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Gold’s Price Performance: Beyond the US Dollar

With the first half of 2018 now drawn to a close, much of the financial medias’ headlines and commentary relating to the gold market has been focusing on the fact that the US dollar gold price has moved lower year-to-date. Specifically, from a US dollar price of $1302.50 at close on 31 December 2017, the price of gold in US dollar terms has slipped by approximately 3.8% over the last six months to around $1252.50, a drop of US $50.

Since the world’s major gold price discovery hubs of London and New York trade gold in US dollars (or more correctly predominantly trade synthetic gold and derivatives), and since much of the mainstream financial media tends to be very US-centric, the media’s fixation with the US dollar price of gold is probably not surprising. However, it’s not the full story, because in some major national currencies as well as in cryptocurrencies, the price of gold has actually moved higher year-to-date.

From the perspective of an investment bank forex trading desk, where gold is traded as a currency in ‘pairs trades’ against a set of major fiat currencies, the varied movements of gold prices across a range of currencies will not be surprising. Currency prices (including the price of gold) are constantly moving against one another, creating these exchange rates. What’s important to these forex traders is the ‘relative strength‘ of currencies and of gold (and increasingly of cryptocurrencies).

Since the US dollar has had a relatively strong performance year-to-date 2018 against many other fiat currencies, this means on the flip side that many national currencies have weakened vis-a-vis the US dollar. By definition, this also means that the gold price performance year-to-date, measured in any currency which has weakened more in percentage terms against the US dollar than the US dollar gold price has weakened, will actually now be higher in those currencies.

For those with a base currency other than US dollars, or whose wealth or earning power is denominated in currencies other than US dollars, it’s important to keep track of the relative strength / weakness of one’s base currency, and at the same time look beyond the financial media’s headlines, and keep an eye on the gold price in that base currency / home currency.

Brazilian Real

Let’s look at some examples. Some of the worst relative performances of fiat currencies over the first 6 months of this year have been the Brazilian Real, the Swedish Krona, the Russian Rouble, the South African Rand, and the Indian Rupee, i.e. a mix of developed and emerging market currencies, and a mix of commodity and non-commodity currencies.

Given the very strong performances of cryptocurrencies late last year (especially in December 2017), and their subsequent price reversals since January, the gold price when measured in cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, is also higher over the first half of 2018.

Year-to-date, the Brazilian Real (BRL) has lost more than 17% of its value against the US dollar. However, over the same time, the price of gold in Brazilian Real has gone up by more than 12.5%, rising from BRL 4315 per troy ounce at the start of January to BRL 4858 per ounce at the end of June.

The explanation for this is as follows. At the start of 2018, the US dollar gold price was trading at US $1302.50 per troy ounce, which at the USD / BRL exchange rate of USD 1 = BRL 3.31 at that time translated into BRL 4315 per troy ounce of gold. Fast forward six months and the US dollar gold price ended June $50 lower at US$ 1252.50 per ounce.

Gold Price in Brazilian Real, January – June 2018, Source

Over the same 6 month time period, the Brazilian Real weakened against the US dollar, falling from 1 dollar = BRL 3.31 at the start of January to  1 dollar = BRL 3.88 at the end of June. In Brazilian Real terms, that end of June gold price of US$ 1252.50 per ounce price now  translates into BRL 4858 (1252.5 * 3.88). In this case, the rise in the local currency (BRL) price of gold is attributable to the fall in the value of the Brazilian Real. This is a classic example of the gold price adjusting to reflect the weakness in a local currency.

Brazilian Real per US  Dollar, January – June 2018. Source 

Swedish Krona

Taking another example, year-to-date, the Swedish Krona has also had a relatively poor performance, falling by more than 11.5% against the US dollar over the first 6 months of 2018. However, during the same time period, the gold price in Swedish Krona has rallied strongly from SEK 10685 per troy ounce to approximately SEK 11210 per troy ounce.

Gold Price in Swedish Krona, H1 2018. Source

Again, even though the US dollar gold price fell from US$ 1302.50 to US$ 1252.50 during the first half of 2018, the SEK gold price has risen. Why? Because the Swedish Krona has weakened from 1 USD = SEK 8.023 at the start of January to 1 USD = SEK 8.950 at the end of June, meaning that the US$ 1252.50 gold price now translates into SEK  11,210 (1252.50 * 8.95).

Swedish Krona per US  Dollar, January – June 2018

Russian Rouble

During the year-to-date to end of June 2018, the gold price in Russian Rouble (RUB) has risen from RUB 75110 per troy ounce to RUB 78690, an increase of approximately 4.75%. Over this time, the value of the Rouble has fallen from approximately 1 USD = 57.7 RUB at the start of January to 1 USD =  62.8. Again this means that even though the US dollar price of gold has ebbed from US$ 1302.5 to US$ 1252.2 over the first 6 months of 2018, the RUB value of an ounce of gold has increased on the back of the depreciating RUB exchange rate (1302.50 * 62.8).

Gold Price in Russian Rouble, H1 2018. Source

Indian Rupee

The story is similar in Indian Rupee. Over the year-to-date 2018, the gold price in Indian Rupee (INR) has risen 3.19% in local currency terms, from INR 83130 per troy ounce to approximately INR 85780 per troy ounce. In this case, over the first half of 2018, the US dollar strengthened from 1 USD = 63.85 INR to 1 USD = 68.45, with the higher Rupee gold price reflecting the US dollar gold price of 1252.50 translated into Rupee at a 68.45 to 1 exchange rate.

Gold Price in Swedish Krona, H1 2018. Source

Bitcoin

The upward price movements of the gold price denominated in Bitcoin are even more startling. From an opening price of approximately US$ 14,110 on 1st January 2018, the price of Bitcoin in US dollars fell dramatically over the first 6 months of the year, to around US$ 6400, i.e. a 55% drop in 6 months.

Gold Price in Bitcoin, January – June 2018. Source

However, the gold price denominated in Bitcoin more than doubled over the same time frame, rising from 0.09 to 0.20 for the year-to-date. This would mean, for example, that had you traded out of Bitcoin and into gold at the start of 2018, your Bitcoin at that time would have had more than twice as much purchasing power in terms of purchasing gold as it had at the end of June.

A Better Way of Thinking

Given the constant fluctuations in fiat currencies, fixating on the gold price in US dollars, or indeed in any fiat currency, may not be the best way to think about your gold holdings. After all, many savers and investors in physical gold move their wealth and investments into physical gold precisely because it is not linked to fiat currencies and is a gateway out of government induced financial repression.

Remember that physical gold has no counterparty risk, and is not issued by any central bank, government or monetary authority. Physical gold is a mined tangible asset with inherent value and a limited supply.

A better way to think about an investment or holding in gold is perhaps by how much of it you hold. For example, I if had US$ 13,000, which I used to buy ten 1 troy ounce gold Maple Leaf coins, whatever then happens with the gyrations of fiat currencies, I still have those 10 gold maple Leafs and I can think of my holdings of physical gold as 10 gold Maple Leafs, weighing a combined 10 troy ounces.

The US Dollar has lost more than 98% of its value since 1913, while gold has retained its value.

Savers and investors move into physical gold precisely because it’s a monetary store of value that maintains its purchasing power over time and as such offers an exit from the debasement of fiat currencies such as the US dollar. Buying physical gold and then constantly trying to value it in terms of a fiat base currency is in some ways illogical. Surely a more logical approach is to say, I had x amount of dollars, but now I own X ounces of gold.

The same applies to gold’s role as a safe haven and as a form of financial insurance, i.e. physical gold is a form of wealth preservation in times of monetary and economic crisis. People make an allocation and use the safe harbor of physical gold precisely because it is ring-fenced from the turmoil of fiat currencies and associated central bank and government meddling. Again, surely a better way of thinking would be to say, I had x amount of fiat currency, I used this to buy gold, and now I have X ounces or X kilograms of gold. At a minimum, thinking in this way is a liberation from the constant barrage of mainstream media commentary about the US dollar gold price.

What’s Happening (or Not) at the LBMA: Some Updates

This article is in 3 parts and covers a) upcoming trade reporting in the London gold market which is being led by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), b) the recent publication by the LBMA of a Guide to the London OTC precious metals markets, and c) an update on monthly vault reporting which the LBMA and the Bank of England launched in 2017.

LBMA Trade Reporting

The lack of trade reporting in the London gold market is possibly one of the biggest ommissions in global financial markets, since the lack of gold trade data totally obscures knowledge of gold price discovery in a market that is predominantly a synthetic paper trading market, but which also plays hosts to the secretive world of central bank gold trading and central bank gold lending.

Trade reporting in the London gold market is also an initiative which the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has been promising to establish for more than 3 years, but which as yet has not produced one scrap of gold trade data, as the launch date and publication dates for this trade reporting have been continually pushed out.

In June 2014, in the wake of widespread trading misconduct, the UK Financial authorities launched the “Fair and Effective Markets Review” (FEMR) to improve confidence in the UK’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodities (FICC) as well as to improve the fairness and efficiency of those markets.

The Review was conducted by the Treasury, the Bank of England and the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) with the help of an independent Market Practitioner Panel drawn from the financial sector.

According to the FEMR, fair markets are those that have features such as market transparency and open access, while efficient markets are markets where trading and post-trade infrastructures provide sufficient liquidity and allow participants to discover and trade at competitive prices.

The FEMR recommendations were published in June 2015, which is now over two and a half years ago. One of the key recommendations of the FEMR report was to promote fairer market structures in FICC markets including improved transparency in over-the-counter markets. The Market Practitioner Panel also recommended that standardized physical markets such as the gold bullion trading market should have post-trade reporting so as to:

provide an understanding of liquidity, help to dispel some concerns over information abuse” and “work towards levelling the playing field.

During the review process, the FEMR authorities allowed interested parties to submit their views on the review, and in January 2015, the LBMA submitted a letter to FEMR (c/o the Bank of England) in which it stated that:

“The LBMA would also welcome further transparency through post trade reporting, providing the industry with data that at the moment does not exist for the bullion market.”

While this statement sounds innocuous enough, in a case of trying to steer the FEMR agenda while making it appear to be fully in agreement, the LBMA submission letter also made it clear that its members wanted the “precious metals market” to “report anonymised unique transactional data”.

In its submission, the LBMA further showed its true colours, i.e. that it primarily represents the powerful bullion banks and their central bank clients, as well as representing the interests of the Bank of England, when in a case of managing the expectations of the FEMR, the LBMA stated that “the role of the central banks in the bullion market may preclude ‘total’ transparency, at least at public level.” It also said that “transparency could be increased via post-trade anonymised statistical analysis of nominal volumes, provided by the clearing banks.”

The LBMA also cleverly retained control of the FEMR related agenda as it applied to the gold market when in April 2015 the LBMA launched its own “Strategic Review” of the London bullion market by commissioning the “independent” consultancy EY to undertake the actual strategic review and write a report.

