Tag Archives: Rothschild

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.

The Bank of England and the London Gold Fixings in the 1980s

With the current structure of the London gold price fixings disappearing in the very near future, there is an unusual story that I’d like to share about the gold fixings. It concerns the Bank of England’s ‘gold activities’ in the daily London Gold Fixings during the 1980s, and my attempts to get the Bank to explain what these ‘gold activities’ consisted of.

image

These ‘gold activities’ of the Bank came to light within some comments that senior Bank of England employee Oliver Page wrote about fellow senior Bank of England colleague and contemporary Terry Smeeton:

Smeeton

Before looking at Mr. Smeeton’s ‘gold activities’, it’s worth getting a sense of the roles of Terry Smeeton and Oliver Page at the Bank of England by briefly looking at the career profiles of these two gents.

Terry Smeeton and Oliver Page

In the 1980s and 1990s, Terry Smeeton was one of the Bank of England’s experts on the gold market, and he rose to attain the position of Head of Foreign Exchange and Gold at the Bank. Smeeton joined the Bank of England in 1960 and remained at ‘The Old Lady’ until retiring in 1998. After leaving Threadneedle Street in March 1998, Smeeton went on to be a non-executive director of Standard Bank from July 1998 to September 2007, and in 2002 was appointed as advisory board member to the Dubai Metals and Commodities Centre (DMCC) and head of the centre’s Gold Management committee. Terry Smeeton passed away in September 2007.

In the 1990s while still at the Bank, Smeeton was also the Bank of England’s representative on the G-10 Gold and Foreign Exchange Committee at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, as these Committee meeting minutes from 1997 highlight.

Frank Veneroso of Veneroso Associates, who is well-known for his in-depth analysis of the gold lending market, has stated that it was actually comments about the gold lending market made by Terry Smeeton in 1995 that triggered Veneroso to undertake his ground-breaking gold lending market analysis. Veneroso has also highlighted previously that Smeeton was critical of HM Treasury’s 1999 decision to auction off a substantial part of the UK’s gold reserves.

Oliver Page joined the Bank of England in 1968 and went on to be Chief Manager, Reserves Management in 1989, and Deputy Director, Supervision and Surveillance in 1996. In 1998, when the Financial Services Authority (FSA) was established, Page moved from the Bank of England to become the FSA’s Director of its Complex Groups Division (later called Major Financial Groups Division), and was also the FSA’s representative on the Basel Committee of Banking Supervisors. Page received an OBE in 2004, and retired from the FSA in April 2006, after which he became a non-executive director of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International. Oliver Page passed away in 2012.

After Terry Smeeton died in September 2007, Oliver Page wrote Mr. Smeeton’s obituary which was published in the industry journal ‘Central Banking’, and on the journal’s website.

In the obituary, Oliver Page said of Smeeton:

On his work, the foreign exchange and gold markets were his great enthusiasms. So his work in the Bank of England, mainly in the Foreign

Exchange Division, suited him perfectly. The gold markets were an aspect of the financial world where he became internationally renowned.

While I was in the foreign exchange division in the 1980s, I was responsible for the risk management and performance system used to monitor activity. Through this period, Terry’s gold activities, often partly aimed at helping the London Market’s daily gold fixes, produced an overall profit.

So he was not just a talker on gold, he was a successful operator. He was very disappointed when large-scale gold sales were made in the 1990s at what turned out to be the 30-year low of the market.”

Certain phrases in Page’s tribute to Smeeton, specifically in relation to the gold fixings, struck me as very odd and raised a number of questions in my mind:

Firstly, what were Smeeton’s ‘gold activities‘ in the daily gold fixes ‘through this period’ during the 1980s?

Secondly, what was the Bank of England foreign exchange and gold division doing entering the London gold fixings to ‘help’ the daily gold fixes? And why did this activity happen ‘often’?

These ‘gold activities’ do not sound like normal Bank of England customer deals being placed into the daily fixings. However it does sound like central bank intervention into the price setting process.

(Note that at this time in the 1980s, NM Rothschild was the permanent chair of the fixings and the Bank used Rothschild as its broker. The other four fixing members during the 1980s were Mocatta, Sharps Pixley, Samuel Montagu/Midland, and Johnson Matthey/Mase Westpac. Rothschild departed from the gold fixings in 2004.)

Thirdly, why exactly is it so noteworthy for Oliver Page to have mentioned that Smeeton “produced an overall profit” from his ‘gold activities‘. Could it be that Smeeton’s activities were not primarily motivated by profit maximisation? Regular Bank of England ‘buy and hold’ or sell orders on behalf of central bank customers would not fall under the ‘noteworthy at having made a profit’ category.

Interestingly, in the London Gold Pool in the 1960s (which comprised both a buying syndicate and a selling syndicate), making a profit on the Pool’s gold transactions was considered a bonus, since that was not the primary purpose of the Pool’s consortium.

fixing

The Fix is In

In February 2012, after reading Oliver Page’s observations on Smeeton, I emailed the Bank of England, and asked them to explain Mr. Page’s 1980s references to Mr. Smeeton. My question was:

“What were Terry Smeeton’s “gold activities” while he was in the foreign exchange department that “partly aimed at helping the London Market daily gold fixes” and that produced “an overall profit” over the period, while being monitored by Oliver Page using the risk and performance monitoring system?”

The Bank of England “Public Information & Enquiries Group” responded as follows:

“The Bank of England does not have a role in the daily fixing of gold prices. There are five members (listed below) of the Gold Fixing, all of whom are Market Making members of the LBMA:

•    Bank of Nova Scotia
•    Barclays Capital
•    Deutsche Bank AG London
•    HSBC USA NA London
•    Societe Generale”

Since the bank didn’t address my question, I responded back to the Bank with a second email, reiterating the question:

But if the Bank of England has no role in the fixing then what role was Terry Smeeton in the foreign exchange department playing, with “gold activities” that “partly aimed at helping the London Market daily gold fixes” and that produced “an overall profit” over the period, while being monitored by Oliver Page using the risk and performance monitoring system?

A different person from the Bank’s Public Information & Enquiries Group then responded to my second email as follows:

“The Bank no longer plays a role in the daily gold fixing. But for many years the Bank had a supervisory role in the London gold market,and was involved in the fixing process, as described in the following excerpt from the Bank’s Quarterly Bulletin (1964, p16 ‘The London Gold Market‘):

'The Bank of England are not physically represented at the fixing. But they are able, like any other operator, effectively to participate in the fixing by passing orders by telephone through their bullion broker and at the fixing they use exclusively the services of the chairman of the market, namely, Rothschilds. 

