Tag Archives: Ronan Manly

Ireland’s Monetary Gold Reserves: High Level Secrecy vs. Freedom of Information – Part I

This article and a sequel article together chronicle a long-running investigation that has attempted, with limited success to date, to establish a number of basic details about Ireland’s official monetary gold reserves, basic details such as whether this gold is actually allocated, what type of storage contract the gold is stored under, and supporting documentation in the form of a gold bar weight list. Ireland’s gold reserves are held by the Central Bank of Ireland but are predominantly stored (supposedly) with the Bank of England in London.

At many points along the way, this investigation has been hindered and stymied by lack of cooperation from the Central Bank of Ireland and the Irish Government’s Department of Finance. Freedom of Information requests have been ignored, rejected and refused, and there has also been outright interference from the Bank of England. Many of these obstacles are featured below and in the sequel article.

6 Tonnes of Gold

Ireland ‘only’ owns 6 tonnes of gold in its monetary reserves, which is a fraction of the gold holdings that many of the large European central banks are said to hold. For such a small holding, it may be surprising that basic details of the Irish gold remain a closely guarded secret. However, it’s worth remembering that Ireland is a member of the Eurozone, that the Central Bank of Ireland is a member bank of the European Central Bank (ECB), and that the Irish gold is (supposedly) stored at the Bank of England vaults. Given the clubs that the Central Bank of Ireland is in or is a part of, it is arguably ECB policy and Bank of England policy on gold secrecy which primarily dictates what the Central Bank of Ireland is allowed to say or not to say about the Irish gold reserves.

But don’t forget though that central bankers in general, and Irish central bankers included, are an arrogant and narcissistic bunch who consider themselves immune from having to answer to anyone other than themselves and sometimes their governments. Furthermore, the out of control arrogant culture and ‘cult’ of independence of these organisations also explains their disdain for public discourse, especially on a topic as highly sensitive to them as monetary gold.

For many years Ireland held 14 tonnes in its monetary gold reserves. This remained the case until the end of 1998. In January 1999, as part of Eurozone foreign exchange transfers to the newly established ECB, the Central Bank of Ireland transferred 8 tonnes of gold to the ECB at the birth of the Euro, leaving it as the guardian of just 6 tonnes of gold. This 6 tonne holding has remained static ever since, at least at a reporting level. Most of this 6 tonnes of gold is supposedly stored at the Bank of England in London in the form of gold bars. A small residual of the 6 tonnes is held in the form of gold coins and stored at one of the Central Bank of Ireland sites in Dublin.

Central Bank Act (1942) and FOI Acts

The Central bank of Ireland was established via “The Central Bank Act, 1942″ which states that:

“The Bank is a state corporation established under Statute (the 1942 Act) wherein its capital is held by the Minister. The Minister for Finance is the sole shareholder of the Bank.

In Ireland, the Minister for Finance heads up the Department of Finance and this Minister is also a member of the Cabinet, i.e. the Government or Executive branch. The current Minister for Finance is Michael Noonan who has held this position since March 2011.

Freedom of Information requests in Ireland were introduced in Ireland by the relatively recent Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 1997 which was enacted by a coalition government and which advanced the concepts of transparency and openness in government records and cabinet meetings etc. However, the powers of this 1997 Act were diluted somewhat by a 2003 Amendment to the 1997 Act which aimed to row back on some of the advances of the 1997 Act and which introduced fees for submitting FOI requests.

I first examined the Irish gold reserves in August 2011. At that time the FOI Act covered government departments such as the Department of Finance, but not the Central Bank of Ireland. A subsequent FOI Act of 2014 replaced the 1997 FOI Act and the 2003 FOI Amendment, and also extended the coverage of FOI requests to all public bodies including the Central Bank of Ireland. The 2014 Act (in section 42 and Schedule 1 ) specifies a number of exemptions for certain types of information of certain types of public bodies including a few exemptions for certain types of central bank information. A government website http://foi.gov.ie summaries the basic framework for FOI’s in Ireland. An independent Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) also exists to review decisions made by public bodies in relation to the FOI.

At the time in 2011, I began noticing the difficulties which gold researchers in other countries were having in obtaining basic information from their central banks about other countries’ gold reserves, and I thought that going through an investigative process with the Irish equivalent might prove easier to navigate given that the Irish gold holdings were far smaller, and given that the Central Bank of Ireland is not exactly as big as the behemoths of the Bundesbank or Banque de France, and so might be more approachable. However, what the process ended up proving was exactly what others had experienced, that the subject of monetary gold reserves is a subject which central banks do their utmost not to discuss any real details of.

