics – i.e. the Bundesbank’s approach may well be “don’t mention recasting / remelting and maybe no one will ask“.

 

Source: Bundesbank
Source: Bundesbank

Limited Hangout

This bring us to an important point. Beyond the Bundesbank’s hype, its important to note that the repatriation information in all of the press releases and updates from the Bundesbank since 2013  has excluded most of the critical information about the actual gold bars being moved. So, for example, in this latest update concerning the 2015 transport operations, there is no complete bar list (weight list) of the bars repatriated, no explanation of the quality of gold transferred and whether bars of various purities were involved, no comment on whether any bars had to be re-melted and recast, no indication of which refineries, if any, were used, and no explanation of why it takes a projected 7 years to bring back 300 tonnes of gold that could be flown from New York to Frankfurt in a week using a few C-130 US transporter carriers.

There is also no explanation from the Bundesbank as to why these 100 tonnes of gold were available from New York in 2015 but not available during 2014 or 2013, nor why 110 tonnes of gold somehow became available in Paris during 2015 when these bars were not available in 2014 or 2013, nor why all 374 tonnes to be brought back from Paris can’t make it back on the 1 hour 15 minute air-route between Paris and Frankfurt between which multiple aircraft fly each and every day.

The crucial questions to ask in my view are where was the repatriated gold sourced from that has so far been supplied to the Bundesbank from New York and Paris, what were the refiner brands and years of manufacture for the bars, what are the details of the quality (fineness) of the gold trasnferred, and are these bars the same bars that the Bundesbank purchased when it accumulated its large stock of gold bars during the 1950s and especially the 1960s.

In essence, all of these updates from Frankfurt could be termed ‘limited hangouts’, a term used in the intelligence community, whereby the real behind the scenes details are left unmentioned, only hanging out snippets of information, and questions about the real information are invariably left unasked by the subservient mainstream media. Overall,  it’s important to realise that the Bundesbank’s repatriation updates, press releases, and interviews since 2013 are carefully stage-managed, and that the German central bank continually uses weasel words to dodge genuine but simple questions about its gold reserves and the physical gold that is being transported back to Frankfurt.

For example, in October 2015, the Bundesbank released a partial inventory bar list/weight list of it gold holdings. At that time, on 8 October 2015, I asked the Bundesbank:

Hello Bundesbank Press Office, 

Regarding the gold bar list published by the Bundesbank yesterday (07 October https://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Topics/2015/2015_10_07_gold.html), could the Bundesbank clarify why the published bar list does not include,for each bar, the refiner brand, the bar refinery serial number, and the year of manufacture, as per the normal convention for gold bar weight lists, and as per the requirements of London Good Delivery (LGD) gold bars

Bundesbank bar list:https://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Downloads/Topics/2015_10_07_gold.pdf?__blob=publicationFile 

From the London Good Delivery Rules, the following attributes are required on LGD bars http://www.lbma.org.uk/good-delivery-rules

Marks:   

Serial number (see additional comments in section 7 of the GDL Rules)    

Assay stamp of refiner    

Fineness (to four significant figures)    

Year of manufacture (see additional comments in section 7 of the GDL Rules)”

 “The marks should include the stamp of the refiner (which, if necessary for clear identification, should include its location), the assay mark (where used), the fineness, the serial number (which must not comprise of more than eleven digits or characters) and the year of manufacture as a four digit number unless incorporated as the first four digits in the bar number. If bar numbers are to be reused each year, then it is strongly recommended that the year of production is shown as the first four digits of the bar number although a separate four digit year stamp may be used in addition. If bar numbers are not to be recycled each year then the year of production must be shown as a separate four digit number.

Best Regards, Ronan Manly

 

The Bundesbank actually sent back two similar replies t the above email:

Answer 1:

“Dear Mr Manly, 

Thank you for your query. Information on the refiner and year of production are not relevant for storage or accounting purposes, which require the weight data, the fineness and a unique number identifying each bar or melt. The Bundesbank has all of this information for each of its gold bars. By contrast, particulars relating to the refiner and year of production merely provide supplementary information. They tell us part of the gold bar’s history but do not describe its entire ‘life cycle’.”

Yours sincerely,

DEUTSCHE BUNDESBANK Communication

 

Answer 2:

“Dear Mr Manly,

The crucial data for storage and accounting purposes are the weight, the fineness and a unique number identifying each bar or melt. The Bundesbank has all of this information for each of its gold bars, which it records electronically and also makes available to the public. In addition to the data on weight and fineness, the Bundesbank, the Bank of England and the Banque de France identify gold bars exclusively on the basis of internally assigned inventory numbers and not using the serial numbers provided by the refiners. These custodians do not classify the bar numbers stamped onto the gold bars by the refiner as individual inventory criteria. They do not use the refiner’s bar numbers as these are not based on a unique numbering system that can be used for identification purposes. Stating the refiner and the year of production is not required for storage or accounting purposes.”

Yours sincerely, 

DEUTSCHE BUNDESBANK Communication

 

Even the large gold ETFs produce detailed weight lists of their bar holdings, so you can see from the above answers that the Bundesbank is resorting to flimsy excuses in its inability to explain why it is not following standard practice across the gold industry.

For additional Bundesbank’s prevarications on its gold bars, please see my blog “The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 3: ‘Coin Bars’, ‘Melts’ and the Bundesbank” in a section titled “The Curious Case of the German Bundesbank”.

Finally, see BullionStar guest post from 8 October 2015 by Peter Boehringer, founder of the ‘Repatriate our Gold’ campaign -Guest Post: 47 years after 1968, Bundesbank STILL fails to deliver a gold bar number list“. This guest post adeptly takes apart the Deutsche Bundesbank’s stage-managed communication strategy in and around its gold repatriation exercise, and asks the serious questions that the mainstream media fear to ask.

 

G4S London Gold Vault 2.0 – ICBC Standard Bank in, Deutsche Bank out

On 8 January 2016, Reuters broke the news that ICBC Standard Bank has purchased the lease on Deutsche Bank’s gold vault in London, and that ICBC Standard intends to become a member of the clearing syndicate, London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL):

“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 forces in 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.”

Law firm Clyde & Co acted as advisor to G4S for the Deutsche vault project, and it too issued its own press release on 19 March 2012:

“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.

Deutsche

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.

According to Reuters’ coverage of the June 2014 Deutsche opening announcement:

“Deutsche’s new vault has been built in partnership with logistics company G4S and 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.

As Reuters reported on 24 December 2014:

“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.

On 20 August 2015, Reuters reported that:

“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 another LPMCL related link that could involve Standard Chartered, Martyn Whitehead, former director of LPMCL for Barclays, left Barclays in May 2015, and joined Standard Chartered in August 2015, as MD and head of Commodity Sales.

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?

Standard ICBC

ICBC

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.

One key development for ICBC was crystalised in February 2015,  when ICBC finalised its acquisition of 60% of Standard Bank Plc (the UK arm of Standard Bank) from Standard Bank of South Africa, to create the entity now known as ICBC Standard Bank. See also the press release ICBC completes acquisition of 60% of Standard Bank Plc 20150129. The LBMA website nows list ICBC Standard Bank as an Ordinary Member of the LBMA in lieu of listings for both ICBC and Standard Bank.

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 “

Other roles at the new vault were also advertised on the G4S website, such as  “Vault Manager – Precious Metals” which included information such as:

Vault Manager – Precious Metals

Location: Park Royal

Number of Positions: 1

Closing Date: November 2, 2013               

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)”

 

…and a Weighmaster job role which included:

“Weighmaster

Location: Park Royal

Number of Positions: 1

Closing Date: December 31, 2015

 

  • 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.

Park Royal

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.

Park Royal tube

Planning applications for 291 Abbey Road NW10 7SA

The Park Royal area, including 291 Abbey Road NW10 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.

Applicant: S Williams, G4S, Sutton House, 15 Carshalton Road, Sutton, Surrey, SM1 4LD

Architects: Pick Everard, Leicester

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.

There are a number documents in the Case Number 12/2112 planning application, the most interesting of which is the initial floor plan diagram of the construction project: Project Park Royal – Document 120437 A 105 B Typical floor plans and sections.

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”.

On 20 September 2012,  the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) published the following guidelines on the location of new precious metals vaults in London: Best Practice Guidelines Used by ‘Loco London’ Vaults – Opening a new vault for the storage of precious metals, in which it stated:

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.”

Applicant: Stacy Williams, G4S, Sutton House, 15 Carshalton Road, Sutton, Surrey, SM1 4LD

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.

G4S spec

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.

G4S bullion

 

 Galliford Try

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.”

GT1

From page 2:

GT2

From page 3:

GT3

From page 4:

GT4

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:

July 2013
Google Earth July 2013

 

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.

Basement Excavation - July 2013
Basement Excavation – July 2013

 

Finally, a Google Earth image from June 2015 shows an aerial view of the completed G4S development.

June 2015
Google Earth June 2015

 

Conclusion

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.

 

Six months on ICE – The LBMA Gold Price

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.

Benchmark administrators and contributors must comply with the FCA’s ‘key requirements’ for a regulated benchmark which “include identifying potentially manipulative behaviour, controlling conflicts of interest, and implementing robust governance and oversight arrangements.