The Bank operate for a number of different parties; they are first the managers of the Exchange Equalisation Account, which may be a natural buyer or seller of gold :

secondly, they are the agent for the largest single regular seller of gold in the world, namely the South African Reserve Bank, which is responsible for the disposal of new production in South Africa : 

thirdly, they execute orders for their many other central bank customers : 

fourthly, the Bank aim, as in the case of the foreign exchange and gilt-edged markets, to exercise, so far as they are able, a moderating influence on the market, in order to avoid violent and unnecessary movements in the price and thus to assist the market in the carrying on of its business.'

From 1968, the Bank was a less regular participant in the daily gold fixings, although contact between the Bank and the members of the gold market remained close.

In particular, the Bank (including Mr Smeeton in his role in the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division) continued to execute orders for central bank customers of the Bank, and to manage gold held in the Exchange Equalisation Account.

The Bank no longer has supervisory responsibility for the London bullion market. Responsibility for the regulation of the major participants in the market lies with the Financial Services Authority (FSA) under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.

Guidelines for the conduct of gold business not covered by the Act are set out in The London Code of Conduct for Non-Investment Products (the NIPs code).”

London gold fixing
Avoiding the Question

Yet again, the second response from the Bank of England didn’t address my question directly, but while circumventing a direct answer, it did contain some very interesting information. Let’s examine the Bank’s second response in more detail.

1. There was no attempt in the Bank’s answer to address the crux of the issue, i.e. what Smeeton was doing in the 1980s ‘helping’ the fixing with ‘gold activities’ that produced an overall profit and that required risk management.

Executing physical gold orders for the Exchange Equalisation Fund (EEA) or for other bank customers via one of the five gold fixing members is not an activity that could reasonably be described as ‘helping’ the fixing and not the type of activity that would be noteworthy as ‘producing an overall profit’, or that would need risk management monitoring.

Nor is gold lending between central bank customers of the Bank of England and the London gold market bullion bank participants something that would have required the Bank’s foreign exchange and gold desk, and Terry Smeeton, to ‘help’ the twice daily London gold price auction fixings.

Gold lending only began in the London gold market in the early to mid 1980s and initially was only undertaken on a limited scale.

So, why the reluctance by the Bank to answer my question directly?

2. Interestingly, the Bank’s response contained an extract (see grayed area above) from a 1964 Bank of England publication about the London Gold Market which explained the four main reasons why the Bank was involved in the gold fixings, and referred to the Bank of England as being “a moderating influence” on the gold market so as “to avoid violent and unnecessary movements in the price.

Was the inclusion of this 1964 extract about the Fixings by the Bank’s Enquiries and Information Office a tacit admission from the Bank that it continued to be a ‘moderating influence’ on the gold price into the 1980s and perhaps beyond? Why include this Fixing explanation from 1964 to explain a question about the 1980s?

3. The Bank’s email response to me also mentioned 1968 and stated that “From 1968, the Bank was a less regular participant in the daily gold fixings”. This reference to 1968 is a reference to the collapse of the London Gold Pool in March 1968 before which the Gold Pool (managed by the Bank of England) attempted to control the gold price and keep it near $35 per ounce. Since I had asked about the 1980s and not 1968, the inclusion of this reference is, in my view, highly unusual but telling.

The comment from the Bank that since 1968 “contact between the Bank and the members of the gold market remained close” is also noteworthy.

4. The Bank’s response said that Smeeton executed orders for central bank customers and also ‘managed gold’ held in the Exchange Equalisation Account. The Bank did not elaborate on what was meant by ‘managing’ EEA gold. (Note, the UK gold reserves are owned by HM Treasury and held within the Exchange Equalisation Account which is somewhat similar to the US Exchange Stabilization Fund. The Bank of England acts as custodian of the UK gold reserves on behalf of HM Treasury.)

If you look at the data on UK official gold reserves over the 1980s, such as in ‘Central Bank Gold Reserves: A historical perspective‘ by Timothy Green, you will see that the official UK gold reserves were totally static throughout the 1980s at between 591 tonnes and 592 tonnes. i.e. They did not change (see table below, last row). In fact, most of the large gold holding countries maintained static gold reserve holdings throughout the 1980s which would suggest very little customer order activity for the Bank of England gold order desk.

Therefore the unchanging nature of the EEA gold reserves during the 1980s again does not explain the Bank’s reference to Smeeton as ‘managing’ the EEA gold in the 1980s.

image

What were these ‘Gold activities’?

I had previously come across the Bank of England’s 1964 London gold market essay and it’s reference to the Bank acting as a ‘moderating  influence’ on the gold price. The same passage that the Bank quoted to me is also in a 1976 book called “The Arena of International Finance” by Charles Coombs (page 46). Coombs was head of foreign open market operations at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from the 1950s until the 1970s.

The Bank of England’s 1964 essay is from it’s Q1 quarterly bulletin and was published in March 1964. This was soon after the launch of the London gold pool but the reference to the role of the Bank as a ‘moderating influence’ against ‘violent and unnecessary movements in the price’ goes back to before the beginning of the London Gold Pool.

Prior to the Gold Pool commencing operations in 1962, the Bank of England was already single-handedly intervening into the London good market aiming to ‘smoothen’ the gold price so that it reverted to near $35 per ounce, by participating in the daily fixing (there was only one fixing at that time, the morning fixing). The Bank aimed to keep the London price near the U.S. Treasury gold window price so as to prevent speculative arbitrage between the two prices (excluding 1/4% US Treasury fee and transport costs).

It was based on these Bank of England operations that Charles Coombs at the Federal Reserve Bank suggested to the Bank of England in 1961 that they consider creating a gold pool amongst the U.S. and major European central banks.

Charles Coombs stated in his 1976 book, ‘The Arena of International Finance’ (page 50), that in 1960:

The Bank of England, having assumed some responsibility for selling gold to maintain orderly market conditions, was in the awkward position of being squeezed out of the market by other central bank buyers whenever gold became available.”

A recent history of the Bank of England also refers to the Bank of England’s intervention prior to the commencement of the London Gold Pool in 1962:

“The selling consortium was in operation to prevent an unduly rise in the price when demand was strong. It had to be specifically activated by the members. It’s operations did not affect the extent of intervention in the market and the Bank continued to intervene in its own judgement.”

(Source: Page 190, ‘The Bank of England: 1950s to 1979′ by Forrest Capie, Cambridge University Press).

The Bank of England have historically used the terms ‘smoothing operation’ and ‘stabilisation operation’ when referring to operations and interventions into the gold and foreign exchange markets. A price smoothing operation is a softer, less radical version of a price stabilisation operation.

Upon reading Oliver Page’s comments about Smeeten, my initial theory was that Terry Smeeton and the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division had also been intervening into the daily gold fixings during the 1980s so as to smoothen the gold price, via offering and bidding from a special account that sold/lent at one price (high) and bought back again at a lower price (low).