This investigative summary into Ireland’s gold reserves is divided into 2 parts. Part 1 here details all of the investigations submitted to the Department of Finance and Central Bank of Ireland prior to my submission of a FOI request to the Central Bank of Ireland in 2015. The Central Bank of Ireland became subject to Freedom of Information requests in 2014 after the FOI Act of 2014 was enacted.

Part 2 looks at the FOI submitted to the Central Bank of Ireland in 2015, how this was rejected, and how it was then appealed and became ‘partially’ successful. I have redacted certain information in emails and FOI letters such as names of FOI officers and various addresses and phone numbers.

Dame Street

2011 – Central Bank First Refusal

The saga began on 26th August 2011 with an email to the Central Bank of Ireland posing a number of seemingly innocuous questions about Ireland’s gold reserves. My questions were as follows:

Could you clarify a number of points on the gold holdings of the Central Bank of Ireland.

Note 10 on page 98 of the Bank’s 2010 annual report states that ‘Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England’.

Of the Central Bank of Ireland’s bars held at the Bank of England, could you clarify if any of this holding is swapped or loaned out or has any other receivable status recorded against it, and if so, what percentage? Additionally, is this held in an allocated account and do you have a gold bar list for the custody that you can provide?

The Central Bank of Ireland responded a week later on 01 September 2011:

“Good morning,

We received your query in connection with gold custody, please find our response below.

The notes to our accounts confirm the locations at which the Central Bank of Ireland maintains its Gold Holdings.  The Bank is not, however, in a position to provide further information nor to outline its investment strategy in relation to the Gold Holdings.

Trusting this is our assistance to you.”

Knowing at that time that the FOI Act did not cover the Central Bank of Ireland but did cover the Irish Government’s Department of Finance, I emailed the (independent) Office of the Information Commissioner in September 2011 and asked if they thought that a FOI request to the Department of Finance about a topic connected to the central bank would be within the scope of FOI coverage given that the central bank itself was not covered by the Act at that time.

The Office of the Information Commissioner replied to me on 20 September 2011 and advised me as follows:

“you should contact the FOI Central Policy Unit of the Department of Finance for advice
in relation to whether or not certain information might be releasable or not under the FOI Acts. Their email address is: cpu@finance.gov.ie

The same day I sent the following email to the Department of Finance FOI CPU:

I have a hypothetical question regarding a FOI to the Department of Finance, on a matter that might refer to the Central Bank. The scenario would be as follows:
 
If I made a FOI request to the Department of Finance on a topic that included correspondence between the Department of Finance and the Central Bank, would the information released to me still include items on the Department of Finance side that might reference the Central Bank, or would references or communications with the Central Bank exclude that particular document or communication from the FOI response.”
The Department of Finance FOI CPU responded same day:

“Good afternoon

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the decision to grant or not grant records lies with the decision maker in the organization that holds the records. The Central Bank does not come under the remit of Freedom of Information.  More information can be found at www.foi.gov.ie;”

Slightly cryptic and not very helpful, so I decided to submit a FOI request to the Department of Finance.

Department of Finance – Irresponsible or Incompetent?

On 8 November 2011, I submitted the following FOI request to the Department of Finance:

“Please direct this email to FOI officer XXXX XXXXXXX, or the appropriate FOI officer at the Department of Finance.

I would like to make the following request under the FOI Act.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, I request access from the Department of Finance of all records and correspondence between 1997 and 2011 relating to:

  • The Irish State’s gold reserves managed by the Central Bank of Ireland, which are custodied at the Bank of England
  • The investment strategy of the State’s gold reserves
  • The Irish State’s gold reserves transferred to the ECB between 1999 and 2011″

More than four weeks later I had still not received either an acknowledgement or a response from the Department of Finance about my FOI submission. Under the Irish FOI Acts, a lack of reply within 4 weeks of your initial application is deemed a refusal of your request and allows you to seek to have the refusal decision re-examined.

On 13 December 2011, I sent the following email to the Department of Finance FOI unit:

“Since you have not sent me a decision on my FOI request within the four-week deadline as stipulated by the Office of the Information Commissioner, and I note that I did not receive a reply or even an acknowledgement, this issue has now become a “refusal of my FOI request by non-reply” and I wish to escalate this as an ‘internal review’.

Can you confirm receipt of this internal review request immediately or I will be informing the Office of the Information Commissioner of this matter by end of day tomorrow.”

 Two days later the Department responded as follows with what can only be described as an incredible excuse:

“Thank you for your e-mail and apologies for the delay in processing your case.  Unfortunately the FOI Officer in the division has been out for sometime. If you could give me a call on 669xxxx we can go through it.  Requests are processed on receipt of a €15.00 fee. I am not quite sure what happened in your case but I am happy to discuss it further with you. I am in the Office in the mornings only.