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

and also:

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.

It is therefore expected that the ICE Benchmark Administration Gold Price Oversight Committee have been liaising with the FCA about the following developments in the LBMA Gold Price auction that occurred within the period between 20 March 2015 and end of May 2015, which were documented as agenda item 4, on page 2 of the ‘redacted’ minutes of the ICE Benchmark Administration Gold Price Oversight Committee held on 1 June 2015 in London:

“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.

Recall that on 23 May 2014 when the  FCA “fined Barclays £26 million for failings surrounding the London Gold Fixing“, in its ‘Final Notice’ explanation it included the following comments on futures prices influencing the fixing price during the protracted and manipulated afternoon fixing of 28 June 2012 :

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.

HSBC Gold Vault pallet and gate in background

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.

Next we come to the Chairpersons.

 

Chairpersons Я‘Us

According to a Reuters article on 19 March about the new auction:

“‘Four ex-bankers have been appointed as chairs and will rotate in their duty in the initial six months‘, one source said.”

And who are these four ex-bankers? Well, that is the billion dollar question, because, as Bulliondesk reported on 19 March in its article titled “ICE will not disclose names of chairs in new gold benchmark process“, after attending a press briefing with ICE:

“‘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.

Bulliondesk continued:

“’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?

J119 and J120

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.

A number of policy documents were drawn up and introduced for the previous London gold price auction, the London Gold Fixing, in approximately mid 2014. One of these documents was a “Terms of Reference for a Supervisory Committee of the Board of the London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LPMCL)“. That document describes the composition of a supervisory committee and deems that the  Board of directors of LPMCL may:

“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 Membertest.

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

19 March

 

 Chairperson description 2

26 March

 

Chairperson description version 3 

chairperson v3

 The Algorithm

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 operator by 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.”

 

Conclusion

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?

ICE ICE

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.

The pre-2015 London Gold Fixings – More technologically advanced than reported

The financial media has recently pitched the transition of the London daily gold fixings to an ICE Benchmark Administration (IBA) platform as a quantum leap from an antiquated Victorian-era process to a futuristic 21st century electronic auction.

For example, the Wall Street Journal recently said that:

“Four of the banks…had participated in the conference call used to determine the daily fixes, a system largely unchanged for nearly a centuryand that “Gold is the last of the precious metals to make the switch to an electronic platform.”

The evidence suggests however, that in the last decade, the technology utilised in the daily gold fixings was far more advanced than the media commentaries imply, and that since 2004, the old gold fixing was not as technologically backward as is generally accepted.

new court

Rothschild Departs, Barclays Joins – 2004

In April 2004, NM Rothschild announced that it was pulling out of commodity and gold trading, and also stepping down from chairing and participating in the twice daily London Gold Fixings. This left four banks as members of the fixing process, namely HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Scotia Mocatta, and SocGen.

According to Risk.net at the time, “the withdrawal of NM Rothschild from the market forced the London Gold Market Fixing company to introduce new fixing arrangements.

From a practical standpoint, with NM Rothschild no longer part of the fixings after May 2004, the meetings could no longer use Rothschild’s offices in St Swithins Lane near the Bank of England. Another practical point was related to the location of the remaining participants’ offices.

Since Barclays Capital, who took over the fixing seat from Rothschild, was based in Canary Wharf (15-20 minutes train ride east of Bank), the five fixing members were not all located in walking distance of a central physical meeting place in the City of London. Scotia’s and Deutsche’s offices were in the City, but another gold fixing member, HSBC, had also fully moved to Canary Wharf circa 2003. Round trip travel from Canary Wharf to Bank twice a day, or vice versa, would have been prohibitive on all but a temporary basis.

Web-Based Commentary

Rothschild’s departure precipitated discussion of three changes to the Fixings process, specifically, 1) an annually rotating chairperson, 2) a conference call, and 3) a far less well-known, ‘web-based commentary’.

On 29th April 2004, Tim Wood of Mineweb.com wrote an article titled “London Gold Fixing Ritual to End”. The article explained the three changes and referred to the web-based commentary:

“As expected, the London Gold Fixing has announced that it will in future rotate the chairmanship of the arrangement and end a tradition of meeting in person to set bellwether gold prices twice a day.

Starting in May, each member bank will assume the chairmanship of the fixing for a one year period starting with ScotiaBank division ScotiaMocatta.

As of the same date, the Fixing will take place by telephone and the five member firms will no longer meet face-to-face as has previously been the case. As part of this change, it is intended that a web-based commentary of the Fixing will be introduced later this year“, the Fixing said in a statement.

The decision by N.M. Rothschild & Sons to quit the gold business leaves a vacancy at the Fixing. Ongoing members are Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and Société Generale.

Simon Weeks is the chairman-elect of the London Gold Fixing.”

[Coincidentally, Tim Wood, currently executive director of Denver Gold Group, has now ended up sitting on the new 2015 LBMA Gold Price Oversight Committee with Simon Weeks, nearly 11 years after the above article was written.]

On 5th May 2004, the twice daily Gold Fixings transitioned from physically attended meetings at Rothschild’s offices to remote conference calls with Scotia as the new chair.

New York Times: Live web-based commentary

The New York Times, in a 6th May 2004 article titled “Pricing Gold but No Longer Standing on British Tradition” mentions a live” web-based commentary for the daily fixings:

“The London Bullion Market Association, which controls the price-setting process, plans to introduce a live Web-based commentary on the daily price-setting this year.”

‘Nothing was that much different apart from the fact that we didn’t walk down to St. Swithins Lane,’ said Simon Weeks, director of precious metals and foreign exchange at ScotiaMocatta, a unit of the Bank of Nova Scotia.”

(Note: The NY Times meant LGMFL, not LBMA, but they may have got confused because Simon Weeks was chairman of the LBMA at that time, as well as being chairman of the Gold Fixing company LGMFL).

Barclays then completed the purchase of Rothschild’s gold fixing seat in May 2004 (Risk.net 26th May 2004). In its article, Risk.net also confirmed the planned web-based commentary:

“LGMF (London Gold Market Fixing) said it intends to introduce web-based commentary of the fixing later this year.”

Barclays then joined the fixings on 7th June 2004.

Bank of England refers to a Web-based application

The most authoritative confirmation of this “web-based feature commentary” comes from the May 2004 edition of the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin which was kept in the gold fixings loop as per usual, and saw fit to review and report on the changes taking place in the Gold Fixing. See page 14 of pdf where it states:

“Since 5 May, a telephone conference call has replaced the twice-daily physical meetings. A web-based application to allow viewing of the fixing process is to be introduced later in 2004.

Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin screenshot, May 2004:

BoE web based fixing app
Fast forward to 2014, and a publication titled “Financial Markets and the ACI Dealing Certificate 310-102“, by Philip J L Parker (ISBN 978-1-291-50352-4) also mentions this web-based commentary for the Fixing, stating:

“With effect from May 2004, the traditional face-to-face meetings (previously at the offices of NM Rothschild and Son), were replaced by a telephone fixing procedure. As part of this change, a web-based commentary of the Fixing has been introduced.

(Page 208: London Gold Fixing)

The above publication (published in August 2014) is a training manual for the ACI Dealing Certificate foreign exchange and money markets examinations, which are offered by the wholesale financial market association ACI (now called ACI – The Financial Markets Association). The first edition of this manual was published in 2013.

2014, page 208:

ACI Dealing - gold fixing - web-based commentary

So it appears that a live web-based commentary / web-based application has been used by the five members of the London Gold Fixing since 2004 that allowed the viewing of the fixing process, which would presumably mean viewing the orders entered by each participant and the intra-auction prices. However the existence of such as web-based application is never mentioned by the financial media, who persist in only ever mentioning a conference call, often in conjunction with the words ‘tradition’, ‘antiquated’ or ‘unchanging since 1919′ etc.

Pens and Paper?

It stands to reason that a live web-based application would be introduced and used during a conference call of the daily Gold Fixings. Given that the trader participants were located remotely from each other, it would be essential for the traders at each of the five firms to be able to see prices and current orders on their desktop screens during the fixings, and also essential for final order data to be captured in a trade capture system, then matched, and then sent downstream within trade, clearing and settlement processing systems.

As well as using phones, everything an investment bank trader or an inter-dealer broker does involves using one of their, often, six or more screens as input and output devices. They do not just use ‘bits of paper’ to record orders and trades and then pass these bits of paper to some junior person to run around the precious metals trading desk with. Trading screens are always used in conjunction with phones. Every order has to be captured and displayed, as well as calculated and processed in trade and settlement processing systems and downstream P&L and reporting systems.

We are talking here about order entry, trade execution, trade capture, trade processing, and trade clearing and settlement. We are also talking here about the most sophisticated investment banks on the planet, with the largest and most cutting edge technological and financial resources in any industry. We are talking about HSBC, ScotiaBank, Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Société Générale, not about two-bit bucket shops.

Until August 2014, the daily Silver Fixings comprised three of the same members as the daily Gold Fixings, namely HSBC, ScotiaMocatta and Deutsche. Given that both gold and silver trading would be run from the same precious metals trading desks in these banks,  it seems reasonable to suggest that any technological order capture and display systems that were being used in the gold fixings, would also be used in the silver fixings.