Since I asked the Bank to explain Oliver Page’s comments and they declined to do so, this even crystallised my theory somewhat. I usually prefer not to speculate. My approach is to clarify information first and try to validate it. Only if it cannot be validated can some speculation come into play. But if the Bank of England can’t answer a simple question directly, then they are inviting speculation.

My speculation thesis is that in the 1980s, Smeeton and the Bank were using a pool of gold to create artificial supply into the gold fixings so as to influence the gold price, either selling gold directly during the fixings, or lending gold short-term to the chair or lending short-term to some of the four other fixing members.

Intervention of course is two-way, so could also consist of creating demand in the fixings so as to support the price. Keeping a price within a trading ‘band’ is often a goal of financial market intervention. The mechanics of a demand side intervention would merely be the opposite of the possible tactics illustrated below.

Supplying or selling metal into the fixings and buying it back later is a gold trading tactic that would (in the Bank’s eyes) “partially help the fixings” while “producing an overall profit” for the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division, and also a set of transactions where the trading P & L would need monitoring and risk management (from Oliver Page). The profit creation would be generated by selling high and buying low, much like a trader’s short sell trade and similar to what the Bank of England and the London Gold Pool selling syndicate did in the 1960s.

Within this scenario, I think Smeeton could have been doing a number of things via these ‘gold activities’:

- influencing the opening price of the fixing in the hours before a fixing by trading in the market so that the fixing Chair would call a certain opening price targeted by the Bank

- putting in orders to the fixing from a special gold account so as to affect overall supply and demand and target a certain opening price

- using an open line to the Chair to put in offers based on the market’s natural business and the quotes from the order books on the call

- lending to some of the five gold broker participants on a short-term basis from the EEA account or another account so as to influence supply (the five brokers all had allocated gold accounts at the Bank of England from the late 1970s onwards)

- and finally, buying back or squaring off the above transactions at some point so as to try to “produce an overall profit”

Maternal Eye

By the 1980s the five London gold brokers and fixing members all maintained allocated gold accounts at the Bank of England and had storage space in the  Bank’s vaults. This development occurred in the late 1970s, and was done initially for security reasons so as to minimise the transport of gold bullion around the City of London.

It would therefore be very straightforward in the 1980s for the Bank to manage transfers and allocations between a gold pool account and gold accounts of one or more of the five London gold market brokers held at the Bank.

[In fact, gold transfers between the Bank of England and the London gold market regularly happen to this day in a different guise via the Bank acting as clearer of last resort with the six bullion bank members of London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL).]

As to whether a 1980s Bank of England gold pool would be sourced from EEA gold, or include other customer gold, or would be a distinct separate account is not that important. Even if such an operation within the Bank’s Foreign Exchange Division was stand-alone and not coordinated with other central banks, the G10 central banks would obviously be briefed on it given their perennial close coordination on gold market issues via Basel.

The February 1998 edition of the LBMA’s Alchemist magazine features an interview with Terry Smeeton just before he retired from the Bank of England in March 1998. In the interview, on pages 2 and 3, when asked about his view on the relationship between the Bank and the London gold market, particularly in light of gold market supervision moving from the Bank to the FSA in 1998, Smeeton said:

“When I started in the Bank of England’s foreign exchange area, we really only had the operational role, which we still, of course, have today. There was no formal supervision of the gold market, but the Bank has always maintained a maternal eye on the market, and that remained the case until the Financial Services Act and the introduction of the Section 43 regime.”

Could this Bank of England ‘maternal eye’ that Terry Smeeton refers to have extended to intervention into the gold fixings in the 1980s so as to be a ‘moderating influence’, and to “avoid violent and unnecessary movements” in the gold price?

To answer that question, you’d have to ask the Bank of England. And they probably wouldn’t tell you one way or the other.

The Keys to the Gold Vaults at the New York Fed – Part 3: ‘Coin Bars’, ‘Melts’ and the Bundesbank

Part 1 of this series reviewed Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) publications that cover the Fed’s gold storage vaults in Manhattan, and illustrated how the information in these publications has been watered down over time. Part 1 also showed that the number of foreign central bank customers storing gold with the FRBNY has fallen substantially since the late 1990s.

Part 2 covered the Fed’s rarely discussed ‘Auxiliary Vault’ and suggested that this auxiliary vault of the Fed is probably located in the neighbouring Chase Manhattan Plaza vault facility, now run by JP Morgan.

Part 3 now looks at ‘Coin Bars’, another rarely discussed topic which is relevant to the gold at the New York Fed and that may well explain why the Deutsche Bundesbank needed to melt down the majority of the gold that it has so far repatriated from New York.

‘Coin bars’ is a bullion industry term referring to bars that were made by melting gold coins in a process that did not refine the gold nor remove the other metals or metal alloys that were in the coins. The molten metal was just recast directly into bar form.

Because it’s a concept critical to the FRBNY stored gold, the concept of US Assay Office / Mint gold bar ‘Melts’ is also highlighted below. Melts are batches of gold bars, usually between 18 and 22 bars, that when produced, were stamped with a melt number and a fineness, but were weight-listed as one unit. The US Assay Office produced both 0.995 fine gold bars and coin bars as Melts. The gold bars in a Melt are usually stored together unless that melt has been ‘broken’.

New York Fed – Coin Bars ‘Я’ Us

I think it’s critical to note that a reference to low-grade ‘coin bars’ in the 1991 version of the Fed’s ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ (KTTGV) has been omitted in subsequent additions of KTTGV.

The text in this 1991 ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ is based on older versions of the same publication that go back to the original version written by Charles Parnow in 1973. See Part 1 for discussion of Charles Parnow and the editions of the KTTGV and the ‘A Day at the Fed‘ publications.

The reference to coin bars in the 1991 version of KTTGV is as follows:

The butter yellow bars in the vault are nearly 100 percent pure and are usually made of newly mined gold.

Reddish bars contain copper and other impurities and generally consist of melted gold coins and jewellery containing alloys. Since 1968, a number of these “coin” bars, dating back to the early 1900s, have been stored in the Bank’s vault.

Silver and platinum impurities make gold white; iron produce shades of green.” (KTTGV 1991)

In comparison, the 1998 and later versions of KTTGV have omitted the reference to ‘coin bars’, and the discussion about gold bars and other metals has been shortened as follows:

Traces of silver and platinum give the gold a whitish shade, copper is most often found in reddish bars, and iron produces a greenish hue.

The butter-yellow bars in the vault are made of newly mined gold.” (KTTGV 1991, 2004, 2008)

There is also no mention of coin bars on the current NY Fed gold information page here. This is despite the fact that there are still coin bars held in the Fed’s New York gold vaults, as illustrated by the US Treasury’s gold bar inventory weight lists at the FRBNY. See below.

New York Fed at night

What exactly are Coin Bars?