Although the LBMA at the time gave lip-service to transparency and said that it would engage with the global bullion market in shaping this strategic review, the reality was otherwise and, for example, this author’s request for engagement were ignored by the LBMA. Furthermore, the actual EY report and its recommendations were never published and even the well-connected Financial Times in October 2015 said that it had only “seen” a “copy of the recommendations”.

One of the initiatives that supposedly grew out of this EY review was a Request for Information (RFI) by the LBMA to potential financial technology service providers in October 2015. This RFI was to “to assist the LBMA in delivering the EY recommendations from the Strategic Review.

What exactly the EY recommendations were is unclear, since the EY report was never published, but based on LBMA press releases, the goal of the review in terms of strategic objectives was said to be to enhance transparency, improve efficiency, and expand the use of technology in the gold and other precious metals markets.

The following month in November 2015, the LBMA announced that it had received 17 responses from 20 providers to its RFI queries, and that it had reappointed EY to help evaluate these responses.

Then on 4 February 2016 (i.e. exactly 2 years ago), the LBMA launched a Request for Proposals (RfP) process and asked a short-listed of 5 of the above 20 service providers to submit proposals to deliver a number of services to the London gold market including trade reporting, portfolio reconciliation and valuation curves, and also to build or provide infrastructure to support these services such as a submission interface, trade repository and data warehouse etc.

These services, including trade reporting, would, according to the LBMA press release, “be launched later in 2016”, and more specifically had a “target delivery date in the second half of 2016”.

Then a FEMR Implementation Report from July 2016 made note of the fact that the “LBMA had launched a specific ‘Request for Proposal’ focusing on trade reporting as a priority in response to the market commitment by LBMA members to enhance transparency.

But strangely, even though the LBMA said in February 2016 that it would launch trade reporting ‘later in 2016’, and even though the July 2016 FEMR noted that ‘trade reporting was a priority’, it was only on 12 October 2016 that the LBMA actually announced the winning entry in the RfP process.

This winning entry was awarded to a joint bid by financial technology service providers Autilla and Cinnober’s Boat Services Ltd. On the same day, the LBMA pushed out the launch date of trade reporting even further into the future and said that “in the first quarter of 2017, the LBMA together with Boat…will launch a trade reporting service”.

At the LBMA annual conference in Singapore on 17 October 2016, the LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell also said in her speech that:

“Now, what are these New Services? First and foremost, Phase One will focus on reporting and will launch in Q1 2017. This reporting covers all Loco London Spot, forward & option trading.”

“Reporting will not only make us more transparent and professional as a market….it will also demonstrate of the size and liquidity of the market for clients, investors and regulators.”

Also, at the same conference In October 2016, Jamie Khurshid, CEO of Boat Services Ltd  provided a timeline for the roll-out of the LBMA’s trade reporting, which included the following:

  • November 30 2016: Completion of design phase & engagement with member firm technology organisations
  • Q1 2017: Implement customization and configuration of solution
  • End Q1 2017: Complete on-boarding, certification & training
  • April 2017: Soft Launch to manage member flow exposure risk

Then in February 2017, in an article titled “Banks to Test London Gold-Trading Platform in Transparency Push”, Bloomberg addressed the LBMA’s trade reporting project and Boat’s reporting system LBMA-i and quoted LBMA CEO Ruth Crowell as saying that:

“LBMA-i will be ready to start collecting data in the second quarter” (2017)

“The data will then be vetted before being published later in the year” (2017)

However, in the May 2017 issue of the LBMA’s magazine, The Alchemist, the LBMA had already shifted the trade reporting dates even further out, with the LBMA CEO saying that:

Reporting will begin later this year in a phased approach and, following a period of quality checking the data, it is expected that it will be published in early 2018.

Then in the August 2017 issue of the LBMA’s Alchemist, LBMA Chainrman Paul Fisher stated that:

“Market Makers are expected to start reporting in the coming months, followed by other members later in 2017. After a period of quality checking, it is expected that the first data will published in early 2018.

At the LBMA’s next annual conference in October 2017 in Barcelona, there were a few additional references to trade reporting with the LBMA’s legal counsel saying that:

From September this year (2017), Market Makers and some full trading Members have started to report trade data into the LBMA-i. The LBMA-i is the reporting hub that is provided by Boat and Autilla.

the data is sufficiently anonymous without giving away the underlying client. The data will then be aggregated and published but not until Q1 2018. This is to provide the time to analyse the data and again work with the market to understand what we need to be publishing.

In this extremely long drawn out exercise by the LBMA, it must be clear by now that the LBMA and its trading members are engaging in this trade reporting project on their own terms, and with little regard for the spirit and recommendations of the Fair and Efficient Markets Review. There is also a trend of missed deadlines, broken promises, and a lack of explanation for the delays. Trade reporting data is being sent internally, analysed heavily, and filtered and scrubbed and sanitized. Nothing as yet has been published, and promised publication dates have been continually pushed out.

The LBMA doesn’t even try to hide this, saying in one of its conference presentations that the “decision to publicise anonymous, aggregate data sits with LBMA and Member firms” and that it requires “a minimum of 3 months to analyse data and agree parameters for public deferral”.

In all of this, gold investors of the world are getting the usual run around. The LBMA’s agenda for implementing trade reporting has far less to do with providing gold trade data to the investing public and the global gold market, and a lot more to do with influencing lobbying efforts with regulators and placating the woolly recommendations of soft touch regulators.

There isn’t even any clarity on what level of trade date will be made available to the public when and if it is finally released. The LBMA claims that the reporting by its trading members is mandatory and covers “all four metals” (gold, silver, platinum and palladium) in  “spot, forward, options, deposits, loans and swaps, whether Loco London, Loco Zurich or other locations.

If so, they should release all of this data, in granular format by category, showing for each metal, trade volumes by transaction type across spot, forward, options, deposits, loans and swaps. Transparency also calls for data that is useful for analysis, like the full suite of trade data that is reported by the world’s securities exchanges, where all trades would be reported, showing price, quantity, trade type (spot, option etc), transaction type (ETF, consignment etc), client counterparty types (central bank, broker, commercial bank, hedge fund, refinery, miner etc).

The LBMA’s reporting when published should also reveal the size of the physical gold market relative to the non-physical (paper) gold market. As the LBMA’s submission letter to FEMR in 2015 said:

Reporting in the physical market, which currently does not happen, will need to consider market pricing factors such as premiums, shipping/storage, taxes and duties.

So, yes, its possible that this information on the physical market can be reported. Technically there is nothing preventing this. But will it be reported? Likewise, will the trade data that is published reveal the magnitude of fractionally-backed unallocated gold trading that accounts for over 95% of daily London gold market turnover?

Another area critical for trade reporting report is central bank gold trades and central bank gold lending and gold swap related trades. Will central bank trades be reported as a grouping? Highly unlikely, as the LBMA already said that “the role of the central banks in the bullion market may preclude ‘total’ transparency, at least at public level.

But as I see it, almost none of the above will be reported by the LBMA, and the most we can expect per metal is a gross trade turnover figure rolled up by month, which is a figure that is practically useless in revealing anything about the real workings of trading in the London precious metals markets.

The LBMA Guide to the OTC Precious Metals Market

In early November 2017, the LBMA published an updated “Guide to the Global OTC Precious Metals Market”. The guide in pdf format can be opened here. The relevant LBMA press release is here. The guide is edited by Jonathan Spall, consultant to the LBMA, with input also from Aelred Connelly PR Officer to the LBMA.

On first reading, although well presented, it becomes apparent that this new Guide does not contain very much new information at all, with most of the information in the guide either already on the LBMA website, or taken from other LBMA publications and tweaked slightly. More recent developments such as London vault reporting or the LBMA Gold Price are included, but only the type of content that was already in the associated LBMA press releases.

If you didn’t know anything about the London gold market, this guide might provide some introductory detail, but other than that, it’s like a standard reference text which would be found in a reference library.

Unbelievably, this updated LBMA guide claims that it seeks to “make the moving parts of the market transparent”. However, in reality, it provides very little detail on transparency, so this claim rings hollow.

There is nothing revealed in the guide as to how the market really works, who the influential players are, and no data that would reveal the real state of the market, i.e. the fractional backing of unallocated accounts, the level of outstanding gold lending, the working of the gold vaults, how gold ETFs are allocated to and from what sources they are allocated from, how the Bank of England interacts with the commercial bullion banks and its client central banks, the trading volumes in the market and what transaction types they refer to etc.

This is a pity and a missed opportunity, since if it wanted to, the LBMA could have revealed how the moving parts of the market really work. But it is not surprising, since in its public and media interactions, the LBMA essentially acts as gatekeeper, regulating and filtering the information that it allows to be disclosed about the London gold market.

Structure of the Guide

Excluding the introduction and appendices, there are 22 sections in the guide. As well as gold and silver, the guide also covers the London Platinum and Palladium Market (LPPM), and the good delivery system for platinum and palladium.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Editor’s Note
  • Introduction
  • London Bullion Market Association
  • London Platinum and Palladium Market
  • The Price
  • London Good Delivery – Gold and Silver
  • Good Delivery – Platinum and Palladium
  • London Precious Metals Clearing Limited
  • Precious Metal Accounts
  • Lending and Borrowing Metal
  • Options
  • Precious Metal Benchmarks
  • Bank of England
  • Futures Markets and Exchange
  • Traded Products
  • Physical Metal
  • Documentation
  • Market Regulation
  • Taxation
  • Conversion Table
  • Key Facts about Precious Metals
  • Clearing Statistics
  • Market Trade Statistics
  • Central Bank and Governmental
  • Ownership of Gold
  • Properties of Precious Metals
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Annexes
  • Disclaimer

Looking at the table of contents, the sections which would appear to be of particular interest and worth scrutinizing to see if they provide any new information are as follows:

Section 4: The Price

This section has short discussions of things like characteristics of the price (troy ounce, fineness etc), that are mostly taken from a page on the LBMA web site. Most importantly, this section does nothing to illuminate important questions about ‘price discovery’ or ‘where does the internationally quoted gold price come from?’.

There is nothing in this section about price discovery or that the prices on COMEX and the London OTC market create the international gold price. COMEX is mentioned elsewhere in the guide not in relation to price discovery.

You have to read between the lines to see how the guide addresses the issue of trading and price. It first says that it’s a wholesale market price [true]. It then mentions delivery location of London – i.e., ‘loco London’. All it says is as follows:

“The standard delivery location of gold and silver is London – Loco London. This is ultimately an account held with a clearing bank for precious metals and backed by metal held in a vault in London that forms part of the clearing system.”

However, this paragraph fails to mention that these are fractionally-backed unallocated positions, and that the position in the account with a clearing bank is a synthetic cash-settled gold derivative and really not backed by gold. The ‘backed by metal held in a vault in London’ is therefore misleading and disingenuous, since there is not necessarily any gold backing an ‘account held with a clearing bank’.