It therefore makes the following claim from Harriet Hunnable of the CME Group hard to fathom when she commented last October on how the CME had taken the Silver Fixings out of the dark ages (CME ‘proud’ of silver fix system):

“In a very short time, we’ve taken a market that was doing this on pen and paper on the telephone to an electronic platform.”

I find this ‘pen and paper’ reference extremely hard to believe given the discussion of a web-based application in the Gold Fixings since 2004. Financial media commentaries at the time, in August 2014, also stuck to the dark ages script with CNBC headlining its coverage as “Victorian-era silver fix joins electronic age“.

Note that even ‘voice-brokered trades’ done by the large inter-dealer brokers such as ICAP and Tullet Prebon make use of screens as well as phones. Screens are intrinsic to all modern voice trading, as are messaging apps, and chat apps (although messaging and chat apps will probably be more highly regulated and  subject to stricter compliance controls going forward).

It would be naive of anyone to think that daily Gold Fixings involving five distinct dealing rooms of five huge investment banks were not using various forms of order entry, trade capture, and various types of networked technology, to keep track of gold and silver fixing prices and orders and to visually display this updated data on traders’ screens and desktops during the daily fixing auctions.

Furthermore, the resulting net order data would have to be passed to other trade processing systems for downstream processing into London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd’s (LPMCL) metal clearing AURUM system, for netting and clearing and settlement, while the price and time-stamp data would need to be passed to price data vendors for distribution as well as to the LGMFL goldfixing.com web site.

Trading floor screens

Without a functional specification document, its hard to know what the original specification of a 2004 web-based commentary/web-based application used on the five trading floors would have entailed, and whether it would be originally designed and built in-house by one or a number of the technology departments of the five fixing member banks, or whether this type of project would have been outsourced. But trading floor technology is always changing and evolving and indeed, trading technology did change rapidly from 2004 to 2014.

Applications designed and used within investment banks do not stay static and they also have to be supported and maintained. Applications either evolve with the evolution of an investment bank’s technology environment or they are decommissioned and replaced. So it’s doubtful if a web-based app created in 2004-05 would still exist in its original version 1.0 form in 2014-15.

Goldfixing.com

Examining the observable technology connected to the London Gold Market Fixing Company also brings up some interesting information. One window into the London Gold Market Fixing Ltd was its website www.goldfixing.com. The domain lookup for the www.goldfixing.com provides both registrant and technical support information.

The site was registered on 22nd December 1999 by  Emilie Rivoire of NM Rothschild (emilie.rivoire@rothschild.co.uk). This would make sense since NM Rothschild was the permanent chair of the daily gold fixings until 2004. The first version of the goldfixing.com website was created by a South African company called Catics Ltd in 2000.

Gold Fixing Rothschild Hackwood

As Catics stated in their scope for the brief of the Rothschild gold fixing website:

“Rothschild, with approval from the other 4 members, approached us to design an elegant new web site. The site was created as a quick up-to-date historic guide about the London Goldfix. All interested parties can see how the price of gold gets fixed twice a day.”

The key requirements for the website included:

  • Provide a graphical view that would indicate the five members buying, holding or selling gold.
  • Build an interactive charting facility so that users can chart historic gold fixes.
  • Integrate site with Rothschild CMS (Content Management System).

Five fixers

Catics Lts also created an updated version of The Rothschild Family website http://www.rothschild.info/ (2003) and also created The Rothschild Archive website http://www.rothschildarchive.org/ (2001, 2003).

Barclays and Sapient

When NM Rothschild departed from the Gold Fixings in 2004 and sold its fixing seat to Barclays, it appears that Rothschild also handed over the responsibility for the website to Barclays, who at some point employed Sapient in a technical capacity for the website. The domain lookup for the site most recently lists a technical support contact for the website of Sapient, with an address of Eden House, 8 Spital Square, London E1 6DU, and an email contact of barclaysmsosupport@sapient.com.

Sapient barclaysmsosupport

Eden House is the London office HQ of Sapient Global Markets. Sapient Global Markets is part of the Publicis.Sapient group, and provides various financial market consultancy and technological services to “capital and commodity market participants” including numerous financial exchanges and clearing houses. Publicis Groupe acquired Sapient in November 2014.

The Sapient phone number +91 1246724778 is an Indian-based number of a Sapient Nitro office in sector 21 of Unitech Infospace in Gurgaon near New Delhi. Sapient Nitro is another division of the Publicis.Sapient Group.

The ‘MSO Support’ in barclaysmsosupport@sapient.com refers to Managed Service Operations (MSO), which is an area within Sapient Nitro’s systems integration practice, which operates from various places including Gurgaon in India. This MSO support team was responsible for the www.goldfixing.com web site that was permanently switched off on the morning of 23rd March 2015.

That Sapient was responsible for the www.goldfixing.com web site is a fact because their indian team in Gurgaon confirmed to me early on the morning of 23rd March that the website had been shut down, as follows:

goldfixing thanks and regards

Furthermore, on their email to me, Sapient (Gurgaon) used the following two Sapient email addresses connected to the Gold Fixing and the goldfixing.com website:

londonpricefixing Sapient

Barclays MSO Support Sapient

A managed service operations team would generally be responsible for content management and delivery, as well as underlying web applications and servers etc.

Before the plug was pulled on the www.goldfixing.com website, fixing prices and associated trading data and gold bar quantities always appeared rapidly on the GoldFixing website straight after the 10.30am and 3.00pm fixings were completed, along with accompanying timestamps down to the exact second.

For example, on 23 October 2014, the morning gold fixing completed at 10:31:16. This information was rapidly updated on to the goldfixing website, as well as being sent out to all the major data vendors such as Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters:

goldfixing snapshot daily price and timestamp

Distribution of near real-time price data could not have been done without an electronic system that captured the fixing data, stored it in a database table, and fed it to a front-end website query.
Likewise, the historical price, bid-offer, bar total and date data which were viewable on the goldfixing website would also have needed to be stored in a database table and accessible via a website query. For example, see the last historical data of gold fixings  from 18th and 19th March 2015 to be displayed on the old goldfixing website before it was switched off:
gold fixing website historial previous days data

This fixing data that appeared on the goldfixing website has to have been supplied by other connected systems such as a fixings order capture and processing system. There cannot be website outputs within inputs, which by definition implies that there are also calculations performed as well as storage and retrieval. i.e. information systems and not ‘pencils’ and ‘bits of paper’ as some of the financial media seem to think the modern daily fixings made use of.

Managed Service Operations (MSO) offerings from companies such as Sapient, often include software/services that facilitate collaboration, and there are also lots of ready-made collaboration applications available on the market. For example, Microsoft Online Services is a server hosted enterprise software suite that can include Office Communications Online, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and Sharepoint Online. Suffice to say, these products/services (which can be locally or cloud hosted) provide on-line real-time instant messaging and communications (Microsoft Communications Online), live conferencing with video and audio and messaging (Microsoft Live Meeting), or a collaboration platform (Microsoft Sharepoint Online). Citrix also offers a lot of products/solutions in this space such as GoToMeeting.

So some of the above types of software/services would fit the bill for providing precious metals traders’ workstations with web-based commentary, and messaging and communication apps that could be used in the daily fixings alongside phones. Outputs from some of the above could also be integrated into web site price data feeds through messaging middleware.

But there is another more important connection between the London Gold Market Fixing Company and Sapient Global Markets which points to another Sapient app being more than a web-based ‘commentary’.

 

The replacement Gold Fix – Request for Proposals

When the London Gold Market Fixing Limited (LGMFL) and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) launched a Request for Proposals (RfP) to administer the new LBMA Gold Price auction on 4th September 2014, Sapient Global Markets was one of the applicants to submit a proposal. This proposal was submitted in conjunction with Autilla Ltd. Previously, for the silver fixing replacement in mid 2014, Autilla initially submitted a standalone proposal, and then in the final week in early July, teamed up with the London Metal Exchange (LME) on a joint bid. Interestingly though, for the gold fixing proposal, Autilla joined up with Sapient in a joint bid on Day 1, so Autilla must have deemed a joint bid with Sapient as being advantageous.

Out of eight proposals received, the Autilla/Sapient proposal was among five proposals to get short-listed by the LBMA, and although they didn’t win the new contract, Autilla/Sapient did make a presentation of their proposal at the LBMA closed-door ‘market’ seminar on 24th October which saw presentations by the five short-listed parties. Note also that there was a third member of this Sapient/Autilla partnership called ‘Global Rate Set Service’, which was also referred to in the proposal as ‘Global Rate Set System’ and ‘GRSS’. This appears to be Global Rate Set Systems, a New Zealand based company.

Sapient letterhead

In the Sapient/Autilla proposal summary,  which takes the form of  a 2-3 page letter to the LBMA dated 27th October, Page 2 describes a ‘current process‘ and also modifications for the new proposed process.

Reading Page 2 of the proposal, its clear that Sapient are intimately familiar with the ‘current process‘ and they only suggest ‘making changes’ to the current process where needed. Sapient state:

“Our solution is one that has a look and feel which is easily recognisable and known to those already familiar with the current process.”

Sapient’s reference to an ‘easily recognisable and known‘ ‘look and feel‘ of its proposed system suggests that ‘those already familiar with the current process‘ were familiar with a similar system.