In the early 20th century, a lot of countries were on a gold standard and gold coins circulated as part of the money supply, for example in Germany, the US, France and Britain. When countries went off the gold standard (or went off a circulating gold standard), some of these gold coins were melted down into bars in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Historically, gold coins that circulated as money were not made of pure gold since other metals (about 10%) were added to the gold to improve the coin’s strength and durability. So if a batch of coins contained 90% gold and 10% of other metals, the bars made by melting these coins would contain 90% gold and 10% other metals, since no refining of the gold was undertaken after the coins were melted.

Because coin bars were being made in the early 1930s, the London Gold Market (a precursor of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA)) included an exact definition for coin bars in its 1934 London Good Delivery List, in addition to gold bars of 995 (or above) fineness.

“1934 LONDON GOOD DELIVERY LIST

Specification of bars acceptable on the London Gold Market

1. Gold bars conforming to the following specification are Good Delivery in the London market:

(a) Fine bars, i.e. bars assaying 995 per mille or over and containing between 350 and 430 ounces of fine gold;

(b) Coin bars, i.e. bars assaying 899 to 901 per mille or 915 1/2 to 917 per mille and containing between 350 and 420 ounces of fine gold; provided that they bear the stamp of the following:”

(Source: The London Good Delivery List – Building a Global Brand 1750 – 2010)

The 1934 definition specified that if a coin bar was produced by one of nineteen European mints or the United States Assay Office, then it was considered a ‘good delivery’ gold bar at that time. The European mints spanned Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland.

The specification of coin bars with a gold content (or fineness) of between 899 to 901 in the definition allowed the inclusion of gold coins from Continental Europe such as French Napoleon coins which had this particular gold content. The gold content of some US gold coins also fell within this range since they were made of 0.899 or 0.9 gold.

The 915 ½ to 917 range was included in the definition since 22 carat gold is 22/24 or 0.91667. This 22 carat gold, known as crown gold, was used in various gold coins such as British Sovereigns, and also some US gold coins.

But coin bars were in some ways a historical anomaly or a product of their time. Even at launch in 1919, the London gold fixing was a price quotation for 400 oz bars of 995 fineness. As gold expert Timothy Green said in the book “The London Good Delivery List – Building a Global Brand 1750 – 2010″ about the 1919 gold fixing launch:

the (fixing) price was now quoted for 400-ounce / 995 Good Delivery bars, rather than the traditional 916 standard coin bars which rapidly became extinct as minting of coin virtually ceased.” 

In the 19th century and very early 20th century, some refineries used to specifically produce ‘916 standard’ coin bars back that were used as a source to make gold coins. But the now famous 400 oz fine gold bars had been accepted by the Bank of England since 1871 when Sir Anthony de Rothschild convinced the Bank of England to accept them. The Bank of England had also begun to accept US Assay Office 400 oz bars of 995 fineness (fine bars) in 1919.

There do not appear to have been that many coin bars made in the early 1930s when mints melted down gold coins. In his book, Green cites a 1930 example of the Royal Mint in London embarking on a 2 year programme to melt down 90 million British Sovereigns (916.7 fine gold coins) into 52,000 bars each weighing 450 ozs. This is about 650 – 700 tonnes of gold. Each of these bars was stamped with the stamp of the Royal Mint as well as the fineness and a serial number on each bar.

Green also explains that although in 1936 the London Gold Market produced an updated good delivery list that added some additional refineries and mints to the 1934 list, there did not seem to be a lot of coin bars produced. Green says:

“The inclusion of mints (in the 1936 list) is interesting, suggesting that some like the Royal Mint in London, were melting coin, but there is little evidence of any producing significant quantities of bars.”

By the late 1920s, gold bar demand had shifted to central banks who wanted fine gold bars for their vaults. Green says that by 1929, 90 per cent of ‘monetary’ gold resided in these central bank vaults.

(Source:  “The London Good Delivery List – Building a Global Brand 1750 – 2010. Authors: Timothy Green (Part I) and Stewart Murray (Part II). Published by the LBMA, 2010)

Roosevelt’s Coin Bars

Apart from melted coins from Europe, there is another significant source of coin bars, namely the coin bars produced from US gold coins that were melted down during the US gold confiscation period circa 1933-1934.

Some of the US Treasury’s coin bars originated from this gold coin confiscation and melting period, and these coin bars were then shipped to the US Mint’s Fort Knox facility in Kentucky when it opened in 1937.

The authoritative source for information on the different producers of gold bars worldwide is a company called Grendon International who have a web site called http://www.goldbarsworldwide.com. This web site produces guides explaining the whole spectrum of gold bar varieties. In its US Assay Office gold bar guide, Grendon states:

“It is understood that the bars (produced by the US Mint / AssayOffices) had a minimum purity of 995+ parts gold in 1,000 parts, with the exception of those 400 oz bars that contained “Coin Gold”.

“Coin Gold” 400 oz bars were manufactured by melting down and then casting into bars gold coins that had been withdrawn from public circulation, mainly as a result of the prohibition in 1933 of private gold ownership in the United States. The gold purity of these bars reflected the purity of U.S. gold coins, usually 900 or 916 parts gold in a 1,000 parts. 

Roosevelt news
In an article about the US confiscation and the US coins that were actually melted, lawyer and coin expert David Ganz demonstrates that there were not a large amount of US gold coins melted by the US authorities in the 1930s.

In his article, Ganz has a table showing the total number of gold coins minted and melted over the 1930s, classified by coin denomination up to the $20 coin. Given that the $20 coin has 0.9675 ounces, and the $10 has 0.48375 ounces etc, you can work out the total number of millions of ounces that were produced from melted coins. Ganz says:

Product of gold confiscation was gold melting; the coins were melted into bricks that ultimately found their way to Fort Knox. Although the Mint had a program from the mid-1860’s until about 1950 to melt or re-coin copper, silver and gold coinage, the majority of gold coins were taken in and destroyed in a Seven year period (1932-1939)“.

Ganz’ statistics come directly from the annual reports of the Treasury’s Director of the Mint. Ganz says “All told, over 124 million coins were melted through the years (102 million gold coins were melted as a result of government assistance from 1933- 1939).”

However when you calculate the amount of gold in these 124 million coins, it only works out at about 85.6 million fine ounces, which is 2,662 tonnes of gold.

Some of the European coin bars made it across the Atlantic circa 1934 when the US raised the price of gold to $35 per ounce and the US Treasury offered to buy all gold at this price, including coin bars from the London Gold Market.

All gold arriving into the US Treasury’s assay offices was apparently remelted into US Assay Office bars but statistics on how many European coin bars entered the US market at that time do not seem to be available.

Since there were not that many European coin bars made by European mints in the 1930s (for example, the Royal Mint 1930 programme made only 650-700 tonnes of coin bars), then there cannot have been more than a few thousand tonnes of European coin bars entering the US at that time.