Kind regards, Xxxxxxx Xxx, FOI Unit, Extn xxxx

 To which I replied:

“What happened is that no one responded to me within the four-week timeframe and I have informed the Office of the Information Commissioner of this lack of coverage at your department. If an FOI officer is unavailable, there has to be an alternative officer available. That is part of the OIC guidelines. That is why I also stated in my original email that the request was to “FOI officer Xxxx Xxxxxxx, or the appropriate FOI officer”.

 As per the FOI Acts,  “A person should be available to handle queries from members of the public in each organisation.”

Additionally, since your department hosts the FOI Central Policy Unit [for the entire Irish Government], I find it hard to believe that you don’t have multiple FOI officers. 

So I would like a full explanation of why my request was ignored and a fee waiver since I have been waiting for over 5 weeks now.”

Merrion Street

On 20 December 2011, just before Christmas, I received a phone call from a FOI officer at the Department of Finance. The FOI Officer told me, and I quote the conversation, since I jotted it down:

“there are no records or correspondence of gold reserves. I talked to various people in the Department and they told me to tell you there are no records. They said responsibility for gold reserves was transferred to the central bank prior to 1999.”

The FOI Officer said she would send a letter confirming this, and said that I could appeal, and that “a principal officer will check the type of searches undertaken”.

The next day, an email from the same FOI Officer arrived which stated:

“Further to our telephone conversation. A request for Internal Review has to be submitted to this Office within 15 days of receipt of our letter.  The cost of an Internal Review is €75. The letter will issue to-morrow.”

The official letter duly arrived in the post, and it’s uploaded and can be viewed here -> FOI Response Dept of Finance Dec 2011. In summary, the letter said:

“22nd December 2011

Your request was received by email in this Department on 9th November. I as the deciding officer have today made a final decision on your request. I may be contacted by telephone. The delay in responding to your request is regretted.

I regret to inform you that a search of the Department has not yielded any of the records sought by you. Consequently I must refuse your request in accordance with section 10(1)(a) of the FOI Act.  

…Right of Appeal (as above)”

Given that I had no confidence in a Department of Finance internal review finding anything after being told on the phone that “they told me to tell you there are no records“,  I did not see the point of wasting €75 in confirming this with an internal review. As an aside, unless an internal review is pursued, the independent Information Commissioner cannot normally review the FOI. As the Office of the Information Commissioner told me when I reported the Department of Finance shenanigans to them:

“Under  the  terms  of the FOI Acts, requesters must, apart from a number of exceptional  circumstances, avail of their right to seek internal review by the public body before the Commissioner can review the matter.

If after three weeks (15 working days) you have received no internal review decision,  or  if  you  are not satisfied with the internal review decision that  the Department issues, you can then apply to this Office for a review of your case by the Information Commissioner.”

However, for a number of reasons, it’s quite unbelievable that the Irish Department of Finance would have zero records or correspondence about the Irish gold reserves.

Firstly, it was only a few months earlier on 16 June 2011, in Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), that the very  head of the Department of Finance, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, in answer to a parliamentary question, stated that he had been “informed by the Central Bank that the value of gold and gold receivables held by the Bank at the end of 2010 was some €203.792 million (€147.975 million at end-2009)”. To wit:

Deputy Seamus Kirk asked the Minister for Finance  if the suggestion that gold profits in the EU central banks should be used to tackle the debt crisis in the peripheral countries in the eurozone such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15924/11]

Minister for Finance (Deputy Michael Noonan):  I am informed by the Central Bank that the value of gold and gold receivables held by the Bank at the end of 2010 was some €203.792 million (€147.975 million at end-2009). Gold is valued at the closing market price and securities at mid-market closing prices at year-end. The increase in the balance sheet entry for the value of the Bank’s gold holdings at end-2010 is due to the change in the market value of gold during the year.

Note that Noonan did not say that he or one of his juniors had looked in the central bank’s annual report. He said that he was informed by the central bank. If Noonan was informed by the central bank, this would have to have been documented in Department of Finance files as part of official departmental and parliamentary business. If these files don’t exist as the FOI response from the Department of Finance claimed, then it would indicate that the Department of Finance engages in sloppy record keeping and operates in an unprofessional and irresponsible manner. If files do exist about Noonan’s interactions with the central bank concerning the gold reserves, it shows that the Department of Finance had records about Irish gold reserves and lied when they said to me that they didn’t.