Section 4 then ends with a baffling and confusing paragraph which looks deliberately designed to mislead with a title of “The Metal’ Not the Account”, which says:

“Clearly, gold, silver, platinum and palladium are all traded metals. It is an important distinction that it is not unallocated or allocated metal that is traded, but the metal itself.

The terms ‘allocated’ and ‘unallocated’ simply reflect the type of account over which the metal clears post trading of the underlying metal.”

This line, that “it is not unallocated or allocated metal that is traded, but the metal itself” looks like an attempt by the author to try to justify that all trading in the London market is trading of underlying metal. However, when an unallocated position is traded, it is just a claim on a bullion bank that is being traded. There is no specific metal. Its is just a liability to a bullion bank that is traded. And since these positions are fractionally-backed, it is not metal which is being traded. So, its mischievous to say that “the metal itself” is being traded. Perhaps the LBMA should be asked “Show me which underlying metal is being traded?

Section 7: London Precious Metals Clearing Ltd (LPMCL)

The LPMCL is one of the most important components of the London gold and silver markets since all trades that flow through these markets are cleared through LPMCL. But strangely, this section say very little about LPMCL and there is no discussion of the London precious metals clearing statistics or what they represent. This section merely says that LPMCL is a:

“daily clearing system of paper transfers whereby LBMA members offering clearing services utilise the unallocated precious metals accounts they maintain between each other” and that LPMCL lies at the heart of the Loco London (OTC) system”

This section could have actually provided real detail in LPMCL. But it didn’t. It just takes some text from the LPMCL website. The LPMCL subsection also has no explanation of the AURUM system and the fact that it its unallocated metal that is being cleared.

In fact, this entire LPMCL section is misleading because the section is titled “London Precious Metals Clearing Limited” and apart from a few introductory paragraphs about LMPCL, the rest of the section is devoted to physical gold vaulting, with sub-section headings such as” Vault Managers”, “Vault Operators Accreditation Scheme”,  “Weighing Gold”, “Weighing Silver”, “Traditional Weighing”, “Weighing Platinum and Palladium”, “Scales”.

But clearing of paper transfers (which LPMCL’s  AURUM processes) is not related to vaulting of physical metal. Allocating metal is distinct from the clearing of trades in AURUM. It’s a separate step. Notably, this section also doesn’t mention who the member banks of LPMCL are. They are HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, ICBC Standard, and UBS. Could it be trying to draw attention away from the names (the bullion banks) that actually run the LBMA?

Notably also, in the LPMCL website under Definitions, there is a definition for Paper Gold:

“A term used to describe gold contracts such as loco London deals and future contracts which do not necessarily involve the delivery of physical gold.”

Section 8: Precious Metal Accounts

This section begins with the strange, and misleading comment that “it’s the metal that’s being traded”:

“The Metal not the Account

Clearly, gold, silver, platinum and palladium are all traded metals. It is an important distinction that it is not unallocated or allocated metal that is traded, but the metal itself.

Given that the LPMCL website definition of unallocated metal is an “amount of that Precious Metal which we have a contractual obligation to transfer to you”, the “metal not the account” statement above makes little sense and is illogical.

Section 9: Lending and Borrowing

The first subsection of section 9 is titled “Deposits and Leases”, but there is no mention that bullion banks predominantly do the borrowing or that the central banks predominantly do the lending, nor of the level of outstanding loans from central banks to bullion banks.

In a subsection called “Lending Allocated Metal”, it mentions official central bank holdings of 33,399.2 tonnes in July 2017, but makes no attempt to comment on how much of this metal is lent out:

As of July 2017, it has been calculated by the World Gold Council (using data from the International Monetary Fund’s International Financial Statistics) that the world’s central banks hold 33,399.2 tonnes of gold. A listing appears in section 22.

But the question must be asked, why does the LBMA need to resort to quoting figures from the WGC which are in turn just figures reported to the IMF when the LBMA can get lending info from its member firms about gold lending activity, and from the Bank of England.

This subsection also states that central banks lends to commercial banks. But there is no mention of which central banks and commercial banks are involved, or the level of gold lending by central, or the length of deposits, or whether they roll over the loans and for how long.

Interestingly, the same subsection confirms that if a central bank lends out its allocated gold bars, it doesn’t get back the same bars. As the text says:

“Therefore, allocated metal becomes unallocated when it is lent but can be returned as allocated. Albeit, it will be returned with different bars and will likely be of a (slightly) different weight.

‘’…it’s not possible to lend allocated metal. Allocated metal is associated with specific bars in an account and, clearly, it is not possible to lend specific bars and expect to get the same ones back while receiving a return”

Section 12: Bank of England

There is nothing new in this section, and only vague references of how central banks in the London gold market lend and swap gold with bullion banks.

The Bank provides safe custody for the United Kingdom’s gold reserves (owned by Her Majesty’s Treasury) and for other central banks. This supports financial stability by providing central banks with access to the liquidity of the London gold market. It also provides gold accounts to certain commercial firms (including members of the LBMA) that facilitate access for central banks to the global OTC gold market.”

Section 14: Physical Market

This section is short and only addresses consignment stocks and inventory financing. Its quite telling that a Guide to the London OTC gold market only has one section (out of 22) about a ‘Physical gold market”.  In a real, specialized physical gold market (not London), this would takes many pages to cover. The intro to this section even tacitly admits that loco London trading has nothing to do with the physical gold market:

However, unlike Loco London trading, the physical market can require knowledge of a myriad of specific country requirements, the logistics and costs of moving precious metal around the world in various forms prior to fabrication, the manufacturing costs at the various refineries and sourcing refining/manufacturing capacity.”

Section 21: Market Trade Statistics

This section is as good as blank given that there are no gold market trade statistics. This page just gives some sketchy information about the delayed gold trade reporting project (see above).

Section 22: Central Bank and Government Ownership of Gold

For such a promising sounding section, based on the title, this section is a real letdown and has nothing in it except a short introduction followed by a replicated table of World Official Gold Holdings sourced from the World Gold Council.

 Limited Hangout

This new updated LBMA Guide is in some ways similar to a ‘Limited Hangout’ as the term is used in the intelligence community, i.e. revealing partial truth while keeping the main body of information hidden, and acting as gatekeeper to drip feed some information.

In other words, some information is ‘hung out’ while the main body of information is kept hidden. The public see the information that is offered and thinks “this is useful, this source is credible” but then the public inquires no further. The LBMA can point to the fact it is ‘transparent’ about the gold market, while actually not revealing anything at all important about the real workings of said market. The LBMA has drip fed some information to the public while actually acting as gatekeeper and preventing any critical information from reaching the market.

One of the characteristics of a limited hangout is that nothing new is really revealed about the subject matter being discussed. This is exactly what the LBMA guide is. All of the information contained in the guide is already on the LBMA website or else within LBMA press releases.

There is also a failure to discuss the most important areas of the London Gold Market including the fractional reserve nature of unallocated gold accounts, what the daily gigantic trade volumes in gold and silver are based on, how the London OTC gold market that trades huge quantities of synthetic gold positions continues to set the international gold price, the extent of gold lending in the London market and who are the lending central banks and who are the borrowing bullion banks, the real role of the Bank of England in the London market and the lending market, how the LMPCL clearers maintain gold accounts at the Bank of England.

This goes back to the theme of transparency and secrecy that I discussed in a presentation in Singapore October 2016 titled “The Gold Market – Where Transparency means Secrecy”, a transcript of which can be read here.

This also relates to the topic of market efficiency and availability of market data and information. Because, a market which is secretive and which is not transparent, such as the London Gold Market, cannot be efficient, because some market participants, namely bullion banks and central banks, have an informational advantage over other participants.

And remember that the London Gold Market creates the international gold price, so the transparency of this market is not just a theoretical issue, it has real world implications for everyone who owns and transacts in physical gold around the world.

Vault Holdings Reporting

Last year in 2017, both the Bank of England and the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) for the first time began publishing monthly data showing the quantities of physical gold and silver held in the wholesale precious metals vaults in London.

The Bank of England data covers monthly gold holdings held by its central bank and commercial customers in the Bank of England’s gold vaults. Note that the bank of England does not store any silver. The LBMA publishes monthly data on both the gold and silver held in the vaults of the 8 commercial vault operators which comprise its vaulting network.

Both sets of data are published on a 3-month lagged basis. The Bank of England began to independently publish its monthly gold vault data at the end of the first quarter 2017, and the first month’s figures for the end of December 2016 revealed that the Bank’s gold vaults held 5102 tonnes of gold. See “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings” for more details. Prior to 2017, the Bank only published gold vault holdings data once a year in its annual report.

The LBMA began publishing its vault data at the end of July 2017. Prior to that the LBMA had never published any data addressing precious metals holdings in its London vaulting network.

When the LBMA published its first set of data at the end of July, it stated that as of 31 March 2017 there were 7449 tonnes of gold and 32078 tonnes of silver in the vaults of the 8 commercial vault operators that comprise its vaulting network. See  “LBMA Gold Vault Data – How low is the London Gold Float?” from 2 august 2017 for more details.

For some reason, the first set of LBMA was on a 4-month lagged basis, however, since then they have since caught up to reporting on a 3-month lagged basis.

Since it’s now 6 months since the LBMA first released its vault data, it’s timely to do a short update on the more recently published vault data from both the LBMA and the bank of England, starting from the end of March 2017.

At the end of March 2017, the Bank of England was storing 5081 tonnes of gold in the vaults under its headquarters building in London. As of September 2017 (the latest month published), the Bank of England was storing 5220 tonnes of gold. Therefore in that 6 month period, net gold holdings in the Bank of England’s vaults increased by 139 tonnes, or 2.73%. There were net additions of gold to the Bank’s vaults in 5 of those 6 months, but nothing really significant stands out. A net 43 tonnes were added in April, 33 tonnes in June, there was a net decline of 8 tonnes in July, and a net addition of 56 tonnes in September.

See chart below for a graphical representation of these Bank of England vault holdings changes.

Bank of England custodial gold holdings as of 30 September 2017. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Over the 6 month period from month-end March 2017 to month-end September 2017, the LBMA precious metals vaults saw a net inflow of 294 tonnes of gold, or a 3.95% increase. There were net additions over the same 5 months as the Bank of England witnessed. On an aggregate basis, total gold holdings rose from 7449 tonnes to 7743 tonnes with large net inflows of gold bars appearing in the LBMA vaults in April with 47 tonnes added, 45 tonnes added in June, 86 tonnes added in August, and September saw the highest inflow with 157 tonnes of gold added. Only July 2017 saw net outflows of 59 tonnes of gold bars.

See chart below for changes to these LBMA vault holdings totals.

LBMA vaults gold holdings as of 30 September 2017. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

Adding the gold inflows of 294 tonnes in the LBMA vaults to the gold inflows of 139 tonnes in the Bank of England vaults, this means that over the 6 month period being discussed, the total amount of gold stored in all the London wholesale gold vaults increased by 433 tonnes, which is the equivalent of just under 35,000 Good Delivery gold bars, each weighing approximately 400 ounces. Gold-backed ETFs which store their gold in London only added about a net 40 tonnes of gold over the same period, so could only explain a small part of the total increase.