‘Look and feel’ is a term that’s most commonly used in software development and nowadays rarely means anything outside the software industry. Just google ‘look and feel’ with or without the quotes to see what I mean. In software solutions, ‘look and feel’ will almost always mean “the appearance and function of a program’s user interface”, or “the design and formatting of a graphical user interface (GUI).”

Sapient is saying that those who were using the current process at that time in October 2014 (i.e. the traders of the remaining four fixing members ) would recognise and know an existing graphical user interface that they were familiar with when looking at Sapient’s proposed new graphical user interface.

Sapient states that it has ‘kept’ seven ‘main functions’ of the current process, and then goes on to list the functions that it has kept; these functions include participants logging in, participants entering indicative bar Buy, Sell and No Interest orders in bar amounts, a virtual Flag, matching within tolerance (50 bars), sharing out bars within tolerance, and fx rate pricing:

Sapient app functionality

Sapient then lists the “new or modernised‘ ‘changes’ it is proposing ‘to achieve additional objectives of modernisation, transparency and regulatory cover‘. These new or modernised changes include house and client trades, intra-round price determination, real-time pricing commentary for full distribution, and a GUI messaging portal. Connecting in to the fixing via the messaging portal suggests that any previous messaging would have been done through standalone messaging/chat apps (like those used by interest rate and fx traders).

Interestingly, the Sapient proposal refers to automating some of the tasks that were done by the chairman of the Fixings which sounds like this entailed releasing the final fixing orders for matching, and then processing trade confirms etc.

Sapient new functions

In its proposal to the LBMA, Sapient therefore appears to be describing an existing electronic networked order capture and processing system that the gold fixing process was already using (up until Thursday 19th March 2015). It makes perfect sense then that Sapient had the contract to run the www.goldfixing.com website if it was also responsible for building, maintaining and supporting other parts of the recent gold fixing technical architecture.
Gold Fixing Document Retention Policy

That networked technology was used within the daily gold fixings prior to the transition to ICE’s WebICE is also supported by the  requirements of the “Document Retention Policy” of the London Gold Market Fixing Company, dated 29 October 2014.

This Document Retention Policy, in section 2.3, states that the chairperson of the fixing process is responsible for keeping a record of the following data: member firms participating on each call, names of the individuals from each firm, opening price and sources of opening price, prices tried during the fixing, “bid and offer figures of each member firm at each price tried”, final fix price in dollars, euros and pounds, the time the price was fixed, euro and sterling exchange rates used to determine the fix price, and volume of transactions executed between participating member firms. That is a lot of data to have to record manually twice, each and every day, so again, this suggests that the chairman was not recording this information manually.

Note: As part of the application process to run the new gold fixing, all parties who submitted bids to the LBMA, including Autilla/Sapient, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the LBMA, so it would be difficult to verify the technical details behind the Sapient/Autilla proposal, as they are most likely covered under the NDA and could not be revealed without the permission of the LBMA.

2004: A Price Oddity  –  Web-based App & Gold Price Manipulation?

There is also an interesting correlation between the timing of a web-based application being launched for the Gold Fixing in 2004 and the timing of alleged gold price manipulation beginning in 2004.

On 28 February 2014, Bloomberg’s Liam Vaughan wrote an article titled “Gold Fix Study Shows Signs of Decade of Bank Manipulation“, which stated that:

The London gold fix, the benchmark used by miners, jewelers and central banks to value the metal, may have been manipulated for a decade by the banks setting it, researchers say.

Abrantes-Metz and Metz screened intraday trading in the spot gold market from 2001 to 2013 for sudden, unexplained moves that may indicate illegal behavior. From 2004, they observed frequent spikes in spot gold prices during the afternoon call. The moves weren’t replicated during the morning call and hadn’t happened before 2004, they found.

Large price moves during the afternoon call were also overwhelmingly in the same direction: down. On days when the authors identified large price moves during the fix, they were downwards at least two-thirds of the time in six different years between 2004 and 2013. In 2010, large moves during the fix were negative 92 percent of the time, the authors found.

There’s no obvious explanation as to why the patterns began in 2004, why they were more prevalent in the afternoon fixing, and why price moves tended to be downwards, Abrantes-Metz said in a telephone interview this week.

 Could the introduction of a trading desk web-based application into the fixings in 2004, which would have provided gold trading desks with extra eyes into the auction proceedings, have presented a means for facilitating a type of gold price manipulation which previously was not possible during the purely phone based meetings held at Rothschilds in St Swithins Lane?

 

fca stairs

The FCA, Barclays and Daniel Plunkett

On 23rd May 2014, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced that they were fining Daniel Plunkett, a former Barclays trader and director of its Precious Metals Desk, for manipulation of the gold price during the afternoon gold fix on 28 June 2012, and also fining Barclays for breaches of two Principles of the Authority’s Principles for Businesses between 7 June 2004 and 21 March 2013.

The FCA’s ‘Final Notice’ explaining the fining and prohibition of Daniel Plunkett, provided details of Plunkett’s trading into the gold fix on the afternoon of 28 June 2012. The ease and speed with which Plunkett, on two occasions, rapidly placed and then cancelled proprietary trades into the gold fixing during the fixing that afternoon, suggests that he was using an automated order entry system to place and cancels those trades, and also to unwind the second trade after the fixing completed.

Indeed, at that time in 2012, Barclays’ systems did not differentiate between a Gold Fixing trade executed by a Barclays trader and a gold spot market trade executed by that same trader. And since proprietary gold spot trades would be entered electronically, so too would Gold Fixing trades.

According to section 4.14 of the Final Notice document on Plunkett:

At 3:06 p.m., shortly after the Chairman had increased the proposed price to USD1,558.50, Mr Plunkett, who had not placed any previous orders during the Gold Fixing, placed a large sell order of between 40,000 oz. (100 bars) and 60,000 oz. (150 bars), with Barclays’ representative on the Gold Fixing. This order was incorporated by Barclays’ representative into Barclays’ net position, which led to Barclays declaring itself to be a seller of 52,000 oz. (130 bars).”

At 3:07 p.m. Mr Plunkett withdrew his entire sell order, which resulted in Barclays’ representative withdrawing Barclays’ position (selling 130 bars). This reduced the imbalance in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing from 190 bars to 60 bars (155 bars buying/215 bars selling)” Section 4.17

At 3:09 p.m., Mr Plunkett again placed a large sell order, 60,000 oz. (150 bars), with Barclays’ representative, who, also taking into account changes in customers’ orders, declared Barclays’ net position in the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing to be selling 40,000 oz. (100 bars).” Section 4.21

Shortly after the conclusion of the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing, Mr Plunkett repurchased 60,000 oz. (150 bars) of gold by executing an internal trade with Barclays’ Gold Spot Book. The purpose of executing this order was to unwind the 60,000 oz. (150 bars) position he had taken during the 28 June 2012 Gold Fixing.” Section 4.24

If an internal trade that Plunkett executed with the gold Spot Book could unwind an outstanding trade that he placed into the Gold Fixing, then the two trades, and the manner in which they were input would need to be similar, which, we will see below that they were.

Barclays –  Gold Fixing trades were identical to Gold Spot trades

The FCA also issued a ‘Final Notice’ detailing the background to the financial penalty imposed on Barclays,  for Barclays’ failure to , amongst other things, create systems on its precious metals desk “that allowed for adequate monitoring of traders’ activity in connection with the Gold Fixing”. The Barclays “Precious Metals Desk” was Barclays trading desk responsible for gold, silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium.

“The systems and reports did not formally record orders placed by traders in the Gold Fixing until 5 February 2013 and did not identify Gold Fixing transactions separately from general gold spot trades until 21 March 2013. As a result, Barclays was unable to adequately monitor what trades its traders were executing in the Gold Fixing or whether those traders may have been placing orders to affect inappropriately the price of gold in the Gold Fixing.” Section 2.3

Barclays relied upon systems and reports that did not differentiate between Gold Fixing and gold spot market trades executed by its traders. (Barclays addressed this on 21 March 2013, when it updated its systems to specifically record Gold Fixing trades as such.) This meant that during the Relevant Period, Barclays could not adequately monitor its traders’ orders and trades executed in the Gold Fixing.” Section 4.36

So, section 2.3 and section 4.36 of this FCA Final Notice tells us that in 2012, gold fix trades executed by Barclays traders were seen as identical to gold spot trades executed by those same traders, and that both sets of trades used the same systems. Plunkett was not being monitored and was independently executing trades that were identical to gold spot trades, and these trades were flowing into Barclay’s net gold fixing position. This would have required an electronic trading platform. If Barclay’s house and customer gold fixing trades were on a technological platform in 2012, then the whole notion of the gold fixing orders with the other fixing participants also not being integrated into an electronic platform prior to 2015 is implausible.