More fundamentally, the Irish Nation and people of Ireland essentially entrust to the care of the Irish State and it’s Department of Finance, the Nation’s gold reserves. In turn, the Department of Finance employs the Central Bank of Ireland as an agent or custodian, and so the Central Bank of Ireland is answerable to the Minister for Finance on these gold reserves. Also, the Bank of England is (on paper) acting as sub-custodian (or maybe deposit taker) to the Central Bank of Ireland.

The FOI response and phone call from the Department of Finance stating that it had no record whatsoever of the Irish gold reserves, no records of how these reserves are managed, and no records of the gold transferred to the ECB, if true, indicates complete lack of oversight by the Irish Government and Department of Finance into an important component of Ireland’s foreign exchange reserves, and indicates a complete dereliction of due diligence over a substantial monetary asset of the Irish State.

2012 – Central Bank Second Refusal

The Central Bank of Ireland annual report is usually published in late April of the year following financial year-end. After the 2011 Central Bank of Ireland Annual Report was published in late April 2012, I decided in May 2012 to submit some additional questions about the gold reserves to the central bank in the hope that whoever answered might be more cooperative than the previous non-cooperative individual in September 2011 (see above).

On 24 May 2012, after reading the relevant sections of the annual report and establishing how the auditors and bank staff prepared the annual accounts in relation to the balance sheet items, I posed the following seven specific and reasonable questions about the Irish gold reserves to the publications@centralbank.ie email address of the central bank:

“Hello, I have some questions on an item in the annual accounts 2011 Central Bank of Ireland annual report.

 Item 1 in the balance sheet on page 98 as of 31 December 2011 lists “Gold and gold receivables“ of € 234,967,000. Note 10 to the accounts on page 112 states that “Gold and gold receivables represent coin stocks held in the Bank, together with gold bars held at the Bank of England“.

Given that the valuation difference in this line item between 2010 and 2011 represents an increased gold price and no holding increase, the 2011 valuation represents approximately 193,000 fine troy ounces, which is equivalent to  6 fine troy tonnes, or about 485 london good delivery bars.

 My questions are as follows – 

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England on a specific bar basis or a fine ounce basis?

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England earmarked in a set-aside account or is it construed as a gold deposit? 

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England held under a contract of bailment (with the Central Bank of Ireland as bailor and the Bank of England as bailee), or is the relationship a creditor/debtor relationship?

Is the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England beneficially and legally owned by the Central Bank of Ireland free and clear of liens, charges, encumbrances, claims or defects?

Is any of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England currently loaned or swapped out to the Bank of England or other parties?

Given that the quantity of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England did not vary between 2010 and 2011, what verifications and checks did the members of the Central Bank Commission use for gold and gold receivables when preparing the 2011 Statement of Accounts?

And finally, given that the quantity of the Central Bank of Ireland bar gold held at the Bank of England did not vary between 2010 and 2011, what sources of material did the Comptroller and Auditor General use for verification of gold and gold receivables in his audit of the 2011 accounts?”

 On 12 June 2012, the Central Bank of Ireland responded as follows:

“Thank you for your email request of 24th May 2012 to our Publications email address . As I do not have a postal address for you, I am responding by this email.

I can inform you that the gold bars held by the Central Bank of Ireland are held in safe custody at the Bank of England.

It is not Bank policy to enter into financial/commercial detail (beyond that contained in the Bank’s Annual Report & Accounts) relating to these or other financial assets that are held. You will note that the Bank’s external auditors have certified that its statement of Accounts gives a true and fair view of the Bank’s affairs.

Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxx, Strategy, Planning  & Publications, General Secretariat Division

 On the same day, 12 June 2012, I sent a follow-up email to the central bank employee from this Strategy, Planning  & Publications group.

“Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your reply. Could you direct me to the published Bank Policy, statutory, compliance or otherwise, that covers Bank discussion of its financial assets and investments, so that I can relate this policy to my questions?

 On 20 June 2012, I received a reply from this individual:

“Dear Mr Manly, Thank you for your email of 12th June 2012.

The Bank’s management and staff comply with an employment provision that the Bank’s business must not be disclosed, or discussed with, outside parties.

The duties and obligations of management and staff in this regard are governed by Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act, 1942 (as inserted).  All staff are given copy of this Section on appointment and are required to familiarise themselves with its provisions and to comply with them at all times.