The LBMA vaults on an aggregated basis added 1794 tonnes of silver over the same 6 month period to the end of September 2017. Total silver holdings rose from 32078 tonnes to 33873 tonnes. This was a net increase of 5.6% in the total silver quantity held in the vaults. The largest net inflows were in April with 749 tonnes added, and June with 658 tonnes of silver added. Silver-backed ETFs which hold their silver in London actually saw net outflows over the 6 month period in question, so these movements do not explain the large 1794 tonnes of silver added to the London vaults over this time.

LBMA vaults silver holdings as of 30 September 2017. Source: www.GoldChartsRUs.com

 

LBMA Gold Vault Data – How low is the London Gold Float?

The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) has just released a first update on the quantity of physical gold and silver holdings stored in the ‘LBMA’ London vaulting network. The LBMA press release explaining the move, dated 31 July, can be read here.

This vaulting network, administered by the LBMA, comprises a set of precious metals vaults situated in London that are operated by the Bank of England and 7 commercial vault operators. For simplicity, this set of vaults can be called the LBMA London vaults. The 7 commercial vault operators are HSBC, Brinks, ICBC Standard Bank, Malca Amit, JP Morgan, Loomis and G4S. ICBC Standard outsources its vault management to Brinks. It’s possible that to some extent HSBC also outsources some of its vault management to Brinks.

Strangely, the LBMA’s initial reporting strangely only runs up to 31 March 2017, which is 4-months prior to the first publication date of 31 July. This is despite the fact that new LBMA vault holdings data is supposed to be published on a 3-month lagged basis, which would imply a latest report coverage date of 30 April.

At the end of April 2017, the Bank of England separately began publication of gold vault holdings for the gold bars that the Bank stores in custody within its own vaults. The Bank of England reporting is also on a 3-month lagged basis (and the Bank actually adheres to this reporting lag). See BullionStar article “Bank of England releases new data on its gold vault holdings”, dated 28 April 2017, for details of the Bank of England vault reporting initiative.

Currently, the Bank of England is therefore 1 month ahead of the LBMA vault data, i.e. on 31 July 2017, the Bank of England’s gold page was updated with Bank of England gold custody vault holdings as of 30 April 2017.

Ignoring the LBMA 3-month lagged vs 4-month lagged anomaly, the LBMA’s first vault reporting update, for vault data as of 31 March 2017, states that the 8 sets of vaults in question (which includes the Bank of England gold vaults) held a combined 7449 tonnes of gold and a combined 32078 tonnes of silver.

Also included in the first batch of LBMA data are comparable London vault holdings figures for gold and silver for each month-end date from July 2016 to February 2016 inclusive. Therefore, as of the 31 July 2017, there is now an LBMA dataset of 9 months of data, which will be augmented by one month each month going forward. Whether the LBMA will play catch-up and publish April 2017 month-end and May 2017 month-end figures simultaneously at the next reporting date of 31 August 2017 remains to be seen.

One of the Bank of England gold vaults
One of the Bank of England gold vaults

The New Vault Data – Gold and Silver

For 31 March 2017, the LBMA is reporting 7449 tonnes of gold stored across the 8 sets of vault locations. For the same date, the Bank of England reported 5081 tonnes of gold held in the Bank of England vaults. Therefore, as of 31 March 2017, there were 2368 tonnes of gold ‘not in the Bank of England vaults’ (or at least 2368 tonnes of gold not counted by the Bank of England data).

Of the gold not in the Bank of England vaults, about 1510 tonnes of this gold in London was held by gold-backed Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), mainly with the custodians HSBC and JP Morgan. These ETFs include the SPDR Gold Trust and various ETFs from ETF Securities, Source, iShares, and Deutsche Bank etc. This 1510 tonnes figure is taken from an estimate calculated at the end of April 2017 using data from the GoldChartsRUs website. See BullionStar article “Summer of 17: LBMA Confirms Upcoming Publication of London Gold Vault Holdings” dated 9 May 2017 for details of this ETF calculation.

Subtracting this 1510 tonnes of ETF gold from the 2368 tonnes of gold stored outside the Bank of England vaults means that as of 31 March 2017, there were only about 858 tonnes of gold stored in the LBMA vaults outside of the Bank of England vaults that was not held by gold-backed ETF holdings. See Table 1 below.

The lowest gold holdings number reported by the LBMA within its 9 months of vault data is actually the first month, i.e. July 2016. At month-end July 2016, the LBMA report shows total vaulted gold of 7283 tonnes. There was therefore a net addition of 166 tonnes of gold to the LBMA vaults between August 2016 and the end of March 2017, with net additions over the August to October 2016 period, followed by net declines over the November 2016 to February 2017 period.

LBMA
Table 1: LBMA London Vaults and Bank of England Vaults – Gold holdings, July 2016 – March 2017

Turning to silver, as of 31 March 2017, the LBMA is reporting total vaulted silver of 32,078 tonnes held in London vaults. The vaulted silver data also shows a notable increase over the period from the end of July 2016 to the end of March 2017, with a net 2485 tonnes of silver added to the vaults.

Since the Bank of England vaults only store gold in custody on behalf of customers and do not store silver, there are no silver holdings at the Bank of England and therefore there is no specific Bank of England silver reporting. The LBMA silver data therefore refers purely to silver vaulted with operators such as Brinks, JP Morgan, Malca Amit, HSBC, and Loomis.

There are currently at least 12,000 tonnes of silver stored in London on behalf of silver-backed ETFs such as the iShares Silver Trust (SLV), various ETF Securities products, a SOURCE ETF and some Deutsche Bank ETFs. Subtracting these ETF holdings from the full 32,078 tonne figure being reported by the LBMA would suggest that there are an additional ~ 20,000 tonnes of non-ETF silver held in the London vaults.

LBMA
Table 2: LBMA London Vaults – Silver holdings, July 2016 – March 2017
How small is the London gold float?
How small is the London gold float?

Previous Vault Estimates for Gold and Silver

Prior to the new LBMA and Bank of England vault holdings data reports, the only way to work out how much gold and silver were in the London vaulting network was through estimation. Between 2015 and 2017, a number of these estimates were calculated for gold and published on the BullionStar website and the GoldChartsRUs website.

See BullionStar page “How many Good Delivery gold bars are in all the London Vaults?….including the Bank of England vaults” and GoldChartsRUs page “LBMA/BOE VAULTED GOLD, 2016 Update – The London Float”, and BullionStar page “Tracking the gold held in London: An update on ETF and BoE holdings”.

The “Tracking the gold held in London” article, published on 5 October 2016, took a LBMA statement of 6500 tonnes of gold being in London, the earliest reference to which was from 8 February 2016 Internet Archive page cache, and also took a Bank of England statement that the Bank held 4725 tonnes as of the end of February 2016 period, and then it factored in that the UK net imported more than 800 tonnes of non-monetary gold up to August 2016, and also that ETFs had added about 399 tonnes over the same period. It also calculated, using GoldChartsRUS ETF data, that the London-based gold-backed ETFs held about 1679 tonnes of gold as of the end of September 2016.

Therefore, as of the end of September 2016, there could have been at least 7300 tonnes of gold held across the LBMA and Bank of England vaults, i.e. 6500 tonnes + 800 tonnes = 7300 tonnes. As it turns out, this estimate was quite close to the actual quantity of gold held in the LBMA and Bank of England vaults at the end of September 2016, which the LBMA’s new reporting now confirms to have been 7590 tonnes. The estimate is a lower number because it was unclear as to which initial date the LBMA’s 6500 tonnes reference referred to (in early 2016 or before).

Previous Vault Estimates Silver

At the beginning of July 2017, an article on the BullionStar website titled “How many Silver Bars are in the LBMA Vaults in London?” estimated that there were about 12,000 tonnes of Good Delivery silver bars held across 4 LBMA vault operators in London on behalf of 11 silver-backed Exchange Traded Funds. These ETFs and the distribution of their silver bars across the 4 vault operators of Brinks, Malca Amit, JP Morgan and HSBC can be seen in the following table.

Silver
Table 3: ETF Silver held across LBMA commercial vaults in London, early July 2017 

The above article about the number of silver bars in the London vaults also drew on some data from precious metals consultancy Thomson Reuters GFMS, which each year publishes a table of identifiable above ground global silver supply in its World Silver Survey. One category of silver within the GFMS identifiable above ground silver inventories is called ‘Custodian Vaults’. This is distinct from silver holdings in ETFs and silver holdings in exchange inventories such as in COMEX approved vaults in New York. A simple way to view ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver holdings is as an opaque ‘unreported holdings’ category as opposed to the more the transparent ETF holdings and COMEX holdings categories.

For 2016, according to GFMS, this ‘Custodian Vaults’ silver amounted to 1571.2 million ounces (48,871 tonnes), of which 488.7 million ounces (15,200 tonnes), or 31% was represented by what GFMS calls the ‘Europe’ region. Unfortunately, GFMS do not break out the ‘Custodian Vaults’ numbers by individual country because they say that they receive the data on a confidential basis and cannot divulge the granularity. The early July article on BullionStar had speculated that:

“With 488.7 million ozs (15,201 tonnes) of silver held in Europe in ‘Custodian vaults’ that is not reported anywhere, at least some of this silver must be held in London, which is one of the world’s largest financial centers and the world’s highest trading volume silver market.”

“Apart from London, there would presumably also be significant physical silver holdings vaulted in Switzerland and to a lessor extent in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and maybe Austria etc. So whats’s a suitable percentage for London? Given London’s extensive vaulting network and prominence as a hedge fund and institutional investment centre, a 40-50% share of the European ‘custodian vault’ silver holdings would not be unrealistic, with the other big percentage probably vaulted in Switzerland.

This would therefore put previously ‘Unreported’ silver holdings in the London vaults at between 6080 tonnes and 7600 tonnes (or an additional 182,000 to 230,000 Good Delivery Silver bars).

Adding this range of 6080 – 7600 tonnes to the 12,040 tonne figure that the 11 ETFs above hold, gives a total figure of 18,120 – 19,640 tonnes of silver stored in the LBMA vaults in London (545,000 – 585,000 Good Delivery silver bars).

But here’s the catch. With the LBMA now saying that as of the end of March 2017 there were 1.031 billion ounces of silver, or 32078 tonnes, stored in the LBMA vaulting network in London (and 31238 tonnes of silver in London as of end of December 2016), of which at least 12,000 tonnes is in silver-backed ETFs, then that still leaves about 20,000 tonnes of silver in the London vaults, which is higher than the silver total attributed to the entire ‘custodian vault’ category’ in Europe (as per the GFMS 2016 report).

Even the lowest quantity in the 9 months that the LBMA reports on, which is month-end July 2016, states that the LBMA vaults held 951,433,000 ounces (29,593 tonnes), which after excluding silver ETFs in London, is still higher than the total ‘Custodian Vault’ category that GFMS attributes to the European region in 2016.

