The Charade Continues – London Gold and Silver Markets set for even more paper trading
Today the London Metal Exchange (LME) and the World Gold Council (WGC) jointly announced (here and here) the launch next year of standardised gold and silver spot and futures contracts which will trade on the LME’s electronic platform LMESelect, will clear on the LME central clearing platform LME Clear, and that will be settled ‘loco London’. Together these new products will be known as ‘LMEprecious’ and will launch in the first half of 2017.
However, although these contracts are described by the LME as delivery type ‘Physical’, settlement of trades on these contracts merely consists of unallocated gold or silver being transferred between LME Clear (LMEC) clearing accounts held at London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (LPMCL) member banks (i.e. paper trading via LPMCL’s AURUM clearing system).
London Metal Exchange: LMEprecious Gold contracts – “unallocated gold" delivery through LPMCL members https://t.co/F9BOUCjh3K
— Ronan Manly (@ronanmanly) August 8, 2016
For example, the contract specs for the LME’s planned spot gold trading state that the LME’s proposed settlement procedure is one of:
“Physical settlement two days following termination of trading. Seller transfers unallocated gold to LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank, and buyers receive unallocated gold from LMEC account at any LPMCL member bank”
The range of LME contracts for both gold and silver will consist of a trade date + 1 contract (T+1), aptly named TOM, as well as daily futures from T + 2 (equivalent to Spot settlement) out to and including all trade dates to T + 25. Beyond the daily futures, the suite of contracts also includes approximately 36 monthly futures contracts covering each month out to 2 calendar years, and then each March, June, September and December out to 60 calendar months. The LME / WGC press release also mentions plans for options and calendar spread products based on these futures.
As well as trading electronically on LMESelect, these precious metals futures will also be tradeable via telephone market (inter-office market). Trading hours for the daily contract (TOM) will be 1am – 4pm London hours, while trading hours for all other contracts will be 1am – 8pm London hours, thereby also covering both Asian and US trading hours. Detailed contract specs for these gold and silver contracts are viewable on the LME website. The trading lot size for the LME gold contracts will be 100 ozs, which is significantly smaller than the conventional lot size of 5000 -10,000 ozs for gold trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 1000 ozs of gold). The planned lot size for the LME’s silver contracts is 5000 ozs, again below the conventional lot size of 100,000 – 200,000 ozs for silver trading in the London OTC market (and conventional OTC minimum of 50,000 ozs of silver).
These LME contracts are being pitched as a real alternative to the incumbent over the counter system of gold and silver trading in London which is overseen by the London Bullion Market Association, an association whose most powerful members are the clearing and vaulting banks in London, namely HSBC, JP Morgan, Scotia, and to a lessor extent UBS and Barclays, but increasing ICBC Standard bank as well. But given that the LME’s clearing will sit on top of the LPMCL clearing system and use unallocated transfers, the chance of any real change to the incumbent London gold and silver market is non-existent. Nor will the trading of these LME products give any visibility into the amount of physical gold and silver that is held within the London Market, nor the coverage ratio between ‘unallocated account’ positions and real underlying physical metals.
Five Supporting Banks
This new LME / WGC initiative is being supported by 5 other investment banks and a trading entity called OSTC. These bank backers comprise US banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, French banks Natixis and Société Générale, and Chinese controlled bank ICBC Standard Bank. According to a Reuters report about the launch, the World Gold Council had approached 30 firms about backing the launch, so with only 5 banks on board that’s a 16.6% take-up ratio of parties that were approached, and 83.4% who were not interested.