Xxxxxxx Xxxxxx, Strategy, Planning  & Publications, General Secretariat Division”

Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act of 1942 is a long and restrictive section that was only inserted into Act in 2003. It details specific circumstances of the central bank not disclosing confidential information, one part of which relates to:

“any matter arising in connection with the performance of the functions of the Bank or the exercise of its powers”

Importantly, Section 33AK of the Central Bank Act of 1942 has been routinely criticised in Ireland as a ridiculous secrecy cop-out by the Department of Finance and Central Bank to allow them not to answer all manner of questions in relation to the activities of the central bank, for example it has been used by the Minister of Finance to avoid discussing multiple issues related to Ireland’s economic collapse and subsequent bail-outs. The frequent abuses of Section 33AK were succinctly summed up in an Irish bailout blog in 2013 in an article titled “Is 33AK undermining the banking sector in Ireland?“:

“Section 33AK had never been mentioned by Minister Noonan before November 2012, but 33AK is now routinely used by Minister Noonan to tell pesky TDs (Members of Parliament) to “get lost” when they try to ask important questions about the banking sector…”

“No doubt the mandarin discoverer of Section 33AK in the Department of Finance is regularly patted on the back, but for the sake of our Republic, shouldn’t this legislation be repealed?”

According to Ireland’s independent Information Commissioner whose role it is to oversee compliance with the FOI Act, the Central Bank of Ireland had described Section 33AK as deriving:

“primarily from the obligations of ‘professional secrecy’ that arise as a result of certain EU law obligations contained within what were previously called the Supervisory Directives and are now called the supervisory EU legal acts”.

In my opinion, this invocation of Section 33AK by the above mentioned Central Bank of Ireland employee of the Strategy, Planning  & Publications group to decline answering simple questions about Ireland’s gold reserves and the central bank’s published financial statements is pure obstruction, it is an abuse of power, it is an abuse of the legislation, it is an outrage, it has nothing to do with the EU, and it goes far beyond the meaning of the legislation’s original intention.

OIC

Freedom of Information Act (2014) – A New Hope

In October 2014, the Irish President signed the Freedom of Information Act (2014) into law. This repealed and replaced the FOI Acts of 1997 and 2003. The FOI Act (2014) extended “FOI bodies” to “all Public Bodies” unless specifically exempted. Exemptions were either full or partial. Importantly, the Central Bank of Ireland was included under the FOI Act (2014) but with partial exemptions.  But for new public bodies (with exemptions), the Act only covers access to information and records created from 21 April 2008 onwards.

Part 2 of this article (forthcoming) details a FOI request about the Irish gold reserves that I made to the Central Bank of Ireland in the 2015 on the back the introduction of this updated FOI Act. As you will see, the central bank deciding officer initially refused all parts of my request and even liaised with the Bank of England on a number of occasions where they discussed by FOI request. That refusal contained such gems as:

“the release of detailed information regarding the gold bars held at the Bank of England on behalf of the Central Bank of Ireland could have a serious, adverse effect on the financial interests of the State”

“‘the record concerned [a gold bar weight list] does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken,’

I appealed this FOI refusal. The appeal was partially successful in producing some very limited details of the supposed Irish gold reserve holdings, including at the Bank of England and gold coins within storage in Dublin, Ireland. Full details in Part 2.

Lars Schall Matterhorn Interview with Ronan Manly

I was recently interviewed by financial journalist Lars Schall on behalf of Swiss based Matterhorn Asset Management. Our interview covered the German and Russian gold markets, Venezuela’s official gold reserves, the secrecy of the London gold market, and the outlook for the gold price, among a number of other topics. Matterhorn kindly granted me permission to post the audio interview and transcript below. The original interview titled  “Economics will dictate that the price of gold is going to rise” can be found on the GoldSwitzerland website.

Interview Transcript

Lars Schall: Howdy ladies and gentlemen, I am connected right now with Ronan Manly at the London Business School. BullionStar and Ronan have just recently published a major work of research related to the gold markets all around the world. Before we’ll talk about this let me ask you, Ronan, to give us some background on you. When, how, and why did you become interested in the precious metal markets to start with?

Ronan Manly:  Hello. Yes, I think I became first interested in precious metals around 2003-04, when there was a bull gold market in precious metals mining stocks. About that time I was interested in investing in equities. And it was from the perspective of the bull market in gold and silver stocks catching my eye that I started reading about gold. And that really led me into thinking about gold as an investment asset class. In 2005 and 2006, when I was in the London Business School as a student, I did a research paper on adding commodity assets to existing portfolios of bonds and equities as a diversification technique.  So it was during that time again I did a little bit more research about precious metals, and gold, and silver as an asset class.