The rapidity with which Plunkett engaged actively in the afternoon gold fixing on 28 June 2012 was also reiterated in the FCA’s Final Notice for Barclays:

“On 28 June 2012, a Barclays trader, Mr Daniel Plunkett, participated actively in the Gold Fixing” Section 2.6

“In particular, he placed a large sell order of between 40,000 oz. (100 bars) and 60,000 oz. (150 bars) with Barclays’ representative on the Gold Fixing, then withdrew it completely one minute later and subsequently placed another large sell order of between 40,000 oz. (100 bars) and 60,000 oz. (150 bars) two minutes after that.” Section 2.9

The move by Barclays on 21 March 2013 to finally differentiate between prop trader executed gold spot trades and prop trader executed gold fixing trades, also suggests that whatever the change was, it took an existing transaction type of gold spot trade and reflagged it as a gold fixing trade. These changes would have all been conducted on a pre-existing electronic platform (since the gold spot book was on an electronic platform), again undermining the notion of a purely pens and paper supported approach to the gold fixing using a system largely unchanged for nearly a century.

Interestingly, neither of the FCA Final Notices issued in connection with Barclays, Plunkett and the gold price, nor any other FCA comments on its investigation into precious metals manipulation in London, make any reference whatsoever to whether the FCA examined  precious metals traders’ messaging app logs or other trader online communication dialogues. This is odd given that messaging apps were seen to have been widely used by all other traders in the recent LIBOR and FX price manipulation scandals. See here for some LIBOR examples and here for some FX examples of trader transcript manipulation chats.

Given that there appears to have been a web-based commentary in the gold fixings since 2004, as well as very sophisticated gold fixing order and price data capture in Barclays systems and in the most recent iteration of the Sapient supported goldfixing website, perhaps the financial media can take a look into this before claiming with certainly that the gold fixings only went on to an electronic platform during the 20th March 2015 transition to the ICE/IBA/LBMA Gold Price architecture.

Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 2: From Repatriation to Reactivation

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Part 1, titled “Venezuela’s Gold Reserves – Part 1: El Oro, El BCV, y Los Bancos de Lingotes“, provided a historical overview of Venezuela’s gold and looked at where the gold, and the claims on gold, were located just prior to repatriation in 2011, especially the gold held abroad.

Part 1 was necessary so as to set the scene for the, in some ways, theatrical gold flights and convoys of Part 2, and to also illustrate that a percentage of Venezuela’s gold (50 tonnes) was retained in the vaults of the Bank of England so as to be available for activation into international gold transactions.

And so, the analysis below covers Venezuela’s actual gold repatriation operations in late 2011 and early 2012, especially the first and last flight. You will see that the first batch of gold bars came in on an Air France cargo flight, which opens up key questions about France and the Banque de France as a source for some of the repatriated gold. You will also see the arrival and unloading of the last flight, a World Airways cargo freighter.

The analysis wraps up with a look at the gold swap discussions between Venezuela and a set of investment banks which culminated in a gold swap being agreed with Citibank. The question then arises as to whether further similar gold swaps are in store for Venezuela’s domestically held monetary gold.

convoy

The Repatriation – Flights and Convoys

The Venezuelan gold repatriation transport operation took just over two months to complete, beginning on 25 November 2011, and winding up on 30 January 2012. During this time, 23 shipments (by air) are said to have arrived in Caracas, with 160 tonnes of gold flown in.

As Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV) governor Nelson Merentes stated in an end of year 2012 report (page 16):

“In 2012, the central bank completed the repatriation of monetary gold , which began in late 2011. This unprecedented process, which reaffirms the sovereignty of the nation, constitutes the largest movement of physical gold in the world market in recent years . A total of 23 gold shipments were moved, totalling 160 tonnes of metal that had been custodied abroad.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the German Bundesbank claims to have quietly and secretively moved 940 tonnes of its gold from the Bank of England in London to its Bundesbank headquarters in Frankfurt between 2000 and 2001, the Venezuelan gold repatriation is still probably the “largest movement of physical gold in the world market” since that time.

merentes car

The first and last shipments of Venezuela’s gold repatriation arrived into Maiquetía Airport (aka Simón Bolívar International Airport) in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, so the presumption is that the other shipments did also. Both the first and last shipments received huge media coverage in Venezuela and extensive coverage internationally. Given that the Venezuelan State facilitated and encouraged this domestic media coverage, as well as street scenes thronged with Chavez supporters, this is not surprising. The majority of the other shipments after the first and before the last ones got little or no coverage, probably due to security procedures.

Reuters quoted Nelson Merentes on the day of the first shipment arrived as saying that:

“We cannot give exact dates (for when the rest of the bars will arrive) due to questions of security. When we bring the last shipment, the people will learn about it.

The Reuters report also quoted a Venezuelan government source as saying that there would be ‘several’ cargo flights.

“A senior government source involved in transporting the bars, which amount to 90 percent of Venezuela’s gold held abroad, has told Reuters they will be shipped in several cargo flights that will be completed before the end of the year.

The total cost of the operation will be no more than $9 million, the source said, without elaborating.”

The First Shipment (by air) came from France

The gold from the first shipment, which consisted of 5 tonnes of gold, was moved from Maiquetía airport to the central bank vaults in Caracas on Friday 25 November 2011 amid much fanfare and coverage. Although the airport to bank journey happened on 25 November, an article here claims that the “the repatriation of gold reserves began on 23 November”.

In various news footage videos below, which cover the transport of the gold from the airport on 25 November 2011, there are no shots of any aircraft being unloaded, which may suggest that the first shipment did indeed arrive prior to 25 November, possibly on 23 November. The first shipment was flown in using Air France (see below).

In contrast, during the last operation on 30 January 2012, the arrival of the aircraft into the airport played a starring role in proceedings, possibly because the shipments were then being wrapped up and there was little harm in broadcasting the identify of aircraft, which you will see below was a chartered World Airways MD-11 cargo freighter.

The first video below from 25 November 2011 shows black plastic crates (presumably with the gold in them) on pallets which in turn are on trailers, positioned beside a line of armoured cars ready for loading.

Very interestingly, central bank governor Merentes (at 0:22) states that this first shipment of gold came from European countries “via Francia” (by way of France).

This is very odd that the first shipment came from France. Given that the gold was stored at the Bank of England and with the BIS, none of the Venezuelan gold should ever have been in France. And with air charters from Europe, there would be no need to fly into and out of a French airport en route from London to Caracas.

A November 2013 article from Venezuelan newspaper ‘El Nacional’ stated that the first batch of gold had come directly from France:

Los primeros lingotes vinieron de Francia en medio de un operativo denominado Oro Patrio y en el que participaron más de 500 funcionarios.”

The first ingots came from France in the middle of an operation called Golden Homeland and in which over 500 staff participated.”

The most compelling piece of evidence, however, that the first shipment came from France is the fact that the gold was flown into Caracas on Air France, and there were labels on the side of the crates stating this. See screenshot below taken from one of the videos:

Air France - air waybill

This label above shows the ‘Air Waybill No’ of ‘057-53208470′, the ‘Destination’ of CCS (Caracas), and the ‘Total No of Pieces’ – 10, i.e. 10 crates.

See also the below photo of one of the crates, with the same Air Waybill number 057-53208470, after it was loaded into the back of one of the armoured security cars:

Air France labelled crate on pallet

Air France Cargo fleet consists of 2 long-range Boeing 777- 200LRF cargo freighters, registration numbers F-GUOB and F-GUOC. You can see a video of F-GUOC taking off (from another airport) here.

These 777F aircraft have “a maximum payload of 102 tonnes, a total capacity of 37 pallets and a maindeck that can take 3-metre pallets“. The videos below of the first gold shipment, and the video of the last unloading on 30 January 2012, shows these huge 3-metre pallets on the ground and, in the case of the last shipment, being unloaded.

Since the gold in the first shipment was flown from France, this gold may have come from the Banque de France in Paris, which would suggest that the bullion banks and/or the BIS had to resort to sourcing gold from the Banque de France. BNP Paribas was one of the five bullion banks that had a borrowed gold liability to the BCV, so this fact may be relevant. (See a section below about the French connection).

The second Venezuelan video from 25 November 2011 states that gold which was located in US, Canadian, and English banks was being repatriated to Venezuela. This does not mean, however, that the gold flights originated in all or any of these locations. The US, Canada and England just refer to the headquarters of the bullion banks involved in the repatriation.

The third video from 25 November 2011 refers to “foreign banks,” “principally in Europe,” and mainly English banks.

Reuters quoted Merentes as having said that “The gold comes from several European countries.

 

1. Length: 2:26 – Nelson Merentes interview, and gold ready for loading. 25 November 2011

 

2. Length: 2:06 – Armoured cars and convoy getting ready to leave the airport, and then departing the airport. 25 November 2011

 

3. Length 1:53 – Convoy leaves airport and drives to the central bank. 25 November 2011

 

4. Length 11:03 – Air France label is shown beginning at 9:42. This longer video has extended footage of the unloading and loading operation. 25 November 2011

 

The BCV’s 2011 Economic Report (see link above, page 92) states that the first shipment on 25 November 2011 consisted of 5 tonnes of gold. In the media coverage of the first shipment, the exact tonnage of gold involved was not stated beyond the fact that  “Nelson Merentes said a little over 300 million dollars was brought in the first batch of gold that came to the country on Friday.”

At a price of $1,688 per ounce on 25 November 2011, that would be roughly 5.5 tonnes. Whether it was 5 tonnes of 5.5 tonnes is not that important. With each of the crates holding 500 kgs or 0.5 tonnes, that would be 10 – 11 crates in the first shipment. There appear to have been 10 crates given that’s what it said on the crate labels and that’s what the BCV maintain their were.