These new LBMA vault figures are basically implying that all of the GFMS custodian vault figure for Europe (and some more) is all held in London and not anywhere else in Europe. But that could not be the case as there is also a lot of silver vaulted in Switzerland and other European countries such as Germany, to think of but a few.

This begs the question, does the GFMS Custodian vault number for Europe need to be updated to reflect the gap between the non-ETF holdings that LBMA claims are in the London vaults and what GFMS is reporting in a European ‘Custodian vaults’ category? If the LBMA reporting actually broke down the silver vaulting quantity number into Good Delivery silver bars and other categories, it might help solve this puzzle as it would give an indication of how much of this 32,000 tonnes of silver is in the form of bars that are accepted for settlement in the London Silver Market i.e. Good Delivery silver bars.

Could some of this 32,000 tonnes of silver be in the form of silver jewellery, and private holdings of silver antiques and even silver artifacts? On the surface the LBMA reporting appears to say not since it states that:

“jewellery and other private holdings held by retailers, individuals and smaller vaults not included in the London Clearing system are not included in the numbers”

But because this statement reads rather ambiguously, by implication another interpretation of the LBMA statement could be that:

“jewellery and other private holdings held by retailers and individuals in vaults that are part of the London Clearing system are included in the numbers”

The London Clearing system here refers to the vaults of the 7 commercial vault operators.

Until GFMS comes back with a possible clarification of its ‘Custodian Vault’ figure for Europe, then this contradiction between the LBMA data for silver and GFMS data for silver will persist.

The HSBC vault containing the GLD gold
The HSBC vault in London containing the GLD gold

Large Bars but also Small Bars and Gold Coins

According to the LBMA’s press release, while the LBMA vault holding data …represent the volume of Loco London gold and silver held in the London vaults offering custodian services“, surprisingly the new LBMA data includes “all physical forms of metal inclusive of large wholesale bars, coin, kilo bars and small bars.”

The inclusion of gold coins, smaller gold bars and gold kilobars in the LBMA vault data is bizarre because only large wholesale bars are accepted as Good Delivery in the London gold and silver markets, not gold coin, not smaller bars, and not gold kilobars. Even the LBMA website states that “the term Loco London refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London. Only LBMA Good Delivery bars are acceptable for trading in the London market.

Furthermore, the entire physical London Gold Market and physical London Silver Market revolve around the LBMA Good Delivery lists. Spot, forward and options trades on the London OTC gold and silver market are only referenced to a unit of delivery of a Good Delivery bar, both for gold and for silver.

For example, in the LBMA’s “A Guide to the London Precious Metals Markets” it states that:

Unit for Delivery of Loco London Gold

This is the London Good Delivery gold bar. It must have a minimum fineness of 995.0 and a gold content of between 350 and 430 fine ounces…. . Bars are generally close to 400 ounces or 12.5 kilograms

For silver, the same guide states that:

“Unit for Delivery of Loco London Silver

This is the London Good Delivery silver bar. It must have a minimum fineness of 999 and a weight range between 750 and 1,100 ounces, although it is recommended that ideally bars should be produced within the range of 900 to 1,050 ounces. Bars generally weigh around 1,000 ounces.

Additionally, all the new London-based gold futures contracts launched by the LME, ICE and CME also reference, if only virtually, the unit for Delivery of loco London gold, i.e. the London Good Delivery gold bar. They do not reference smaller gold bars or gold coins.

In contrast to the LBMA , the COMEX exchange where the famous COMEX 100 ounce gold futures contract is traded only reports vault inventories of gold and silver where the bars satisfy that contract for delivery, i.e. the contract for delivery is one hundred (100) troy ounces of minimum fineness 995 gold of an approved brand in the form of either “one 100 troy ounce bar, or three 1 kilo bars”. COMEX do not report 400 oz gold bars or gold coins specifically because the contract has nothing to do with these products. Then why is the LBMA reporting on forms of gold that have nothing to do with the settlement norms of its OTC products in London?

Additionally, the LBMA website also states that “only bars produced by refiners on the [Good Delivery] Lists can be traded in the London market.“ All of this begs the question, why does the LBMA bother including smaller bars, kilogram bars and gold coins? These bars cannot be used in settlement or delivery for any standard London Gold Market transactions.

Perhaps these smaller gold bars and gold coins have been included in the statistics so as to boost the total reported figures or to make reverse engineering of the numbers more difficult? While the combined volumes of smaller bars and kilobars probably don’t add up to much in terms of tonnage, the combined gold coin holdings of central banks stored at the Bank of England could be material.

For example, the United Kingdom, through HM Treasury’s Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA), claims to hold 310.3 tonnes of gold in its reserves, all of which is held in custody at the Bank of England. The latest EEA accounts for 2016/2017, published 18 July 2017 state that “The gold bars and gold coin in the reserves were stored physically at the Bank’s premises.” See Page 43, Exchange Equalisation Accounts for details. Many more central banks, for historical reasons, also hold gold coins in their reserves. See Bullionstar article “Central Banks and Governments and their gold coin holdings” for some examples.

As another example, the Banque de France in Paris holds 2435 tonnes of gold of which 100 tonnes is in the form of gold coins, and 2,335 tonnes of gold bars. Even though these gold coins are held in Paris, this shows that central bank gold coin holdings could materially affect LBMA gold reporting that includes ‘gold coins‘ within the rolled up number. But such gold coins cannot be traded within the LBMA / LPMCL gold trading / gold clearing system and if present would overstate the number of Good delivery gold bars within the system.

The Bank of England gold page on its website also only refers to Good Delivery ‘gold bars’ and says nothing about gold coins, which underlines the special status to which the Bank of England assigns Good Delivery gold bars in the London Gold Market.  Specifically, the BoE gold page states that:

“..we provide gold storage on an allocated basis, meaning that the customer retains the title to specific gold bars in our vaults”

 “Values are given in thousands of fine troy ounces. Fine troy ounces denote only the pure gold content of a bar.

“We only accept bars which comply with London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) London Good Delivery (LGD) standards. LGD bars must meet a certain minimum fineness and weight. A typical gold bar weighs around 400 oz“

The Bank of England has now confirmed to me, however, that the gold holdings number that it reports on its website “is the total of all gold held at the Bank” and that this “includes coins that belong to the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA) which are held by the Bank on behalf of Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT)

This means that the total gold number being reported by both the Bank of England and the LBMA needs to be adjusted downward by some percentage so as to reflect the amount of real Good Delivery gold bars in the London vaults. What this downward adjustment should be is unclear, as neither the Bank of England nor the LBMA break out their figures by category of gold bars versus gold coins.

LBMA numbers – Obscured Rolled-up numbers

Another shortcoming in the LBMA’s vault reporting is that it does not break down the gold and silver holdings per individual vault. The LBMA will be only releasing 2 highly rolled-up numbers per month, one for gold and one for silver, for example, 7449 tones for gold and 32078 tonnes for silver in the latest month.

Contrast this to New York based COMEX and ICE gold futures daily reporting, which both do break down the gold holdings per New York vault. Realistically, the LBMA was never going to report gold or silver holdings per vault, as this would be a bridge too far towards real transparency, and would show how much or how little gold and silver is stored by each London vault operator / at each London vault location.

This does not, however, stop the LBMA from claiming transparency and in its 31 July press release it states that:

“According to the Fair and Effective Markets Review (see here for further details) 
‘…in markets where OTC trading remains the preferred model, authorities and market participants should continue to explore the scope for improving transparency, in ways that also enhance effectiveness.’

Real transparency, as opposed to lip-service transparency, would be supported by providing an individual breakdown of the number of Good Delivery gold and silver bars stored in each of the 8 sets of vaults at each month end. If they want to include gold coins, smaller gold bars, and gold kilo bars as extra categories, then this could also be itemised on a proper report. It would also only take any decent software developer about 1 day to write and create such a report.

There is also the issue of independently auditing these LBMA numbers. The issue is essentially that there is no independent auditing of these LBMA numbers nor will there be. So there is no second opinion as to whether the data is accurate or not.

The Bank of England gold vault reporting is also short of transparency as it does not provide a breakdown of how much of the reported gold is held by central banks, how much gold is held by bullion banks, how much of the central bank gold is out on loan with the bullion banks, and how much gold, if any, is held on behalf of ETFs at the Bank of  England as sub-custodian. Real transparency in this area would provide all of this information including how much gold the LPMCL bullion clearing banks HSBC, JP Morgan, UBS, Scotia Mocatta and ICBC Standard hold at the Bank of England vaults.

On the issue of ETF gold held at the Bank of England, it has been proven that at times the Bank of England has acted as a gold custodian for an ETF, for example, during the first quarter 2016, the SPDR Gold Trust held up to 29 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England, with the Bank of England acting in the capacity of sub-custodian to the SPDR Gold Trust. See BullionStar article  “SPDR Gold Trust gold bars at the Bank of England vaults” for details.

The London Float

The most important question with this new LBMA vault reporting is how much of the 7449 tonnes of gold stored in London as of the end of March 2017 is owned or controlled by bullion banks.

Or more specifically, what is the total level of LBMA bullion bank unallocated gold liabilities in the London market compared to the amount of real physical gold bars that they own or control. 

This ‘gold owned or controlled by the bullion banks’ metric can be referred to as the ‘London Float’. LBMA bullion banks can maintain their own holdings of gold bars which they buy in the market or import directly, and they can also borrow other people’s gold thereby controlling this gold also. Some of this gold can be in the LBMA commercial vaults. Some can also be in the Bank of England vaults.

In its press release, the LBMA states that:

“The physical holdings of precious metals held in the London vaults underpin the gross daily trading and net clearing in London.”

This is not exactly true. Only gold which is owned or controlled by the bullion banks can underpin gold trading in London. Allocated gold sitting in a vault that is owned by central banks, ETFs or investors and which does not have any other claim attached to it, does not underpin anything. It just sits there in a vault.

As regards gold bars stored in the LBMA vaults in London, these bars can either be owned by central banks at the Bank of England, owned by central banks at commercial vaults in London, owned by ETFs at the commercial vaults in London, owned or controlled by bullion banks, and owned by investors (either institutional investors, hedge funds, private individuals etc). On occasion, some ETF gold has at various times been at the Bank of England.

If central bank gold is held in allocated form and not lent out, then it is ‘off the market’ and can’t be ‘used’ by any other party such as a LBMA bullion bank. If central bank gold is lent out or swapped out to bullion banks, then it can be used or even sold by those  bullion banks. The LBMA uses the euphemism ‘liquidity’ to refer to this gold lending. For example, from the LBMA’s recent press release on the new vault reporting it says:

“In addition, the Bank of England also offers gold custodial services to central banks and certain commercial firms, that facilitate central bank access to the liquidity of the London gold market.”

ETF gold when it is held within an ETF cannot legally be used by other entities since it is owned by the ETF and allocated to the ETF. Institutionally owned gold or private owned gold when it is allocated is owned by the holder. It could in theory be lent to bullion banks also.