And then I was working in the City of London in the equity investment management space for a few years. And I actually forgot about precious metals, because it wasn’t really on my radar at that time. When I left that role in 2011 I had some free time, and I started going to the Bank of England archives to start to research in gold again. I’d gone to a GATA conference in the summer of 2011 in London, and that sparked my interest in gold.  And I thought well, because I’m living in London, with the Bank of England just down the road, I might as well go and have a look at their archives. So that started really me on the road of doing research about monetary gold. And I went on a number of occasions to the Bank of England. And I even went across to Paris to the Bank of France archives. And that again was very eye-opening.  Because of the nature of archives, there’s a 30 year, or 35 year [access] rule.  So you can’t really look at anything beyond say the 1980s, early 80s.  But even then I could start piecing together the importance of gold, and the monetary system, and it just fed my interest, and the fact that gold was at the front and center stage of the financial system. But this role has unfortunately been lost.

Myself and a lot of other people who grew up  being educated in the 1980s and 1990s thought gold had somehow fallen off the financial curriculum. And it was really, because I started realizing that gold was a fascinating area that was interconnected with so many other areas like economic history, the IMF, the financial system, and various industries, like banking and mining, that it attracted my attention. And also the fact that it was quite opaque. In a very strange way it was a challenge, because it’s difficult to find out information about the gold market without really putting in a lot of effort. But it’s very rewarding when you do find information that other people don’t have.  And I think that’s what I’m trying to get across in my blog, sharing information that maybe is there, it’s available in public, but it’s very difficult to get. So once I find some good information I like to share it.

LS:  Yeah.  And as already mentioned you did something like that, because at BullionStar you’ve published recently some sort of an encyclopedia of gold markets around the world.  Now, why did you consider it necessary to do this at BullionStar, and what is the purpose?

RM: That’s a good question, because we’ve actually just launched this a week, or two ago – BullionStar Gold University. It took a few months to get all the research together. The concept was one that BullionStar devised as a way of sharing information with the general public. You can look at it more as a portal of precious metals information, more time independent information, and factual information. You can even look at it as like a Wikipedia of up-to-date information on precious metals.

It’s actually a group effort. I was doing a lot of the writing. But various other people in BullionStar have been part of the project from day one including I.T. developers and graphic designers, and the BullionStar CEO who devised the whole concept.

So the first phase of this is a profile of gold markets around the world. It includes about 21 different profiles covering 25 markets, really captures the essence and characteristics of each of those markets from some of the very large ones the people know about to less well-known ones. So it includes markets like London, New York, Shanghai, India, Hong Kong, Japan, down to probably less well-known markets, like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. And there’s a slight regional focus on Asia, because BullionStar is based in Asia. But it includes markets like South Africa, Germany, Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Turkey. So there’s really something there for everybody.

And the main reason was to create up-to-date information that people can go to as a source of reference if they’re writing articles. Journalists, for example, can use it as a source of reference. Because there was nothing really up-to-date in one place that captured that information. So really what we’re trying to do is make it easy for people to – if they have a question about one gold market in a different place they can go and consult the Gold University. This is only the first phase. We’re going to be having a lot of other topics and concepts rolled out as part of this umbrella information portal in the near future starting with precious metal vaults, central band gold policies, refineries and mints, then down the road adding other areas such as if you want to find out about the tax on precious metals in a certain area or jurisdiction, or the legal / legislative [position] of  various governments, what their view is on allowing their citizens to purchase precious metals. So it’s really a wide coverage.

LS: Now, talking about those profiles, according to your analysis, which is the most credible gold market that you’ve seen as part of your research?

RM: Well, after 25 different markets I actually think that the German gold market is a very deep and thorough markets with a lot of liquidity. It’s very accessible to the public. Now, I have to say that I didn’t really know much about the German market before I began researching it. I was pleasantly surprised to learn there were so many different participants in the German market from commercial banks down to wholesalers, down to large retailers. And the German public really seems to get gold as an investment asset class.

But I started looking at Germany, literally I knew that maybe a few large banks were involved. But as I did more research I realized that there’s a lot of different levels of participants in the German market, starting with the Landesbanks, the Bayern Landesbank, LBBW, and Helaba, and some of the other regional banks. And there’s Reiffeisenbank, and Commerzbank, even though it’s based in Luxembourg, you could classify that as a German bank. And as you know, Lars, the customers of the Sparkasse savings banks can go in and buy gold quite easily. And Germany has like over 100 tons of consumer gold demand each year. So I really think that the market hangs together very well. It’s very deep and liquid. It’s interconnected with Austria, and Switzerland, and you’ve also got at least five or six very well-known and well-regarded gold refineries like Heraeus, and now Degussa has bought a new refinery in there. Is it Pforzheim?

LS: Yes.