Once the gold was loaded up into the fleet of security vans, a huge convoy of military vehicles and personnel (said to be between 400 – 500 personnel) accompanied the vans out from the airport (by the ocean) and around the mountain to the central bank building in downtown Caracas, on a route, some of which was lined with Chavez’ supporters, especially where they had congregated near the bank’s entrance.

 As mentioned, there was little coverage after the first shipment, although a local media article referred to a second shipment arriving from Europe on Tuesday 6 December 2011. After this, the media didn’t really cover the repatriation until the last shipment arrived by air on Monday 30 January 2012.

repatriation gold caracas

The Last Shipment – The Final Flight of MD-11, N275WA

The final shipment arrived into Maiquetía – Simón Bolívar airport on Monday 30 January 2012 consisting of 14 tonnes of gold in 28 boxes. The novel significance of the media coverage on this day was that news crews were allowed to film the airplane taxiing into the landing area and unloading its cargo.

The arriving aircraft was a three-engine long-range McDonnell Douglas MD-11 CF (convertible freighter), registration number N275WA, serial number MSN 48631, registered to World Airways. You can see the fleet number (nose code) of ‘275’ above the front (nose) wheel in the photo below.

flight N275WA

Six of these MD-11 CFs were built and World Airways were flying two of them at this time. Ironically, the parent company of World Airways, called Global Aviation Holdings Inc, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 5 February 2012, six days after N275WA had delivered the last shipment of Venezuela’s gold to Caracas. Interestingly, Global Aviation Holdings was also “the largest commercial provider of charter air transportation for the US military”.

Other photos of World Airways’ N275WA from around the world can be seen here and here. N275WA, which had been converted into a freighter in 2002, went out of service and into storage in July 2012. Global Aviation Holdings again entered bankruptcy in November 2013, after which time World Airways was shut down. This explains why one of the MD-11 captain for World Airways (possibly captaining some of the gold flights) left World Airways in March 2014.

See video below of aircraft N275WA arriving into Caracas on 30 November 2012

 

5. Length 1:53 – N275WA arriving and unloading its cargo on 30 November 2012

 

6. Length 3:27 – This is a well produced promotional video from “Servicio Pan Americano de Protección”, the company that transported the gold from the airport to the bank. The video shows the entire unloading and loading operation from 30 January 2012 and is well worth watching.

 

An MD-11 CF freighter can transport 26 large pallets and has a maximum payload of 89,000 kgs (or 89 metric tonnes). Technically, Venezuela could have had all of its repatriated gold flown in on a lot less than 23 flights. Insurance and other risk management considerations probably dictated the diversification requirement, as well as the gold possibly only becoming available in piecemeal fashion from November 2011 to January 2012.

BCV address and lot 20

If there were indeed 23 flights over 2 months totalling 160/161 tonnes, each flight could have flown in 7 tonnes of gold, since this adds up to 161 tonnes (23 * 7). Given that the last batch was said to be 14 tonnes and the first batch 5 tonnes, each of the other 21 flights could have carried a batch of about 6.70 tonnes.

However, a number of batches could have arrived on the same flight, such as the last flight which is said to have flown 14 tonnes. Video footage from the last shipment day, 30 January 2012, shows a crate with lot number ’20’ displayed on it – See above screen shot. So there were at least 20 ‘lots’. Overall, there would have been about 360 crates.

Given that Venezuela was able to repatriate 160 tonnes of gold in cargo flights over the Atlantic Ocean from Europe within 2 months, this proves that the German Bundesbank could have easily repatriated its intended target of 300 tonnes of gold from New York in 2013, by flying the entire 300 tonnes over to Frankfurt within 4 months. Venezuela’s successful operation proves that the Bundesbank’s seven-year repatriation plan is laughable, and that the excuses coming out of Frankfurt are hiding something far more critical to the Bundesbank and the Federal Reserve and US Treasury than logistical flight details.

 

The French Connection – Banque de France

It’s not clear where the last gold shipment on World Airways N275WA aircraft originated from, although Nelson Merentes made the general statement for the overall operation that “the gold comes from several European countries.

However, in the case of the first shipment on Air France from France, there are not that many places where the flight could have come from, the main suspect being from Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG) in Paris, where Air France has one of its two main cargo hubs (the other hub being Amsterdam – i.e. these are Air France-KLM’s two cargo hubs). This then also makes a good case for the first shipment of gold having come from the Banque de France. If this was the case, then it meant that bullion banks and/or the BIS needed to source gold from the Banque de France. Would this have been feasible? Yes.

A May 2012 article from CentralBanking.com (subscription only) quoted George Milling-Stanley, independent gold consultant, and formerly of the World Gold Council, who had some interesting insights into the role of the Banque de France in being able to mobilise gold:

‘”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. The London vaults of JPMorgan, HSBC, and other bullion dealing investment banks have a similar status,” says Milling-Stanley.’

‘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”.’

Milling-Stanley’s reference to the Banque de France acting as an interface to the BIS and commercial banks in Europe may be implying that the Banque de France was a party to the 2010 BIS gold swaps which involved 10 commercial banks including BNP Paribas, Societe Generale and HSBC.

In July 2010 the FT said 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 in a series of unusual deals.” Note that BNP Paribas and HSBC are two of the five bullion banks with which the BCV had outstanding gold loans to in August 2011.

Despite the BIS’ cryptic, short, and obscure explanation that in these swaps, the commercial banks provided gold to the BIS in return for US dollar liquidity, it could be the case that commercial bullion banks borrowed central bank gold held at the Banque de France via financing from the BIS as part of a tripartite transaction.

Under this type of tripartite transaction, which was first proposed by Adrian Douglas, a Venezuelan – Banque de France version would have involved the Banque de France arranging gold lending to the 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 Banque de France, or owe a cash obligation to the Banque de France. The gold is recorded in the name of the BIS but is actually kept in the Banque de France until required by the bullion banks who borrowed it, then, when needed, gold is withdrawn by the bullion banks and used to pay back central bank gold lenders such as Venezuela’s BCV. Either French gold or Banque de France customer gold (such as IMF gold in Paris) could have been used in such a transaction. This would explain why Venezuela received crates of gold flown in to Caracas by Air France cargo.

The FT also noted in its 2010 BIS gold swap article that “In a short note in its annual report, published at the end of June, the BIS said it had taken 346 tonnes of gold in exchange for foreign currency in “swap operations” in the financial year to March 31.” (2010)

This 346 tonne BIS gold swap figure was said to have continued to grow after March 2010 and was estimated to be as high as 380 tonnes by July 2010.

Venezuela’s 50 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England

At the time of the arrival of the last gold shipment to Caracas in January 2012, Nelson Merentes was reported to have noted that “gold stored in BCV will reach 86% of the total while the rest, about 50 tonnes, will stay in the banks in which the Republic needs to maintain open accounts for international financial operations.” In August 2011, Chavez had referred to wanting to reach a target of 90% of the gold being stored in Caracas, but 86% is quite close.

The 50 ton amount remaining at the Bank of England was possibly chosen as a ’round number’ tonnage by the BCV and its international advisors. From the above bar/ingot total calculations, it seems that there were 4,089 good delivery bars left in London. This 50 tonnes, left in situ in London in January 2012, was to play a far greater role in Venezuela’s international financing arrangements than many envisaged at the time.

 

 

Maduro

The Reactivation of Venezuela’s Gold Reserves

The death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in March 2013, and the election of Nicolás Maduro as his successor marked a re-establishment of the relationship between the international investment banks and the Venezuelan central bank.

Recall that in August 2011 when Chavez called for the repatriation of Venezuela’s gold reserves, he also called for the transfer of the BCV’s operating reserves away from US and European banks. These operating reserves, such as cash deposits and short-term fixed interest investments, had been invested with the BIS (BPI in Spanish), Barclays, JP Morgan, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, the FRB (repos), the World Bank and Bladex (the Panamanian based LatAm trade bank). Sight deposits were with JP Morgan, time deposits with the other commercial banks and the BIS, and it negotiable (fixed rate) instruments with the BIS (FIXBIS). See “Proposed Relocation of the International Reserves“.

Operating Reserves August 2011

Prior to the Chavez about-turn, Venezuela had cultivated close working relationships with some of the biggest global investment banks (or vice-versa), and seemed to be especially fond of Wall Street banks. This is illustrated, obviously, by the manner in which it used the investment banks to invest both the operating and gold components of its international reserves, where the names involved read like a who’s who of investment banking giants. But as important as the deposit taking banks appear to be to Venezuela, the advisory and corporate finance relationships look to be as equally important.

According to the Venezuelan media, in the early 2000s, JP Morgan was said to be very close to the Venezuelan finance ministry and finance minister Alejandro Dopazo, and Credit Suisse New York was also said to have had a close relationship with the government.

The use of Venezuelan gold as loan collateral was also not something new to the Maduro years. A Venezuelan media report from August 2011 claims that a few years prior to 2011, Venezuela was involved in financing discussions with New York based investment banks where the banks raised the issue of gold collateral as a means of lowering the required coupon in the financing strategies and products being discussed. These meetings were said to have taken place in the New York offices of Francisco Illaramendi, former manager of the PDVSA pension funds. According to the media report, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and Barclays separately proposed that in order to  “avoid the penalty of high coupons, Venezuela could place ‘equivalent in gold in the banks’ to support the issue”, with Credit Suisse proposing that Venezuelan gold be deposited with it in London and Barclays proposing likewise.