 999.5 US Assay Office
Coin Bars ceased to be ‘Good Delivery’ bars in 1954

During World War II the London Gold Market essentially closed down and really only re-opened in March 1954 when the Gold Fixing restarted. When the London Gold Market re-opened, a  new 1954 London Good Delivery List for gold was published. This list only included gold bars of 0.995 fineness or higher, and coin bars ceased to be London good delivery standard. As Stewart Murray, former LBMA CEO says: “The new List published in 1954 only allowed fine bars of 995+.” (page 40, “Good Delivery Accreditation – A Short History”).

It’s therefore very strange that the Fed’s 1991 ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ publication states that it was only “since 1968″ that  “a number of these ‘coin bars’, dating back to the early 1900s, have been stored in the Bank’s vault.” This implies that coin bars were not at the New York Fed gold vaults immediately prior to 1968.

Why would these coin bars suddenly appear at the FRBNY vault in 1968? To answer this question, its important to recall that 1968 was the year in which the London Gold Pool collapsed (March 1968).

Since coin bars have not been good delivery bars since 1954, US Treasury coin bars appear to have begun to turn up in the New York gold vaults in 1968 because there was a shortage of good delivery US Assay Office gold bars to satisfy foreign central bank gold transaction settlements.

Scraping the barrel – March 1968

That the US Treasury and Federal Reserve had a major shortage of good delivery gold in March 1968 is illustrated by a Bank of England memo from 14th March 1968, which highlights that the London Gold Pool collapsed because the US monetary authorities were unable to find any good delivery gold in their own stocks, and were confronted with the prospect of having to supply their Fort Knox low-grade ‘coin bars’ to the market.

The Bank of England memo, titled ‘Gold Bars for Delivery in the London Market‘ was written by George Preston (LTGP) and addressed to the Deputy Governor Maurice Parsons and the Chief Cashier John Fforde. It discussed the ramifications of delivering coin bars to the London Gold Market. The memo is referenced as entry ’49’ from file C43/323 i.e. C43/323/49.

Points 1 and 2 in the memo described what was good delivery at that time in 1968, and are included here to illustrate that coin bars were not even being countenanced as good delivery back in 1968. No one had even thought about coin bars since the 1930s.

However, Point 3 is the critical point. A short quote from the memo:

“1. The current specification of bars which are good delivery in the London market requires that they shall be of a minimum fineness of .995 and shall have a minimum gold content of 350 fine ounces and a maximum of 430 fine ounces.”

“2. In the 1930s when the Bank were delivering bars to the market to satisfy French demands for gold, they had to deliver coin bars and the specification in the 1930’s included bars not only .995 fine but coin bars assaying between .899 and .901 and also .915 1/2 to .917. Bars of both varieties had to contain between 350 and 430 ounces of fine gold.”

“3. It has emerged in conversations with the Federal Reserve Bank that the majority of the gold held at Fort Knox is in the form of coin bars, and that in certain cases these bars have a gold content of less than 350 fine ounces. If the drain on U.S. stocks continues it is inevitable that the Federal Reserve Bank will be forced to deliver what bars they have.

Capacity to further refine coin bars to the current minimum fineness of .995 in the United States is entirely inadequate to cope with conversion on the scale that would be required if the Americans wished to continue to deliver bars assaying .995 or better. Equally the capacity in the U.K. is inadequate for this task.”

The Fed asked the Bank of England to discuss the situation with Rothschilds (the chair of the gold market) at partner level. The memo then covers some discussion with Mr Bucks and Mr Hawes of Rothschilds about the acceptability of delivering coin bars to the London Gold Market. Supplying the market with coin bars was thought by the Bank and Rothschilds to be problematic, and the memo concluded, somewhat ominously:

it would appear that the circumstances might well be such that very few bars of the current acceptable fineness could be found” (by the Americans)

Ominously, because, as some readers will be aware, the London Gold Pool collapsed that evening, Thursday 14th March 1968. On the following day, 15th March 1968, an emergency bank holiday was called for British financial markets, the London gold market remained closed (and stayed close for the next two weeks), and the gold price began to float for non-official transactions.

Migration of Coin Bars from FRBNY to the Bank of England

That foreign central banks were provided with coin bars at the New York Fed is a fact, as illustrated by the following.

In 2004, speaking at a conference of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), (AIER Conference May 2004 Gold Standard), H. David Willey, formerly of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York,

Gold held by foreign authorities under earmark at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York may be in the form of coin bars only approximating 400 ounces and with a much lesser purity.

In the last decades, there has been a gradual migration of central bank coin bars from the New York Federal Reserve vaults to the Bank of England. These bars have been first re-refined into London good delivery form. Once at the Bank of England, the bars can readily be used for gold loans or sales.

H. David Willey was “formerly Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in charge of the discount window, and later responsible for oversight of the Federal Reserve’s accounts (including gold) with foreign central banks (1964-82); advisor to Morgan Stanley’s gold and fixed-income business (1982-2000).

(Source: Page 62: https://www.aier.org/sites/default/files/publications/GC%20%2704%20-%20Text.pdf)

A central bank would only be confronted with a need to convert its FRBNY coin bar holdings to good delivery gold and move them to London if it didn’t have any 995 fine gold at the FRBNY. As to how many banks engaged in this activity and sent their coin bars to the refineries is unclear.

US Treasury coin bars

While some foreign central banks seem to have tried to get rid of their non-good delivery coin bars over the years by having them melted down, there are still coin bars held in the New York Fed vault(s).

The US Treasury claims to hold gold at four locations, namely Fort Knox in Kentucky, Denver in Colorado, West Point in up-state New York, and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan, NY.

According to the US Treasury’s own full gold inventory schedule (which have never been independently and physically audited), over 80% of the US Treasury gold bars listed are not good delivery bars and are in the form of coin bars and other low fineness gold bars. See pdf here for a detailed list of the gold the US Treasury claims to hold at Fort Knox, Denver and West Point. An excel version of the US Treasury list is here in xls.

There is a neat table summarising the weight and purity of the US Treasury’s gold bar ‘lists’ here, taken from the goldchat blog site.

There has been very little gold bar activity in or out of Fort Knox since 1968. If there was nothing, or next to nothing, except coin bars at Fort Knox in March 1968 (as the FRB told the Bank of England in March 1968), then how could there now be over 147 million ozs of gold (over 4,500 tonnes) at Fort Knox if its all or nearly all in the form of coin bars? The numbers don’t add up.

Said another way, if the US melted around 2,600 tonnes of US gold coins in the 1930s into coin bars, and if some European coin bars were converted into US Assay Office coin bars (also in the 1930s), how could this add up to even 4,500 tonnes, let alone add up to all the coin bar gold that the US Treasury claims to hold at Fort Knox, Denver and West Point combined, and all the coin bars held by foreign central banks at the FRBNY?