RM: So I think the German psyche for a number of reasons has a very good understanding, grasp, and respect for gold. And I think this is exemplified by the very deep and widespread network within the German gold market. It’s one that I would never have thought about six months ago if you would’ve ask me. But now it’s definitely one of the more intriguing markets out there.

LS: Yeah. And your positive impression of the German gold market was also supported by a recent trip that you took to Berlin.

RM:  That’s right, yeah. At the beginning of February I was invited by BullionStar to what’s called the World Money Fair in Berlin. This is an annual fair that takes place in February at which all the big refineries and mints from around the world go to exhibit. There’s a lot of numismatic dealers as well. But more interestingly it seems to be the event of which a lot of precious metal participants go to meet each other for commercial meetings, and to just meet, and greet, and update each other.

So for example, the reason I went there was to meet up with my colleagues from Singapore. But we were introduced to a lot of heads of refineries, heads of mints, some of the large wholesalers from the US. And it as a great to see the precious metals markets in action. The fact that it was in Berlin again, I think highlights the fact that Germany is a very important gold market, and people don’t really seem to realize that. If you asked a lot of people on the street outside of Germany they probably wouldn’t realize that Germany is such a buoyant gold market.

LS: And which of the markets that you examined will be the most interesting to watch going forward?

RM: I think there are quite a few interesting markets. But the one that fascinated me the most, and that I think will be very important going forward: Russia. And it’s more because the Russian gold market for the last number of years has been dominated by central buying purchases from the Russian Central Bank. And it’s sister organization called the Gokhran, which is the state fund for precious metals. And again, I wouldn’t have really thought about this until I started researching it. But at the moment the majority of the gold production that comes out of Russia every year is purchased by the central bank. But they do via a very clever process, where the commercial banks intermediate. So the commercial banks finance gold producers who mine the metal, which is then sent to the refineries, but it’s purchased by commercial banks like Sperbank, NOMOS, VTB, Gazprombank. And then they sell it on to either the Gokhran, or to the central bank.

So what you see is that, for example, seven or eight years ago in 2007, the Russian Central Bank only had 400 tons of gold in its official reserves, and now 10 years later it has just over 1,400 tons. And I think another part of the equation that people don’t seem to grasp, and it’s quite opaque, is the fact that the Gokhran is also purchasing gold. So I think what is happening is that sometimes if the central bank reserves are being updated it transfers from the Gokhran, like the way that we suspected maybe the PBoC in China is transferring metal from other Chinese state entities.

So from a supply perspective it’s also interesting because if the Russian state system is gobbling up a lot of Russian gold output, that means there’s less gold at the margin for world supply. So I think it’s going to be really important to look at this continued trend where a lot of Russian gold production is being taken by the state. And that will definitely have an impact on world gold supply if demand continues to outstrip supply.

LS: Yeah. Now, when it comes to the market that you look at in the most critical way I think the candidate could be London, correct?

RM: Yes. I think that’s because London is the largest market. So in one way you think that there is a lot of information out there about the London market. And in some ways there is, but in other ways there’s not, because it’s quite opaque, and the people who run the London gold market choose not to divulge very much information about it – be it the Bank of England, or the Bullion banks that are represented by the LBMA. So again, it’s because London is one of the two centers for gold price discovery that in some ways it’s so important and critical to world gold market that it makes sense to critically analyze it. And over the last number of years there’s been numerous times where I’ve become frustrated where I’m trying to do some research on the London market, and I just can’t get anywhere, because there’s a lack of data there. And that’s the biggest question, why is that? And I think it’s because the LBMA, and the banks that they represent do not really want anyone poking around and finding out what’s really going on in the London gold market.

And you and I, Lars, know both that because it’s such an important market for price discovery that if there’s any, for example, large transactions that are going on that aren’t in the public domain that’s quite important, because it is affecting the price globally, and it’s affecting every participant in the larger global market. So it’s something I think is worth putting a lot of effort into it to try to find out as much as possible about.

LS:  Yeah, worth noting is also what you wrote recently about the gold of Venezuela. Can you tell us about this please, and why is this of significance?

RM: Like a lot of research that I do, it started off as a small focus. I found some information that had come out about the repatriation of Venezuela’s gold back in 2011-12. And for people who maybe don’t recall exact details Hugo Chavez wanted to repatriate all of his gold that was held internationally, which is about 210 tons. Eventually he repatriated 160 tons, and left 50 in London. And they added the repatriated gold to what was already held in Caracas, Venezuela, which was about 150 tons. So it made a very good case study, because very few central around the world will ever divulge information about gold. But Venezuela at that time chose to do so.