Since the Maduro presidency, the investment banks, and especially the Wall Street based banks, have been actively involved again in Venezuela’s financial affairs. Late last year, in December 2014, Venezuela sold Goldman Sachs a $4 billion credit owed to Venezuela by the Dominican Republic which was outstanding under the Petrocaribe arrangement. Petrocaribe is a regional oil programme by which Venezuela supplies oil to other countries in the region.

Lazard, the French investment bank, is a financial advisor to the state of Venezuela, and last year Lazard was chosen by Venezuela to handle the sale of Citgo Petroleum on behalf of the Venezuelan state owned oil company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.). Citgo is a US subsidiary of PVDSA. This sale didn’t go ahead but then Deutsche Bank’s New York office was chosen in January 2014 to handle a bond and loan capital raising exercise for Citgo and advisory services for PDVSA. Deutsche had previously worked with PDVSA.

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch also now has a close relationship with the Venezuelan central bank and the Venezuelan government in the form of its chief economist for the Andean region, Francisco Rodríguez. Rodríguez, was chief economist to the National Assembly of Venezuela from 2000-2004, and joined Bank of America in 2011. More about Rodríguez below.

outriders

Goldman Gold Swap Plan

The first sign that Venezuela’s gold was back in the sights of the investment banks came in November 2013, when it was reported that the BCV (and the Venezuelan government) were in negotiations with Goldman Sachs about the arrangement of a gold exchange, in other words, a gold – US dollar swap with gold as collateral. A lot of the reporting at the time did not provide very much detail about this swap, so here are some summary details of the Goldman gold swap.

The gold swap was to be between the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) and Goldman Sachs International in London. Eudomar Tovar was BCV president at that time. The swap would involve Venezuela swapping gold from it’s reserves with Goldman Sachs international in exchange for a US dollar loan, with the gold serving as collateral for the loan.

The swap was to be for a four-year duration between 2016 and 2020 (although another media source said it was to be for a seven-year duration from late 2013 until late 2020). The swap was to be for 1.45 million ounces of gold (or nearly 1.45 million ounces according to one media source) which was expected to be deposited at the Bank of England and transferred to Goldman Sachs International at an agreed time. At the time, 1.45m ozs of gold was valued at over $1.85 billion at the then market price of $1,282 per ounce. Venezuela would also pay an annual interest rate of 8% on the loan.

BCV Goldman Adar gold swap

The above screenshot is from a document here.

If the price of gold fell over the life of the swap, the BCV would need to deposit more gold into a margin account. If the price of gold rose, Goldman Sachs International would be required to deposit more currency into a margin account.  At the swap’s maturity, the contributions made by each party into the margin accounts would be returned to the respective parties.

The swap was said to contain a built-in hedge that would benefit Goldman, which reflected a 10% adjustment of the value of the swap if the gold price fell. The gold swap was said to be tradable on the market. The terms of the swap allowed the BCV to repay the loan and keep the gold, but if the BCV didnt repay the loan, the gold would go Goldman. One report said that the gold would continue to appear on the BCV’s balance sheet throughout the term of the swap.

The BCV had contracted Adar Capital Partners (of which Diego Marynberg is a director), as a consultant to design the swap with Goldman Sachs International. Adar Capital Partners would received 0.25% per annum of the value of the gold in the contract at beginning of each year over the life of the contract.

Any dispute between the parties would  be resolved in English courts. Some media articles on the BCV-Goldman gold swap can be viewed in Spanish here and here and here.

Given that there were said to be 16,908 of Venezuela’s gold bars held abroad, of which 12,819 bars were repatriated, this left 4,089 of Venezuela’s bars in the vaults of the Bank of England from early 2012. These 4,089 bars are roughly equal to 51 tonnes, or 1.635 million ounces. It looks like the Goldman swap factored in a 10% adjustment on 50 tonnes of gold (roughly 1,607,500 ozs) at the Bank of England,  to arrive at 1.45 million ounces (i.e. 1,607,500 * 0.9 = 1,446,750 ozs). This is the 10% adjustment referred to above. So Goldman would have had an extra buffer built-in as protection against a downward gold price movement.

The discussion of the swap at the time in November 2013 did not reveal what US dollar amount the BCV was to receive from Goldman in exchange for transferring 1.45 million ozs of gold to Goldman. i.e. it did not reveal the intended discount that the BCV was expected to take on gold with a US dollar value of $1.85 billion.

The BCV maintains that this gold swap with Goldman Sachs International did not go ahead, despite what look like detailed terms and negotiations. But the framework of the gold swap discussed with Goldman Sachs looks very similar to the swap structure that was ultimately chosen in April 2015, so it appears that the BCV re-used in some way the plan that they had drawn up with Adar Capital Partners and Goldman Sachs.

Goldman and Ecuador

Where Goldman did get a Latin American gold swap out the door was Ecuador, approximately six months after its negotiations with Venezuela hit a wall.

In early June 2014, it was announced that Ecuador had agreed to swap 1,165 bars of gold as collateral with Goldman, and in return Goldman agreed to provide Ecuador with “instruments of high security and liquidity” i.e. a loan. This gold swap was for 3 years, from 2014 to 2017 after which it will be reversed and Ecuador will get its gold back and pay the 2017 gold price to Goldman.

Rodríguez, Bank of America and the BCV vault visit

In September 2014, there was a rather unusual story from Bloomberg in which Francisco Rodríguez, the Bank of America economist (see above), related the fact that he had been allowed a rare visit into the Venezuelan central bank gold vault to view the gold bars. Rodríguez maintains that he was at a routine meeting in the BCV headquarters when his request to see the gold was granted, and that he and four other people who had attended the meeting were brought down to the underground vault in which all of the gold was stacked in “five small cells that were not even full to the top”, and that the bars were of “different types”.

While Rodríguez is said to be close to the BCV and the Venezuelan government, it still seems odd that at a routine meeting, a Bank of America representative (and some unnamed others) would pop down to see the gold in the vault, while external attendees at countless other meetings at the BCV’s headquarters would not do this tour. Could it he that the Bank of America was running the slide ruler over the Venezuelan gold in preparation for a loan of their own to the Venezuelan State?

Role Call Recall

At this point its worth recalling some of the banks that were interacting with the Venezuelan state and finance ministry, and/or interacting with the BCV (not including the gold deposits and gold lending).

In 2011, Venezuela’s operating reserves were invested with Barclays, JP Morgan, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank. Earlier in the 2000s, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Deutsche were said to be close to or working with Venezuela on various financing matters.

It was also said that a few years prior to 2011, Barclays, Credit Suisse and Deutsche, at meetings in New York held in the PDVSA offices, had proposed that Venezuela could put up gold as collateral so as to lower coupons on unspecified products.

Then there was Goldman Sachs purchasing outstanding debt that the Dominican Republic owed to Venezuela. Then there were Lazard and Deutsche advising the PDVSA and/or Citgo in the US. Finally there was Goldman Sachs negotiating a gold swap with Venezuela in 2013, and Bank of America taking a look at the gold in the BCV vaults in 2014.

 

Investment Bank beauty parade – March 2015

The topic of Venezuelan gold swaps was again raised on 10 March 2015 when Reuters reported that the BCV was said to be in advanced discussions with a group of Wall Street banks about conducting a 4 year gold swap for 1.4 milion ozs of gold, and that the swap operation would be agreed by the end of April. Reuters reported that the discussions involved at least two institutions, namely “Bank of America and Credit Suisse”.

At the time, the swap was said to involve an exchange of 1.4 million ozs (43.5 tonnes) of Venezuelan gold for cash, on which interest would be paid, and that Venezuela had the option of re-purchasing the gold after the expiry of the 4 year term. Interestingly, it was also said that Venezuela “would most likely be able to maintain the gold as part of its foreign currency reserves” during the swap, i.e. double-counting of gold reserves.

Amid the publicity about these March 2015 swap discussions, confusion arose as to whether the Goldman Sachs gold swap had happened or not, but the BCV stated generally that although it had “received proposals to carry out a similar operation” in late 2013, it “denied any agreements had been completed.“

Local media went further, and named additional investment bank names said to be involved in the pitch to secure the gold swap deal. On 5 March 2015, Nelson Bocaranda Sardi claimed in Venezuelan newspaper El Univeral that there was a pitch competition (implied to be for effect) by Credit Suisse, Goldman, BTGP Brazilian, Deutsche, Bank of America and Citibank, and that it was really a three horse race in which Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Citibank would be chosen for the gold swap, but for $500 million each. Furthermore, Sardi said that Venezuela was paying $70 million to each bank as a risk premium. El Universal was previously said to be critical of Chavez, but may now not be so critical of Maduro.

On 12 March, on a web site of an organisation called Aporrea, Fresia Ipinza retorted (possibly with more up-to-date information) that rumours were saying that the gold swap would be over 4 years for 1.4 million ozs, and that allegedly Bank of America and Credit Suisse were involved. Aporrea were known to be Chavez supporters.