Historical Melts FRBNY

US Treasury coin bars at the FRBNY

Surprisingly, the US Treasury lists how many coins bars it holds at the FRBNY. According to its custodial inventory statement, about 5% of the US Treasury’s gold is held at the FRBNY in the form of 31,204 bars stored in 11 compartments (listed as compartments A – K).

The US Treasury gold claimed to be stored at the FRBNY is listed in weight lists here, starting on page 132 of the pdf (or page 128 of file).

FRBNY - Schedule of Inventory of Gold Held by US Treasury at FRBNY - New

Of the US Treasury’s eleven compartments listed at the FRBNY, coin bars are listed as being held in four of these compartments, namely compartments H, J, K and E.

Compartment H of the US Treasury’s gold at the FRBNY contains coin bars produced by the US Assay Office. These bars are listed in ‘melts’, with more than 60 melts listed, each with about 20+ bars. This would be in excess of 12-13 tonnes. See the following screenshots as examples.

FRBNY Compartment H - coin bars of the US Treasury - New

FRBNY Compartment H - coin bars of the US Treasury B - New

All the bars listed in the Treasury’s Compartment J are US Assay Office coin bars, listed in melts. This amounts to 968,000 fine ounces, or about 30 tonnes. See the following two screenshots.

FRBNY Compartment J - coin bars of the US Treasury 1 - New

FRBNY Compartment J - coin bars of the US Treasury 2 - New

Compartment K also contains about 5 tonnes of coin bars belonging to the US Treasury. Screenshot not shown for brevity.

Additionally, Compartment E contains approximately 1 tonne of coin bars that are not US Assay Office coin bars. These coin bars are listed as being produced by refiners such as Marret-Bonnin, Rothschild, Comptoir-Lyon and the Royal Canadian Mint. All four of these refiners were listed on the 1934 Good Delivery List of refiners of coin bars.

FRBNY Compartment E - non US Assay Office coin bars of the US Treasury B - New

FRBNY Compartment E - non US Assay Office coin bars of the US Treasury C - New

Source: http://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/112-41.pdf

Overall, a quick calculation of the above weight lists suggests that the US Treasury holds about 50 tonnes of coin bars at the New York Fed. Interestingly, this is roughly the same amount of gold that the Bundesbank says that it melted/smelted in 2014 after repatriating it from the New York Fed.

Melt Bars stacked

US Assay Office 0.995 fine bars vs US Assay Office coin bars

Its important to understand the difference between good delivery US Assay Office gold bars and US Assay Office coin bars (circa 0.90 fine). US Assay Office gold bars that have a gold content of 0.995 fine or higher are still good delivery in the London Gold Market and in international transactions because US Assay Office 0.995 bars are still on the ‘former’ London good delivery list.

The LBMA’s London Good Delivery List is a list of refineries worldwide whose gold bars are acceptable by the London Gold Market. This list contains two parts, a current list and a former list. The former list includes refineries whose gold bars are still accepted by the London Gold Market but who no longer produce these gold bars.

In September 1997, the LBMA transferred ‘US Assay Office’ gold bars to the former list because they were no longer produced by the US Assay Office after this date. These are bars that were produced by the New York Assay Office and the San Francisco and Denver Mints.

Gold bars that are on the former list are still accepted as London Good Delivery as long as they have been produced prior to the date of transfer to the former list, and as long as the bars meet the London Good Delivery standards.

Therefore, US Assay Office gold bars (995 fine) are still accepted as London good delivery bars. Just look at the bar list for the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) and you will see plenty of US Assay Office gold bars listed. These bars have appeared at various times recently with a variety of descriptions such as ‘US ASSAY OFFICE NY’, ‘U.S Assay Office’, ‘United States Assay Offices & Mints’, ‘US ASSAY OFFICE NEW YORK’, ‘UNITED STATES ASSAY OFFICE’ etc etc.

US Assay Office gold bar MELTS

Its important to grasp what a MELT is as applied to US Assay Office Gold because it applies to a lot of the gold held at the FRBNY vaults. Non US refineries and mints also produced gold bars in batches but they didn’t make use of a melt numbering system in such an obvious way as the US Assay Office.

Here’s the Federal Reserve Board explaining 0.995 Melts:

“US Assay Office bars, like bars in other countries, are produced in melts or a series of bars, numbered in succession. For instance, melt No. I contains 20 bars. Hence, the bars are stamped 1-1, 1-2, etc… , 1-20.”

“US Assay Office bars are gold bars that are originally issued by the US Assay Office and that have not been mutilated and which, if originally issued in the form of a melt, are re-deposited as a complete melt. These bars are not melted and assayed. They weigh approximately 400 troy ounces, the fineness of their gold content is .995 (99.5% purity or better), and they come in complete melts.

“When an US Assay Office bar is removed from a melt, it is referred to as a mutilated US Assay Office bar.”

Source: ‘Final report of the gold team’, draft June 30th, 2000. Page 13 of document: (http://www.clintonlibrary.gov/assets/storage/Research-Digital-Library/holocaust/Holocaust-Theft/Box-227/6997222-final-report-of-gold-team.pdf)

Here’s a very good description of Melts from none other than the International Monetary Fund. This description comes from an IMF document in 1976 when they were preparing their gold auctions and restitutions:

“..most of the gold of the Fund (IMF) is not in the form of individually stamped and weighed bars but consists, with the exception of the gold held in depositories in the United Kingdom and India, of melts, comprising 18-22 individual bars, which will first need to be identified, weighed, and selected before they can be delivered. 1/ “

Footnote 1/ on the same IMF page describes ‘Melts’ as:

“1/ A melt is an original cast of a number of bars, usually between 18 and 22. The bars of an unbroken melt are stamped with the melt number and fineness but weight-listed as one unit; when a melt is broken, individual bars must be weighed and stamped for identification. It is the practice in New York and Paris to keep melts intact.”

swiss
Swiss National Bank refining operations

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) admits that it too has held non-good delivery gold, and has sought, over a 30 year period from 1977-2007, to get it refined to good delivery status:

The National Bank has commissioned numerous refining operations during the last thirty years in order to obtain the ‘good delivery’ quality label for its entire gold holdings.

Swiss gold refining firms were prepared to undertake these operations free of charge, as the SNB provided them, in return, with a ‘working capital’ of several tonnes – more than was strictly necessary for their activity on behalf of the central bank.

This mutually profitable arrangement was challenged in 1982, when the SNB’s legal services concluded that it raised a number of problems, in particular that it effectively constituted an unsecured advance, similar to a gold loan. The National Bank’s deposits with refining firms were therefore liquidated in the same year, and subsequently, the cost of refining operations was invoiced directly to the SNB.

(page 433, section 8.2 The National Bank’s gold operations, from the 800+ page publication “The Swiss National Bank 1907 – 2007” (large file: 800+ pages.)