The Bank of Central Venezuela was quite forthcoming in telling people about how much gold they have, where it was located, how much they wanted back. And that in itself was a good case study. But what has happened more recently with all the economic problems in Venezuela is that a lot of that gold has started to go to where it probably was held originally. Some of it’s being flown into Switzerland; various banks like Citibank, Deutsche are supposedly doing swaps with some of that gold giving U.S. dollar financing to the Venezuela government.

And I think that particular set of episodes is very good as a case study, because what it applies to is that there could be a lot of similar for example swaps going on with Central American banks and international Bullion banks. And I know that there are a few. But that doesn’t get written about. Because again the information is withheld. So I think the repatriation and the subsequent re-export of Venezuelan gold back to Europe serves as a reminder that gold is a liquid asset, and that it is a very important asset in the financial system. But for whatever reason central banks and governments always try to downplay it.

LS: Yeah. But given that we have a debt crisis you think that gold will be a winner of this crisis?

RM: Yeah, I do think that it will start to become – to play a more central role in a future monetary system. As regards what exact role that will play it’s difficult to know, but I definitely think that I see gold really emerging to the front stage of a revised, or a reset monetary system. Because gold doesn’t have any counterparty risk. It doesn’t have any default risk. We’ve seen before though a stable international monetary system that had gold playing an important role.

LS: Yeah. But do you think that we will then see more efforts to repatriate gold from New York and London to the original countries?

RM: I don’t really think so, unless it’s done in a very gradual way. I think the Chavez episode was more of a nationalistic triumphalist symbolic exercise. And it backfired. Not because of the actual repatriation, but because of unfortunately for Venezuela, its economic standing has gone down. But I tend to think that all the different central banks around the world cooperate so closely that they wouldn’t really put pressure on each other in that regard by pulling out gold that might make it look like they’re unhappy with either the Bank of England, or the Federal Reserve. I think if it’s being done, it’s being done in a very surreptitious way.

LS: Yeah, just as the Germans do?

RM: Well, that’s a very strange one. I still haven’t understood fully what they are doing. Is it more of a gesture to the population, or – they could’ve easily done this without telling anybody, like they did in the early 2000s when Bundesbank repatriated, what was it, 900 tons from the Bank of England? Nobody knew about that.

LS: Yeah. Yeah. Okay, let’s come to our final point, and that would be the question what are your overall expectations for gold in 2016?

RM: Well, you know, that’s a good question. Seeing that we’re nearly at the end of the first quarter, and that’s been one of the best quarters in a long time. I still think that the gold price in USD terms will end the year higher than it is now. And I say that, because I think that there’s such a huge excess demand for physical gold for various places like China. If you look at the supply side there isn’t a huge supply increase. There’s a lot of gold gone through gold refineries in places like Switzerland, and unless there is some hidden source of supply that we don’t know about, simply economics will dictate that the supply outweighing demand would mean that the price is going to rise.

I was talking to Koos Jansen from BullionStar yesterday, and he’s actually working now doing estimates of Chinese gold importation from 2015 where he takes various trade statistics from Switzerland, U.K., Australia, and Hong Kong, and he’s coming up with a figure of 1500 tons are being imported last year into China. And if you add to that the Chinese domestic production of around 450 tons, and then some scrap recycling, that’s over 2,000 tons of gold. And the World Gold Council are only saying there’s a 1,000 tons of domestic demand. But if you also take the annual gold-mining output say for example 3,000 tons, if you take away China’s 415, you take 200 and something tons from Russia, then the rest of world is having to compete for dwindling physical annual gold-mining output. And really just from a simple economics point of view I think that the gold price should end up higher at the end of this year. Whether it will is a different question.

LS: Of course.

RM: I’m not really qualified to answer that. I think it’s very dangerous speculating on gold prices in general, because there seems to be a lot in the price action of the gold market that doesn’t follow common sense.

LS: Yeah. But you would say in the long run gold is a good investment?

RM: I think it is a good investment to have some of a total investment. And what I mean is that it’s a good investment to have, and to diverse my portfolio.  And I think it’s also from a collector’s point of view, it’s nice to have some of your assets in a physical tangible substance that is nice to own. And you still have it at the end of the day even if it’s changed in fiat currency terms.

LS: Yeah. But we would like to underline this again: Gold has no counterparty risk.

RM: That’s  right, yeah. And so for example, any gold products that may involve a few different layers of counterparties like an ETF, for example, physical gold doesn’t have that. As long as you have it in your possession, or store it in a reliable storage space.

LS: Okay. Thank you very much for this interview.

RM: My pleasure. Thanks Lars.

LS: Thank you.