Some of the LBMA bullion banks have gold accounts at the Bank of England. How many of these banks maintain gold holdings within the Bank of England vaults nobody will say, not the Bank of England nor the LBMA nor the bullion banks, but it at least extends to the 5 members of London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) which are HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia Mocatta, ICBC Standard and UBS. Gold accounts for bullion banks undoubtedly also extend to additional bullion banks beyond the LPMCL members because many bullion banks have been involved in gold lending at the Bank of England for a long time, for example Standard Chartered, Barclays, Natixis, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, and Goldman Sachs, and these banks would at some point have to take delivery of borrowed gold at the Bank of England.

Note, the gold brokers of the London Gold Market have for a long time, as least since the 1970s, been able to store some of their gold bars at the Bank of England vaults. These brokers were historically Samuel Montagu, Mocatta, the old Sharps Pixley, NM Rothschild and Johnson Matthey.

Since LBMA bullion banks can maintain gold accounts at the LBMA commercial vaults in London, and because some of these banks have gold accounts at the Bank of England also, then this London “gold float” can comprise gold bars at the commercial vaults and gold bars at the Bank of England vaults. It is however, quite difficult to say exactly what size this London bullion bank gold float is at any given time.

Whatever the actual number, its not very big in size because if you subtract central bank gold and ETF gold from the overall LBMA gold figure (of 7449 tonnes as of the end of March 2017) then whatever is left is not a very big quantity of gold bars, and at least some of this residual gold stored in the LBMA commercial vaults is owned by institutions, hedge funds, private individuals and platforms such as BullionVault.

In September 2015, a study of central bank gold held at the Bank of England calculated that about 3779 tonnes of Bank of England custody gold can be accounted for by central bank and monetary authority gold holdings. See “Central bank gold at the Bank of England” for details and GoldChartsRUs page “LBMA/BOE VAULTED GOLD, 2016 Update – The London Float”. Compared to the 4725 tonnes of gold held at the Bank of England at the end of February 2016, this would then mean that there were about 946 tonnes of gold at the Bank of England that was “unaccounted for by central banks”. This was about 20% of the total amount of gold held at the Bank of England at that time.

However, some of this 946 tonnes was probably central bank gold where the central bank owner had not publicly divulged that it held gold at the Bank of England. Many central banks around the world that were contacted as part of the research into the “central bank gold at the Bank of England calculation” either didn’t reply or replied that they could not confirm where their gold was stored. See BullionStar article “Central Banks’ secrecy and silence on gold storage arrangements” for more details.
After factoring in these unknown central bank gold holders at the Bank of England, the remaining residual would be bullion bank gold. It could therefore be assumed that a percentage of gold stored at Bank of England, somewhere less than 20% and probably also less than 10%, is owned by bullion banks. Since central bank gold holdings, on paper at least are relatively static, the monthly changes in gold holdings at the Bank of England therefore probably mainly reflect bullion bank gold movements rather than central bank gold movements.

If we look back now at the LBMA vault data for gold as of 31 March 2017, how much of this gold could be bullion banks (London float) gold.

LBMA total gold vaulted: 7449 tonnes

Bank of England gold vaulted: 5081 tonnes

Gold in commercial LBMA vaults: 2368 tonnes

Gold in ETFs: 1510 tonnes

Gold in commercial vaults not in ETFs: 858 tonnes

Gold in commercial vaults not in ETFs that is allocated to institutions & hedge funds = x

i.e. 7449 – 5081 = 2368 – 1510 = 858

Assume 10% of the gold at the Bank of England is bullion bank gold. Also assume bullion banks gold hold some gold in LBMA commercial vaults.

Therefore total bullion bank gold could be (0.1 * 5081) + (858 – x) = 508 + 858 – x = 1366 – x.

Since x has to be > 0, then the bullion bank London float is definitely less than 1300 tonnes and probably less than 1000 tonnes. The bullion banks might argue that they can borrow more gold from central banks, take gold out of the ETFs, and even import gold from refineries. All of these options are possible, but still, the London bullion bank float is not that large. And it is this number in tonnes of gold which should be compared to the enormous volumes of ‘paper gold’ trading that occur in the London Gold Market each and every trading day.

For example in June 2017, the LBMA clearing statistics state that 21 million ounces of gold was cleared each trading day in the London Gold Market. That’s 653 tonnes of gold cleared each day in London. With a 10 to 1 ratio of gold trading to gold clearing, that’s the equivalent of 6530 tonnes of gold traded each day in the London gold market, or 143,660 tonnes over the 22 trading days of June. Annualised, this is 1.632 million tonnes of gold traded per year (using 250 trading days per year).
And sitting at the bottom of this trading pyramid is probably less than 1000 tonnes of bullion bank gold underpinning the gigantic trading volumes and huge unallocated gold liabilities of the bullion banks. So you can see that the London gold trading system is a fractional-reserve system with tiny physical gold underpinnings.

In May 2011, during a presentation at the LBMA Bullion Market Forum in Shanghai China, on the topic of London gold vaults, former LBMA CEO Stewart Murray included a slide which stated that:

Investment – more than ETFs

ETFs

  • Gold Holdings have increased by ~1,800 tonnes in past 5 years, almost all held in London vaults
  • Many thousands of tonnes of ETF silver are held in London

Other holdings

  • Central banks hold large amounts of allocated gold at the Bank of England
  • Various investors hold very substantial amounts unallocated gold and silver in the London vaults

The last bullet point of the above slide is particularly interesting as it references “very substantial amounts’ of unallocated gold and silver. Discounting the fact for a moment that unallocated gold and silver is not necessarily held in vaults or held anywhere else, given that it’s just a claim against a bullion bank, the statement really means that investors have ‘very substantial amounts‘ of claims against the bullion banks offering the unallocated gold and silver accounts i.e. very substantial liabilities in the form of unallocated gold and silver obligations to the gold and silver unallocated account holders.

If a small percentage of these claim holders / investors decided to convert their claims into allocated gold and silver, especially allocated gold, then where are the bullion banks going to get the physical gold to give to these converting claim holders? Neither do the claim holders of unallocated positions have any way of knowing how accurate the LBMA vault reporting is, because there is no independent auditing of the positions or of the report.

LBMA Vault data collaboration
Joni Teves, UBS, and Ruth Crowell, LBMA CEO

UBS and LBMA

The last line of the LBMA press release about the new vault reporting states the following:

“A detailed explanatory commentary follows, prepared by Joni Teves, Precious Metals Strategist, UBS”

This line includes an embedded link to the Teves report within the press release. This opens a 7 page report written by Teves about the new vault reporting. By definition, given that this report is linked to in the press release, it means that Joni Teves of UBS had the LBMA vault reporting data before it was publicly released, otherwise how could UBS have written its summary.

In her report, Teves states that a UBS database estimates that there are “1,485 tonnes of gold worth about $60bn and about 13,759 tonnes of silver worth about $7.85bn are likely to be held in London to back ETF shares“.

These UBS numbers are fairly similar to the ETF estimates for gold (1510 tonnes) and silver (12040 tonnes) that we came up with here at BullionStar, and so to some extent corroborate our previous ETF estimates. Teves also implies that some of the gold in the Bank of England figure is not central bank gold but is commercial bank gold as she says:

 “let’s say for illustration’s sake that about 80% to 90% of BoE gold holdings are accounted for by the official sector.

The statement on face value implies that 10% – 20% of Bank of England gold is not central bank gold. But why the grey area phrase of “let’s say for illustration’s sake”. Shouldn’t the legendary Swiss Bank UBS be more scientific than this?

Teves also says assume “negligible amount (in commercial vaults) comprises official sector holdings“, and she concludes that “this suggests that over the past year, an average of about 2,945 to 3,450 tonnes ($119-$139 bn) of investment-related gold was held in London.

What she is doing here is taking the average of 9 months of gold holdings held in the LBMA commercial vaults (which is 2439 tonnes) and then adding 10% and 20% respectively of the 9 month average of gold held at the Bank of England (which is 506 and 1011 tonnes) to get the resulting range of between 2945 and 3451 tonnes.

Then she takes the ETF tonnes estimate (1485) away from her range to get a range of between 1460 and 1965 tonnes, as she states:

 … “Taking these ETF-related holdings into account would then leave roughly around 1,460 to 1,965 tonnes or about $59bn to $79bn worth of gold in unallocated and allocated accounts as available pool of liquidity for OTC trading activities

But what this assumption fails to take into account is that some of this 1,460 to 1,965 tonnes that is in allocated accounts is not available as a pool of liquidity, because it is held in allocated form by investors precisely so that the bullion banks cannot get their hands on it and trade with it. In other words, it is ring fenced. Either way, a model will always output what has been input into it. Change the 10% and 20% range assumptions about the amount of commercial bank gold in the Bank of England vaults and this materially alters the numbers that can be attributed to be an ‘available pool of liquidity for OTC trading activities’.

Additionally, the portion of this residual gold that is in ‘unallocated accounts’ is not owned by any investors, it is owned by the banks. The ‘unallocated accounts’ holders merely have claims on the bullion banks for metal that is backed by a fractional-reserve trading system.

In her commentary about the silver held in the London vaults, Teves does not comment at all about the huge gap between her ETF silver in London (which UBS states as 13,759 tonnes), and the full 32000 tonnes reported by the LBMA,and does not mention how this huge gap is larger than all the ‘Custodian Vault’ silver which Thomson Reuters GFMS attributes to the entire ‘Europe’ region.

Conclusion

The amount of gold in the London LBMA gold vaults (incl. Bank of England) that is not central bank gold, that is not ETF gold, and that is not institutional allocated gold is quite a low number. What this actual number is difficult to say because a) the LBMA will not produce a proper vault report that shows ownership of gold by category of holder, and b) neither will the Bank of England in its gold vault reporting provide a breakdown between the gold owned by central banks and the gold owned by bullion banks. So there is still no real transparency in this area. Just a faint chink of light into a dark cavern.

On the topic of London vaulted silver, there appears to be a lot more silver in the LBMA vaults than even GFMS thought there was. It will be interesting to see how GFMS and the LBMA will resolve their apparent contradiction on the amount of silver stored in the London LBMA vaults.

Are the World’s Billionaire Investors Actually Buying Gold?

Infographic website Visual Capitalist recently published an eye-catching infographic on behalf of Sprott Physical Bullion Trusts which featured 4 well-known billionaire investors and their supposed investments in gold. The infographic is titled “Why the World’s Billionaire Investors Buy Precious Metals” and can be seen here.

The 4 investors profiled in the infographic are:

  • Jacob Rothschild (Lord), chairman of London-based investment trust RIT Capital Partners Plc
  • David Einhorn, president of Manhattan-based hedge fund firm Greenlight Capital
  • Ray Dalio, chairman and CIO of hedge fund firm Bridgewater Associates, Westport (Connecticut)
  • Stanley Druckenmiller, chairman and CEO of Manthattan-based Duquesne Family Office (and formerly of Duquesne Capital Management)

Overall, four very famous investors, and four names that should at least be vaguely familiar to almost anyone who has a passing interest in financial markets and investing.