So, its very possible that the list of investment banks pitching to Venezuela for the gold swap were as follows: Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and BTGP. BTGP refers to BTG Pactual, a Brazilian investment bank.

Citigroup Rescue

 

The Citibank Gold Swap

In the last week of April 2015, it emerged that Citibank had exclusively won the mandate for the gold swap with Venezuela. It was reported that Citi was chosen from a group of ‘five’ banks that had pitched.

A combination of sources (see links) yield the following details about the gold swap with Citi. The details are said to be derived from newspaper ‘El Nacional’ and also a former director of the BCV, and also from Reuters.

Venezuela (via the BCV) will put up 1.4 million ozs of gold as collateral in exchange for a $1 billion loan of foreign currency from Citibank. Since 1.4 million ozs of gold, valued at the late April 2015 price of $1,200, is roughly $1.68 billion, then Venezuela is having to accept a near 40% discount on the specified gold collateral. Venezuela also pays interest on the loan at between 6% and 7% per annum.

The swap is for a 4 year duration, and Venezuela will have the “right of first refusal” to re-purchase the gold after 4 years. The 1.4 million ozs of gold (43.5 tonnes and just less than 3,500 Good Delivery bars equivalent) will be held at the vaults of the Bank of England. If Venezuela does not pay the interest payments on time, Citibank can gain control of the gold. The loan was expected to be for $1.5 billion but its unclear why this changed, but probably would have something to do with a bigger haircut being imposed.

According to ‘Venezuela Analysis‘ the “current value [of the gold] will continue to appear on the Central Bank’s balance sheet – an advantage that Goldman Sachs denied the country in earlier talks.” ‘Venezuela Analysis’ also said that some sources think Citibank holds title to the gold, while other say Venezuela holds title. Another relevant newspaper link is here.

None of the media commentary mentioned Adar Capital Partners Ltd in conjunction with the Citibank swap but its possible that this company could have been involved in the more recent swap negotiations, given that it was involved in the late 2013 gold swap negotiations involving Goldman Sachs and a lot of the swap terms are similar. On the other hand, the BCV could have just taken its gold swap file on the Goldman proposal out of the top drawer and reused the Goldman – Adar plan.

Why might Venezuela need a loan now?

Does Venezuela really need extra foreign currency now? In some ways, yes. Venezuela’s international reserves keep falling and as Nathan Crooks of Bloomberg said recently, reserves are now under $18.8 billion and at the lowest level since October 2003.

Venezuela’s international reserves fell by about US$2 billion during April from a level of $20.8 billion at the beginning of April. Lower oil prices have impacted the country’s ability to comfortably meet principal and interest payments on foreign bond borrowings and  for financing imports. Inflation in Venezuela is running high, and there are reports of a shortage of essential goods and an impact on some public services. In short, the economy is contracting.

Rodriguez, the Bank of America economist, said that the gold swap was the ‘logical’ course of action for Venezuela to take. As to why Venezuela can’t negotiate oil swap deals in the current environment or get more financing from the BRICS or China, that is probably more of an international political issue and a reputational issue with the international capital markets.

 

Maria Corina Machado

On 12 March 2015, Maria Corina Machado, a deputy in the Venezuelan National Assembly and political leader of the opposition party, sent an offical letter to Nelson Merentes, president of the BCV, asking the following 5 questions about the gold swap, which at the time, in early March, was being rumoured.

Questions 1 and 2 are quite standard and to be expected in light of the general rumours about the swap, but questions 3, 4, and 5 seem to suggest that Machado had heard something about the negotiations that made her think that the size of the swap was going to be far larger ($2.6 billion), and that there would be a ‘second operation’ with an even larger swap, and that this would require moving gold out of Venezuela again. See the 5 questions below:

  1. ¿Está todo el oro de las reservas venezolanas en las bóvedas del BCV de Venezuela tal como afirmó el ex presidente el Hugo Chavéz 17 de agusto 2011, cuando ordenó “repatriacion de nuestro oro”?

Are all of Venezuela’s gold reserves in the vaults of the Central Bank of Venezuela as stated by the former president Hugo Chavéz on 17 agusto 2011, when he ordered “repatriation of our gold”?

2. ¿Está el BCV en negociación con la banca extranjera para la venta o empeño del oro monetario?

Is the BCV in negotiations with foreign banks for the sale or pawning of monetary gold?

3. ¿Es cierto que en la operacion de empeño del oro actualmente en discusión se pretende disponer de oro por un valor de mercado de 2,6 mil millones US$?
¿Esto representaría comprometer casi el 20% del total de reservas en oro de la Républica en esta primera operación?

Is it true that in the operation to pawn gold currently under discussion, it is intended to dispose of gold with a market value of US$ 2.6 billion?
Does this represent / involve almost the 20% of the total gold reserves of the Republic, in this first operation?

4. ¿Es cierto que estarían negociando una segunda operacion de empeño similar a la anterior por un monto aun mayor?

Is it true that they would be negotiating a second operation similar to the previous one for an even greater amount?

5. ¿Estas operaciones implican sacar el oro de las bóvedas del BCV y regresarlas al exterior?

Do these operations involve removing the gold from the vaults of the BCV and returning it abroad?

In the letter, Machado claimed that “the [gold swap] exchange would jeopardize the achievement of economic stability” and “would compromise the future of the Republic and the welfare of millions of Venezuelans“.

She also called for the monetary gold bullion held by the BCV and the exact amount held abroad  to be “certified by an independent and trusted international body”.

There does not seem to be any publicly available response from the central bank to Machado’s letter, so its unclear as to which answers, if any, Machado received from the BCV. However, given the deteriorating state of Venezuela’s international finances and international reserves at the present time, it may be sooner rather than later before Venezuelan gold could be on the move again out of the country.

One thing is for sure. Gold leaving Venezuela on a flight back to London, New York, or elsewhere, will not get the fanfare and celebration that was accompanied by the same gold’s arrival into Caracas a few short years ago.

 

Chinese Banks as direct participants in the new LBMA Gold and Silver Price auctions? Not so fast!

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.”

ringin the bell

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.

For example, on 2nd February 2015, Bloomberg published an article titled “Chinese Banks in Talks to Take Part in Gold Fix Replacement”, in which it stated that:

‘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 Financial Times was slightly more definitive with its guesstimate in an article, also published on 2nd February (subscription), titled “Chinese banks to join new gold fix from March”, in which it said:

“The replacement for the near-century-old London gold fix will start in March, with the hope of attracting at 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.”

Direct Participants

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 banks can 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 counterparty will always be their sponsoring direct participant.”

ICBC London
ICBC London
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 weeksand 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 SeptemberJP Morgan Chase Bank joined 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.

China Construction CCB

“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.

Finally, in the same week, on Friday 17th October 2014, in an interview with Metal Bulletin (subscription) titled ‘LBMA chief on the new era of precious benchmarking’, LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell said:

“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).

mao

Chairperson Who?

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.

Spall
Jonathan Spall, ex Barclays
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)
Meeting the Criteria

All three Chinese banks, i.e. Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction Bank are already Ordinary members of the LBMA. Bank of China has been an ordinary member of the LBMA since at least 1999. See LBMA member list here from August 1999. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) became an ordinary member of the LBMA in late 2011. On 7th October 2014, China Construction Bank was admitted as an Ordinary member of the LBMA.

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.

SGE ceremony

 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.

There are two CCB entities in the UK, China Construction Bank (London) Limited, regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority effective from 09/03/2009, and China Construction Bank Corporation London Branch regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority effective from 22/12/2014

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.

On its London website, in a December 2012 press release titled “ICBC Is the First Chinese Bank to Quote Precious Metal Prices and Match Deals in Global Market“, the Bank states that:

ICBC provides real-time prices to worldwide buyers and sellers of precious metals including gold or silver in Beijing, London and New York round the clock.

ICBC also runs two main UK entities  ICBC (London) plc, regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority effective 01/04/2013, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited, regulated by the FCA and PRA effective 08/09/2014. Both entities are permitted to arrange, deal and transact in investments in the UK including commodities.

Lothbury

Bank of China

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.

There are three Bank of China entities in the UK. Bank of China (UK) Ltd Bank of China Limited, and Bank of China International (UK) Ltd, which are, to various extents, regulated by the FSA and the PRA.

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 saidwe are pleased to have eleven 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 the LBMA’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?

Robustness
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.

On 25th September 2014, Citibank N.A. was reclassified as a spot LBMA Market Maker for spot and options. On 16th October 2014, Morgan Stanley was reclassified as a LBMA Market Maker for spot and options. On 9th February 2015, Standard Chartered was appointed as a LBMA market maker for spot and options.

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).

An article in Metal Bulletin (subscription) on 4th December titled “February launch likely for new gold price mechanism” quoted Ruth Crowell, as saying:

“‘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 current members 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.
Standard ICBC
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.

On 18th February 2014, Reuters reported that:

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.

Even as early as May 2012, ICBC said that it wanted to become an LBMA market maker:

“‘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 seems to be clearly indicating that it is ready and willing to be a direct participant at day 1 launch on 20th March. Chinese newspaper, China Daily, in a 3rd March article titled “More Chinese banks to take part in setting the global gold price” stated that:

“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.