The SNB  had a lot of gold at the FRBNY up until at least the mid to late 1990s (since there are large FRBNY gold outflows during that period), and the Swiss gold sales appear to have targeted this New York gold, however, the Swiss gold sales settled out of London so it looks like Swiss gold may have been on the move in the late 1990s, even before the SNB had got the go-ahead to engage in gold sales over the 2000-2004 period. Perhaps the SNB’s Swiss refinery operations cited above involved some of the SNB’s New York gold as it stopped off in Switzerland on its way to London?

The Curious Case of the German Bundesbank

There has been widespread coverage of the Deutsche Bundesbank’s attempts to repatriate some of its gold reserves from New York and Paris back to Frankfurt. A lot of this coverage is, in my view, failing to ask the right questions about the fineness of the gold bars repatriated.

In January 2014, the Bundesbank announced that it had repatriated a paltry 5 tonnes of gold from the New York Federal Reserve Bank during 2013.

The Bundesbank press release from 20th January 2014, quoted Bundesbank Executive Board member Carl-Ludwig Thiele as follows:

‘”We had bars of gold which did not meet the ‘London Good Delivery’ general market standard melted down and recast. We are cooperating with gold smelters in Europe,” Thiele continued. The smelting process is being observed by independent experts. It is set up in such a manner that the Bundesbank’s gold cannot be commingled with foreign gold at any time.’

Since the Bundesbank is fond of using the term ‘smelting‘ and ‘smelters‘ in their gold bar discussions, what exactly does ‘smelting’ mean?

SMELT dictionary definition: Smelt (verb):

1. to fuse or melt (ore) in order to separate the metal contained

2. to obtain or refine (metal) in this way.

To me, it appears that the Bundesbank melted down and refined coin bars into London Good Delivery bars, otherwise why else would they need to bring gold up to good delivery standard? After all, normal US Assay Office gold bars of 0.995 fineness are already good delivery. So I emailed the Bundesbank at that time (January 2014) and asked them straight out:

How many tonnes of coin bars does the Bundesbank hold at the Federal Reserve in New York in addition to the 5 tonnes of coin bar gold recently remelted? And will all the gold (circa 300 tonnes) that is planned to be brought back from New York be in the form of coin bars? Regards,

The Bundesbank replied, directing me back to their press release:

in the Link attached you will find more information about your matter.
http://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Pressemitteilungen/BBK/2014/2014_01_21_gold_en.html
Yours sincerely, DEUTSCHE BUNDESBANK

Since I had asked about ‘coin bars’ and the Bundesbank had sent me a link to the press release about smelting, could the Bundesbank have been conceding that the smelting was of coin bars? Quite Possibly.

On 19th February 2014, Carl-Ludwig Thiele popped up again referring to the  ‘smelting’ operation in an interview conducted with German newspaper Handelsblatt:

Some of the bars in our stocks in New York were produced before the Second World War.”

“Our internal audit team was present last year during the on-site removal of gold bars and closely monitored everything. The smelting process is also being monitored by independent experts.”

“The very same gold arrived at the European gold smelters that we had commissioned.”

“The gold was removed from the vault in the presence of the internal audit team and transported to Europe. Only once the gold had arrived in Europe was it melted down and brought to the current bar standard.”

The frequent use of the words ‘smelting’ and ‘smelters’, in my opinion, suggests that not only were the Bundesbank’s gold bars melted and reformed into fresh bars, but that the gold was smelted and refined from a lessor purity to a ‘good delivery’ purity. This is why the opaque manoeuvres of the Bundesbank suggest ‘coin bars’.

Thiele’s reference to “some of the bars in our stocks in New York were produced before the Second World War” is again hinting at the 1930s, and to me is clearly suggesting ‘Coin Bars’.

Bundesbank bar display

From 5 to 50 tonnes

The 2013 five tonne smelting mystery was merely a prelude to much more of the same in 2014, because in January 2015, the Bundesbank issued a press release in which it claimed to have repatriated 85 tonnes of gold from the FRB in New York, of which approximately 50 tonnes was melted and recast.

Smelting/Melting expert Carl-Ludwig Thiele was again on hand to explain:

“The Bundesbank took advantage of the transfer from New York to have roughly 50 tonnes of gold melted down and recast according to the London Good Delivery standard, today’s internationally recognised standard.”

I then emailed the Bundesbank and asked:

“The Bundesbank press release from yesterday (see link below) refers to the fact that 50 tonnes of gold that was repatriated from the Federal Reserve in New York was recast / remelted before being received by the Bundesbank.

Can you clarify what the gold fineness (parts per thousand of gold in the bars) of these 50 tonnes of bars was before they were recast / remelted?

http://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Pressemitteilungen/BBK/2015/2015_01_19_continues_transfers_of_gold.html”

The Bundesbank replied to my email:

“Please understand that we do not provide any information on the physical details of single gold bars owned by Deutsche Bundesbank. Nevertheless, we would like to draw your attention on the fact that no irregularities where found concerning the gold melted down and recast according to the London Good Delivery standard. Please take into account that this standard asks i.a. for a minimum fineness of 995 parts per thousand.

(i.a.= inter alia = among other things)

Notwithstanding that I didn’t ask about single gold bars, its very interesting that the Bundesbank mentions 995. Why mention the fineness of 995? If the bars were already 995, why melt them down in the first place?

I then sent the Bundesbank a follow-up email:

“Thanks for the reply but I wasn’t asking about the details of single gold bars. 

My question is what was the average fineness of the 50 tonnes of gold bars that the Bundesbank had remelted in 2014. That’s the average fineness on approximately 4,000 bars. 

The Bundesbank replied:

“Please understand that we do not provide any further information on the
details of specific gold bars or a specific amount of gold bars owned by
Deutsche Bundesbank.”

In my view, the Bundesbank’s complete secrecy on this smelting issue speaks volumes. And you also see now that the Bundesbank cannot give a straight answer when asked simple questions about its gold.

In both January 2014 and January 2015, the Bundesbank claims that the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) was in some way involved in the Bundesbank’s gold smelting shenanigans. This makes little or no sense unless there was some type of location swap involved or the BIS has some deal with a refinery such as Metalor in Neuchâtel.

In January 2014 Thiele said:

“The Bundesbank has repatriated the gold from New York City in close cooperation with the Bank for International Settlements. “The Bank for International Settlements is a repository of expertise in the repatriation of gold. It is a very trustworthy institution.”

In January 2015 Thiele said:

“We also called on the expertise of the Bank for International Settlements for the spot checks that had to be carried out. As expected, there were no irregularities.”

Carl-Ludwig Thiele

The BIS trades gold ‘loco Berne’ using its account at the Swiss National bank (SNB) vaults, and the BIS maintains safekeeping and settlements facilities that are “available loco London, Berne or New York.”