For each of the 4 billionaires, the Sprott infographic provides a few quotes about their views on gold and then moves on to record their recent ‘Moves’ into ‘gold’, or in some cases their recent readjustments of existing ‘gold’ exposures.

However, the trouble with this infographic is that although it’s visually appealing, nowhere does it mention how these famous investors achieve their exposures to ‘gold’, i.e. what form their gold investments take.

This is something which is also regularly bypassed in financial media articles, especially those published by Bloomberg, articles which refer to hedge fund managers such as Druckenmiller, or John Paulson, or Ray Dalio buying ‘gold’, but which all too often are too lazy to do basic research into the actual trades that these hedge fund managers execute to acquire their positions in ‘gold’ and whether these positions are actually in real physical gold or in some form of synthetic or derivative or paper gold.

In fact, the first comment posted on the Visual Capitalist website under said Sprott infographic when it was published asks exactly this question:

I’d like to know if they are holding physical bullion, presumably in guarded safe vaults, or just paper.”

Given that the infographic is ‘Presented by’ Sprott Physical Bullion Trusts, one might assume that Rothschild, Einhorn, Dalio and Drukenmiller are all investing in physical bullion.

But are they? This is the question I set out to answer and which is documented below. Some of my findings may surprise you.

The Rothschilds: Jacob & RIT Capital Partners

First port of call, the Rothschilds of St James’s Place in London. Given that the Rothschilds are probably the richest family in the world and have been involved in the gold market for hundreds of years, you might assume that the family of the Five Arrows knows a thing or two about the difference between real gold bars and paper gold. And presumably they do. However, no one seems to have told this to the day-to-day managers of RIT Capital Partners Plc, the Rothschild controlled investment vehicle quoted in Sprott’s infographic.

Investment trusts are actually public limited companies (Plcs) which are structured as closed-ended investment vehicles. These vehicles issue a certain number of shares that can then be publicly traded. RIT Capital Partners plc, formally called the Rothschild Investment Trust (hence the name RIT), trades on the London Stock Exchange. Jacob Rothschild (The Lord Rothschild) is chairman of RIT Capital Partners Plc.

As a publicly traded vehicle, RIT Capital Partners Plc publishes annual and half-yearly reports, and is therefore more transparent than its hedge fund brethren. RIT’s latest report, an annual report for year-end 2016, was published on 28 February 2017.

Strangely, although the Sprott infographic was only published on 7 June 2017, it quotes not from the annual report for year-end 2016 but from RIT’s half-yearly report to 30 June 2016, which was published on 15 August 2016.

The Sprott infographic states:

“In a 2016 shareholder update [Jacob] Rothschild outlined bold changes to the RIT Capital Partners’ portfolio, including…increased exposure to gold and precious metals to 8%

Similarly, in the RIT Chairman’s Statement (page 2) of the 30 June 2016 report, Jacob Rothschild said “We increased gold and precious metals to 8% by the end of June.

Glancing at either the Chairman’s statement or the Sprott infographic, you might think ‘ok, so RIT holds (or held) 8% of its portfolio in gold and precious metals’. However, this is not the case, a fact which becomes clear when we look at the Investment Portfolio (holdings) of RIT that are detailed in the same report.

Jacob Rothschild, RIT Capital Partners
Jacob Rothschild, RIT Capital Partners

RIT is a global investment fund whose holdings span equities, hedge fund investments, private investments, real assets, credit, and bonds. It’s ‘gold’ and ‘precious metals’ holdings are listed under ‘Real Assets’. The entire RIT portfolio is worth £2.73 billion.

The Real Assets section of the RIT report to 30 June 2016 (on page 6 of the report, page 8 of the pdf) lists relevant gold-related line items as:

  • “BlackRock Gold & General Fund”, described as “Gold and precious metal equities”, valued at £22.9 million, and representing 0.9% of the NAV, with a fund weight of 0.83%
  •  “Gold Futures” with a description “Long, 6.0% notional“, valued at £7.6 million, represents 0.3% of the NAV
  • “Silver Futures with a description “Long, 1.2% notional” valued at £7.6 million, representing 0.0% (rounded) of the NAV

These are the only gold-related investments in the entire RIT portfolio. Therefore, could this 8% that Jacob Rothschild refers to as “we increased gold and precious metals to 8% by the end of June” be a combination of a 6% notional long on gold futures, a 1.2% notional on long silver futures, and a 0.8% fund weight in gold mining equities through the BlackRock Gold & General Fund holding?

In short, the answer is Yes.

Firstly, looking at the BlackRock Gold & General Fund, this is a UCITS equity fund which exclusively invests in the shares of gold and silver mining companies such as Newcrest, Newmont, and GoldCorp and which is benchmarked against the FTSE Gold Mining Index (an equity index). However, the BlackRock website reminds us that “The Fund does not hold physical gold or metal.” Like all equity investments, this fund exposes its holders to equity risk, currency risk, sectoral risks (in this case the mining sector), possible gold hedging risks, and the general corporate risks that come with stock specific investing in any publicly quoted company, some of which cannot be diversified through portfolio investing.

Next up are the precious metals futures line items. In investment portfolios, notional is literally the gross exposure of a position. In this case, the RIT portfolio being long 6.0% notional in gold futures just means that the portfolio’s notional exposure to gold (via the gold futures position) represented (on 30 June 2016) an amount which was 6.0% of the total (gross) exposure of the portfolio. This is also a leveraged position since it was acquired via the purchase of exchange traded futures and the maintenance of these futures via margin. The amount reflected in the NAV for this position just refers to the margin.

I also checked with RIT investors relations as to whether Jacob Rothschild, when he stated that RIT holds gold, was actually referring to these gold futures positions. RIT investor relations responded:

“Yes, we do refer to long gold futures exposure as “holding gold”. We take this view since we are confident that gold futures are acting as a suitable proxy for gold both from a regulatory perspective and in terms of where we are in the cycle.

However, it should be clear to all that holding gold futures is not the same thing as holding vaulted physical gold. Gold futures may provide exposure to the US Dollar price of gold, but that’s about it, and even if they can be theoretically exercised into physical gold on the COMEX or ICE platforms, no one uses them for this purpose. For example, only 0.04% of COMEX gold futures contracts result in physical delivery each year.

Gold futures also entail exchange risk, risk of not being able to exercise for delivery, margin risk, forced cash settlement risk, etc etc. Gold futures are also derivatives that can come into existence in massive quantities as long as there are counterparties to take the other side of the futures trades.

Allocated physical gold on the other hand is an asset which exists in limited quantities, has no counterparty risk, has intrinsic value and has been used as money and as a store of value for thousands of years.

The “regulatory perspective” that RIT refers to just seems to mean that the fund’s exposure ticks various compliance boxes and is an acceptable security from a compliance and regulatory perspective.

The “where we are in the cycle” phrase probably refers to the interest rate cycle in terms of interest rate movements, inflation, real interest rates etc, but surely this is irrelevant because if you really believe that gold futures prices are a perfect proxy for gold prices, then the existence of a “cycle” and the phases of such a cycle become irrelevant to the investment decision?

In summary, it should be clear that RIT Capital Partners Plc does not hold any gold or other precious metals, because it merely holds gold futures and units in a BlackRock fund which itself only holds gold and silver equities (common shares) and which does not hold physical gold.

Just for completeness, let’s turn to the latest annual report from RIT for year-end 2016 that Sprott did not refer to. Has anything changed compared to 30 June 2016? At year-end 2016, according to Jacob Rothschild:

We continue to hold gold and gold mining shares amounting to 6% of the portfolio.

Therefore, by the end of 2016, by RIT’s logic, it now had a 6% exposure to gold (and the exposure to silver futures had disappeared). However, as per the 6 month earlier period, this was really a) exposure to the US dollar price of gold via gold futures and b) an exposure to the common equity of publicly-traded gold mining companies through the BlackRock fund investment.

In the Real Assets section of the RIT annual report (page 13 of the report, page 15 of the pdf), it lists:

  • “BlackRock Gold & General Fund”, with a description “Gold and precious metal equities” valued at £20.3 million, representing 0.9% of the NAV, and with a fund weight of 0.7%
  • “Gold Futures” with a Description “Long, 5.7% notional” representing (0.2%) of the NAV

Again, the 6% Rothschild reference includes the 5.7% long notional on gold via the gold futures, the BlackRock fund with a weight of 0.7%, and possibly the (0.2%) NAV (margin), which altogether net to approximately 6% when rounded down. Since 8% sounds better than 6%, Sprott may have chosen to reference the 30 June 2016 RIT report and not the more recent 30 December 2016 RIT report as this would make Rothschild appear more bullish on gold.

David Einhorn and Greenlight Capital

Hedge funds by their nature are very secretive, and because they are private pools of capital, they have no obligation to report detailed holdings even to their clients, let alone to the general public. Some of the justifications for hedge fund secrecy include preventing other trading parties adversely trading against them and preventing competitors replicating their positions. Note, hedge funds still have to report equity holdings to the US SEC and they do this via their quarterly 13F form submissions, which can be viewed on the SEC EDGAR website about 6 weeks after quarter end.

Sometimes hedge fund stars will drop hints about some of their positions or engage with the financial media, but this is mainly to talk their positions and trading books up. Often however, the “partner letters” (similar to shareholder letters) that hedge fund partnerships send to their clients / investors will give some indication as to their positions and asset allocations, and for whatever reason, some of these letters seem to make it into the public domain pretty quickly. Note that most hedge funds are established as Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), a structure which supports the partnership model.

Following Jacob Rothschild, next up on the Sprott infographic is hedge fund manager David Einhorn and his Greenlight Capital hedge fund firm. Greenlight, as a hedge fund firm, runs a series of funds that invest in equity, debt etc but also include global macro and that are known as the “Greenlight Capital funds” a.k.a. “The Partnerships”. There are at least 6 funds in this group, maybe more.

David Einhorn
David Einhorn, Greenlight Capital

The Sprott infographic refers to a recent gold-related ‘Move’ that Einhorn that made as follows:

“In early 2017, Einhorn mentioned on an earnings call that he was:…Keeping gold as a top position”

More recently, Greenlight again refers to its gold positions in a partners letter dated 25 April 2017, in which it wrote that “gold gave us a small profit in macro”, and that:

 “Gold remains a long-term position with a thesis that global fiscal and monetary policies remain very risky”

So we can assume that Einhorn maintains a gold exposure of some sort. Since there was no information in the above partner letter as to what exactly Greenlight refers to as a gold position, and nothing that I could find on the web, I did what any junior Bloomberg reporter should but doesn’t do, and shot off an email to Greenlight asking how Greenlight Capital attains its long gold exposure? Surprisingly, or maybe not, within about 20 minutes Greenlight answered with a short and sweet one-liner:

 “We hold physical allocated gold in all our funds.” 

This response came from the top of the Greenlight tree, close to Einhorn. Hint David Einhorn only follows three accounts on Twitter, one of which is Donald Trump another of which is the Einhorn Trust. So now we know that at least one major hedge fund firm holds physical allocated gold.

On a side note, Greenlight also offers two funds called Greenlight Capital (Gold), LP and Greenlight Capital Offshore (Gold), Ltd. These two funds actually offers investors a gold class which denominates investments in that class in gold rather than USD. This is similar to a USD denominated fund offering shareholders a EUR or CHF class, the only difference being that this class is in gold. 

Ray Dalio and Bridgewater

Bridgewater Associates, based in Westport in Connecticut, runs some of the largest and most well-known individual hedge funds such as the global macro Pure Alpha as well as other well-known funds called ‘The All Weather’  and ‘Pure Alpha Major Markets’. Ray Dalio is founder, chairman and chief investment officer (CIO) of Bridgewater.

In the Sprott infographic, the gold ‘Move’ which they chose to highlight Dalio for was that:

“In 2016, Dalio said it is prudent to have a ‘well-diversified portfolio’ that is 5-10% gold”

However, unlike the other investors profiled, i.e. Rothschild, Einhorn, and Druckenmiller, who had investment decisions attributed to them that involved taking or extending long positions, there is nothing, at least in the infographic, that refers to Dalio taking on or amending a gold position.

When Dalio refers to gold, which he has done publicly on a number of occasions, he tends to do so in generalistic terms such as the following comments which were taken from Dalio’s appearance at the CEO Speaker Series conversations organised by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR):

“And so gold is one of the currencies. So we have dollars, we have euros, we have yen and we have gold.”

“Now, it [gold] doesn’t have a capacity — the capacity of moving money into gold in a large number is extremely limited.”

“I think … there’s no sensible reason not to have some — if you’re going to own a currency, … it’s not sensible not to own gold”

“I don’t want to draw an inordinate amount of attention to gold”

“a certain limited amount, at least passably, should be in gold, just like you would hold a certain amount in cash”

“Now, it depends on the amount of gold, but if you don’t own, I don’t know, 10 percent in — if you don’t have that and then it depends on the world, then you — then there’s no sensible reason other than you don’t know history and you don’t know the economics of it.”

Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates
Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates

Dalio frequently, in various forums, demonstrates his understanding of the historical importance of gold in the monetary system. Based on the language that Dalio uses about capacity of the gold market and his appreciation of the history of gold, my hunch is that Bridgewater does hold physical gold in a similar manner to how Greenlight Capital holds gold.

Dalio has also gone on record with Tony Robbins hinting at a gold allocation that he would use for an “all weather fund”. This is not the Bridgewater All Weather Fund, but it could be something similar. Dalio’s recommended asset allocation that he gave Robbins was:

  • 30% Stocks
  • 40% Long-Term Bonds
  • 15% Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 7.5% Gold
  • 7.5% Commodities

Although it is quite tricky to contact Bridgewater, I did manage to find Dalio’s email (somehow or other) and like an aspiring Bloomberg reporter (or not), I shot off an email to Dalio asking:

“Does Bridgewater hold physical gold in its funds (e.g. Pure Alpha, All Weather, and Pure Alpha Major Markets) or some other type of long gold exposure?” 

The same day, I received back an automated response:

______________________________________________________________________

Message from "Ray Dalio"
______________________________________________________________________

I recognize from your email address that this is the first message I have received from you since Bridgewater Associates began using Sender Address Verification (SAV).

Your message is very important to me.  Like you, we are very concerned with stopping the proliferation of spam.  We have implemented Sender Address Verification (SAV) to ensure that we do not receive unwanted email and to give you the assurance that your messages to me have no chance of being filtered into a bulk mail folder.

By pressing REPLY and SEND to this message your original message will be delivered to the top of my inbox.  You need only do this once and all future emails will be recognized and delivered directly to me.
...
Thank you!

Ray Dalio

However, after replying as per the instructions above using the verification address, there was no further response from Bridgewater. Maybe he is on vacation!

So the jury is still out on how Bridgewater acquires its exposure to gold, assuming that its funds actually have exposure to gold. But my guess is that at least some of Bridgewater’s funds do hold gold, and probably hold real physical allocated gold.

Stanley Druckenmiller and Duquesne

Finally, the Sprott infographic features Stanley Druckenmiller, founder and former chairman and president of Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Capital Management, and also former portfolio manager of Soros’ Quantum Fund. In 2010, ‘Stan’ Druckenmiller wound down Duquesne Capital since he claimed it was becoming harder to deliver consistently high returns, but he continued to manage his own wealth through Duquesne Family Office LLC, which is based out of Manhattan.

According to the infographic, in early 2017 Druckenmiller said:

“Gold was down a lot, so I bought it.”

Stan Druckenmiller

Stan Druckenmiller, Duquesne 

This quote was reported in a 8 February 2017 Bloomberg article which itself was based on a CNBC interview from 7 February:

“I wanted to own some currency and no country wants its currency to strengthen,” Druckenmiller said Tuesday in an interview. “Gold was down a lot, so I bought it.” 

As per usual, Bloomberg doesn’t bother to find out or mention what form of gold exposure Druckenmiller was referring to in that interview.

Strangely, Bloomberg says that Druckenmiller bought gold in late December and January having previously sold his ‘gold’ on election night in November when Trump was elected. I say strangely because Druckenmiller is known for getting his US dollar ‘gold exposure’ via the gold-backed ETF the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) however, the Duquesne Family Office 13F filings with the SEC don’t show GLD activity in Q4 2016 or Q1 2016.

Looking at recent Duquesne Family Office 13F filings which show reportable equity holdings (including GLD since GLD is a listed security and is basically like a share), the last time Duquesne Family Office had a long exposure to the SPDR Gold Trust was in Q1 2016 when it held 2,016,000 call options on the SPDR Gold Trust (Cusip 78463V907) which at the time had a notional exposure of $237.16 million. Druckenmiller had purchased 2,880,000 call options on GLD during Q2 2015 but reduced this to 2,016,000 calls during Q1 2016. Duquesne has not held any SPDR Gold Trust shares or options since Q1 2016.

However, looking at the Duquesne 13F filings for Q3 2016, Q4 2016 and Q1 2017, there are some interesting changes in reported holdings of some gold mining equities over this period.

As of the end of September 2016, Duquesne reported holding 1.8326 million Barrick Gold shares and 530,800 Agnico Eagle Mines shares. Then, as of the end of December 2016, neither of these stocks appeared on the Duquesne 13F list.

However, as of the end of March 2017, both Barrick and Agnico reappeared on Duquesne’s filing, with Druckenmiller’s family investments holding 2.85 million Barrick Gold shares, and 882,900 Agnico Eagle Mines shares. Barrick Gold, headquartered in Canada, is the world’s largest gold mining company. Agnico Eagle, also headquartered in Canada, is another large gold mining company.

The timing of Druckenmiller saying that he sold his ‘gold’ on election night in November 2016 and the bought gold in late December 2016 and January 2017 fits very well with the Duquesne trades of selling Barrick Gold and Agnico Eagle so that they appeared in the Q3 13F, but not in the Q4 13F and then reappeared in the Q1 2017 13F. If this is the case, then Druckenmiller’s Duquesne does not hold gold but holds gold mining equities, and Druckenmiller’s recent references to buying gold are really references to holding common shares in publicly-traded gold mining companies.

Duquesne, however, could hold other ‘gold exposures’ such as gold futures or even real physical allocated gold. But due to the non-obligation of these investment pools to report holdings, this is unclear.

I also sent an email to Stan Druckenmiller at his Duquesne address, asking him:

“Does Duquesne Family Office hold physical gold as part of its exposure to gold within its investments, or is the exposure some other type of long gold exposure such as the gold-backed ETF GLD?”

However, as of the time of writing, Druckenmiller has not responded.

Druckenmiller’s gold exposure via GLD calls between Q2 2015 and Q1 2016 also deserves some commentary. Readers of this website will know that holding a gold-backed ETF such as GLD is not the same as owning real physical gold. Although the Trust behind GLD holds gold bars, GLD units just provide exposure to the US dollar price of gold and there is no conversion option into real gold. With GLD, the holder is a shareholder and not a gold holder. There are many other concerns with GLD, all of which are documented on a BullionStar infographic.

However, Duquesne’s ‘exposure’ is even one more step removed from gold since it was in the more of a derivative (call option) on an underlying (GLD) which itself does not provide ownership of any gold to the holder. So in some ways this could be called a second order derivative.

Paulson & Co

Although Sprott’s infographic doesn’t feature John Paulson of hedge fund firm Paulson & Co, maybe it should have. However, on second thoughts maybe not, because Paulson & Co is currently the 6th largest institutional holder of SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) shares, which as explained above, is not the same as owning real physical gold. According to its latest 13F filing, Paulson & Co holds 4,359,722 GLD shares worth a sizeable $500 million.

John Paulson (far left)
John Paulson (far right), along with Jim Simons of Renaissance (middle) and George Soros (left) 

Paulson also launched a specific gold fund in 2010 which is now called the PFR Gold Fund, named after Paulson, and the two managers who used to run the fund, namely, Victor Flores and John Reade, hence the PFR. Reade has now left Paulson & Co, and moved to the World Gold Council (WGC), which derives the majority of its revenue from…wait for it….the SPDR Gold Trust, since WGC’s 100% owned subsidiary World Gold Trust Services is the sponsor of the GLD.

According to HedgeTracker, the PFR Gold Fund has a “long-term strategy focus investing in mining companies and bullion-based derivatives“, so again you can see that this is nothing to do with owning and holdings real physical allocated gold.

Conclusion

After this whirlwind tour, we know the following:

RIT Capital Partners Plc claims to hold gold but really holds a) gold futures which provide notional long gold exposure and b) a BlackRock fund which invests in gold mining shares.

Greenlight Capital holds allocated gold in all of its hedge funds (and they are good about replying to emails).

Bridgewater Associates probably holds gold exposure across at least some of its funds. Given Ray Dalio’s grasp of the importance of real physical gold, I would be surprised if Dalio’s funds do not hold real physical gold. But Dalio is a hard man to track down, so the jury is still out on this one.

Stan Druckenmiller’s Duquesne Family Office had a large exposure to the SPDR Gold Trust via call options in 2015 and early 2016 but then closed this exposure. Duquesne also invests in gold mining equities Barrick Gold and Agnico Eagle Mines, and this could be what Druckenmiller is referring to when he said he sold and then bought back gold.

Paulson is a big fan of the SPDR Gold Trust, a vehicle which is in no way the same as owning physical gold, because it merely provides exposure to the US dollar price of gold.

If and when the paper gold market implodes and the price of real physical gold diverges from the paper price of gold, the world’s billionaire investors will need to line up their ducks and explain to their partners and shareholders if they actually hold tangible physical gold bars, and if not why not.