Bundesbank gold looks like it left the FRBNY vaults during 2013 and 2014 in batches of 5.16 tonnes. See the Fed’s foreign earmarked gold statistics here. But on a net basis there is a shortfall of about 32 tonnes in 2014  between the amount of gold that left the FRBNY vaults and the amount of gold that the Bundesbank and De Nederlandsche Bank combined claim that they repatriated from the FRBNY during 2014.

Therefore, there may have been a gold location swap involved somewhere along the line. For some of the Bundesbank’s melting operations, gold may not have moved physically from the FRBNY at all. A gold location swap could have been done between a BIS FRBNY gold account and a BIS SNB gold account. Since the gold needed to be remelted / recast (to bring it to good delivery status), that would mean there were coin bars at the SNB.

The Metalor gold refinery (one of the 4 big gold refineries in Switzerland and one of the 6 biggest in the world) is very near the SNB’s Berne vault. Its located at Neuchâtel, about 50kms from Berne. The three other large Swiss gold refineries are all quite far from Berne as they are situated in southern Switzerland near the Italian border within a mile or two of each other, (Valcambi is in Balerna, Pamp in Castel San Pietro, and Argor-Heraeus is in Mendrisio).

If the BIS did some location swaps between the FRBNY and the SNB, it could get coin bars at the SNB vaults remelted at Metalor and then get the new gold bars flown to the Bundesbank in Frankfurt.

This would prevent the need to fly gold from New York City, and it would explain the “close cooperation” of the BIS in the operations.

Going Dutch

In contrast, that other great gold repatriating nation of 2014, namely the  Netherlands, did not see the need to melt any of the bars that it repatriated. In its press release in November 2014, the De Nederlandsche Bank simply said they had repatriated their gold to Amsterdam, apparently in quite a quick fashion.

And why would the Dutch need to melt anything, since after all, their gold in New York was in 995 Melts, as confirmed by Dutch Central Bank official Jan Lamers.

Here is Lamers in 2005 talking about the DNB’s gold bar holdings at the FRB, which were held in normal US Assay Office Melts:

“The New York stock does not meet the standards prevailing on the international gold market, the so-called London “good delivery” standards. The biggest difference is that the bars in New York are not individualized, but are part of a package of about 20 bars, wherein the package as a whole has an overall weight and number. The bars in the package would need to be weighed and numbered individually to meet ‘good delivery’ standards.”

I translated the above, so here is the original Dutch from Lamers:

“De voorraad in New York voldoet echter niet aan de standaarden die gelden op de internationale goudmarkt, de zogenoemde Londense ‘good delivery’ standaard. Het grootste verschil is dat de baren in New York niet zijn geïndividualiseerd, maar onderdeel zijn van een pakket van circa 20 baren waarbij het pakket als geheel een gewicht en nummer heeft. Door de baren in het pakket individueel te wegen en te nummeren, konden deze op‘good delivery’ standaard worden gebracht.”

(Source: “Gold Management of the Bank” by Jan Lamers, Senior Policy, Financial Markets Division. http://web.archive.org/web/20081117183716/http://www.dnb.nl/binaries/goudbeheer%20van%20DNB_tcm46-146095.pdf pages 7-8 of the pdf.)

So, the fact that the Dutch didn’t need to smelt anything but the German’s did shows that the bars that the Germans sent to the European Smelters were not regular 995 fine US Assay Office bars. If the Germans had possessed 995 US Assay Office bars, they would just need to be weighed and individually stamped with their weights, not melted down and recast.

The fact that the Bundesbank will not publish any weight lists is very suspicious. Even the US Treasury published their weight lists of their bars held at the FRBNY (see above).

Peter Boehringer, of the German ‘Repatriate our Gold’ campaign, says that allegedly, the bar lists of the gold that the Bundesbank had melted have now been destroyed. If this has happened, then this is further bizarre behaviour from the Bundesbank.

There are various other theories apart from ‘coin bars’ as to why the Bundesbank may have wanted to melt down gold bars from New York but the other alternatives are also embarrassing to the bar holder.

The old bars may have had cracks or fissures in them. This has happened to some of the old gold that is stored in the Bank of England as this report from 2007 shows.  The Bank of England spokesman at the time said:

“This is not about purity, this is about physical appearance.”

Speaking of Peter Boehringer, a recent Bloomberg article from February 2015 about Boehringer and the Bundesbank gold quoted a Bundesbank spokesman as telling Bloomberg, on the subject of gold melting, that:

meeting the London good delivery standard “cannot be reduced entirely to the weight of a gold bar but needs to take various other features into account, one criterion being the outer appearance.”

However, this Bloomberg article is the first time that the Bundesbank has mentioned ‘appearance’ of bars, and to me it looks like a story that keeps changing, possibly with some inspiration from the Bank of England 2007 story.

Cracks and fissures in 55 tonnes of gold would be quite alarming given that the LBMA said that ‘defects’ are ‘fortunately not typical!’ (see slide 13 here), and this would throw the quality of all the Fed’s New York held gold into doubt.

The quality of US Assay Office 995 fine bars was seen to be less than perfect by London refiners in 1968, as demonstrated by this 2012 article from Zerohedge, but if the Bundesbank was melting down US Assay Office 995 fine bars this would also be an alarm bell for all holders of similar gold. And why would the Dutch not think its necessary to melt down their repatriated US Assay Office bars if the Germans thought this was a problem?

The Bundesbank gives some details of a gold swap with the FRB back in 1968, and claim that a portion of the gold returned to the  Bundesbank (the return leg of the gold swap) was gold of a lessor quality than good delivery. They say “the remaining bars with a countervalue of $750 million were of a different quality”. This is absolutely not correct. All of the gold bars returned to the Bundesbank in that potion of the swap were good delivery US Assay Office bars and a lot of it came from Ottawa where the Fed had sourced some bars from the Canadians.

I have the details on that swap from Bank of England gold ledgers and the 1,200 gold bars (sent to Johnson Matthey) out of over 50,000 bars shipped to London were merely being ‘adjusted’ into good delivery bars, and were supposed to be good delivery bars, hence the need to remelt and recast.  I will cover this Bundesbank gold swap in a future article. The Bundesbank seems to be using this gold swap as as some sort of ambiguous evidence of why they are melting down 55 tonnes of gold but it is misleading to do so.

So, in conclusion, I would lean towards the probability that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has given the Deutsche Bundesbank tonnes of coin bars and the smelting operations have been bringing this gold up to London Good delivery purity levels. This begs the question, where did all the other Bundesbank gold bars stored at the New York Fed disappear to?

The alternative to the coin bar thesis, that the Bundesbank does not trust the gold purity of supposedly 995 fine US Assay Office bars, is probably more concerning since it undermines confidence in the purity levels of all US Assay Office fine gold Melts.