Earlier this year in January, Bloomberg said in a report said that the five interested banks were “ICBC Standard Bank Plc, Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Societe Generale SA“, so somewhere along the line Citigroup looks to have taken itself off the list of interested parties, while Natixis came on board. The World Gold Council’s discussions about a proposed gold exchange and its discussions with ‘5 banks’ appear to have begun as early as the 4th quarter of 2014 and were flagged up by the Financial Times on 02 April 2015, when the FT stated that:
“The WGC has hired a number of consultants and spent the past six months pitching a business case for banks to consider the alternative trading infrastructure”
“The World Gold Council…and at least five banks are participating in initial discussions”
Notably, this was around the time that LME found out it had not secured the contracts to run either the LBMA Gold Price or LBMA Silver Price auctions. Note, that all 5 of the LME supporting banks, i.e. Goldman, ICBC Standard, Morgan Stanley, SocGen and Natixis, are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), with Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen being LBMA market members, and Natixis being a full member of the LBMA. Goldman, Morgan Stanley, ICBC Standard and SocGen are also direct participants in the LBMA Gold Price auction operated by ICE Benchmark Administration. None of these 5 banks are direct participants in the LBMA Silver Price auction. Notably, none of these banks except for ICBC Standard is a member of the precious metals clearing group LPMCL. ICBC Standard Bank also recently acquired a precious metals vault in London from Barclays and also joined the LBMA’s Physical Committee (see BullionStar recent blog ‘Spotlight on LPMCL: London precious MEtals Clearing Limited‘ for details). Therefore, ICBC Standard seems to have a foot in both camps.
Unallocated Balances, Unsecured Creditors
Given the long build-up to this LME / World Gold Council announcement, and the fact that these LME spot and futures products were supposed to be a genuine alternative to the LBMA bank controlled OTC trading system, the continued use of unallocated settlement and the use of LPMCL accounts by these planned LME contracts underscores that the LME contract do not represent any real change in the London Gold and Silver Markets.
As a reminder, the resulting positions following transfers of unallocated gold and silver through the LME Clear accounts of LPMCL members essentially means the following, in the words of none other than the LBMA:
“Unallocated account basis. This is an account where the customer does not own specific bars, but has a general entitlement to an amount of metal. This is similar to the way that a bank account operates”
Additional LBMA definitions of unallocated transactions are as follows:
“settled by credits or debits to the account while the balance represents the indebtedness between the two parties.”
“Credit balances on the account do not entitle the creditor to specific bars of gold or silver or plates or ingots of platinum or palladium but are backed by the general stock of the precious metal dealer with whom the account is held: the client in this scenario is an unsecured creditor.
Alternatively, a negative balance will represent the precious metal indebtedness of the client to the dealer in the case where the client has a precious metal overdraft facility.
Should the client wish to receive actual metal, this is done by “allocating” specific bars, plates or ingots or equivalent precious metal product, the metal content of which is then debited from the unallocated account”.
LME bows to LPMCL
However, it should come as no surprise that these LME spot and futures contracts haven’t taken a new departure away from the entrenched monopoly of the London gold and silver clearing and vaulting systems, for the LME specifically stated in quite a recent submission to the LBMA that it will never rock the boat on LPMCL’s AURUM platform. When the LME presented to the LBMA in October 2014 in a pitch to win the contract for the LBMA Gold Price auction (which it didn’t secure), the pitch said that a centrally cleared solution “would only be introduced with market support and respecting LPMCL settlement“. [See right-hand box in below slide]:
In the same pitch, the LME also stated that:
“LME Clear fully respects existing loco London delivery mechanism and participants“
[See bottom line in below slide]:
Interestingly, following the announcement from the LME and the World Gold Council, the LBMA provided a very short statement that was quoted in the Financial Times, that said:
“The LBMA saw the announcement with interest and reconfirms it has no direct or indirect involvement in this project".
While that may be true, what the LBMA statement didn’t concede is that 5 of its member banks, 4 of which are LBMA market makers, do have a direct involvement in the LME / World Gold Council project. Nor did the LBMA statement acknowledge that settlement of the planned LME gold and silver contracts will use the LPMCL infrastructure, nor that the LPMCL is now in specific scope of the LBMA’s remit.
Recall that in October 2015, the LBMA announced that:
“the London Precious Metals Clearing company took part not only [in the LBMA] review, but we have now agreed to formalise our working relationship, with the LBMA providing Executive services going forward. I’m grateful to the LPMCL directors for their leadership and their support for removing fragmentation from the market."
With the LME contracts planning to use LPMCL, this ‘new dawn’ view of the LME / World Gold Council initiative is in my view mis-guided.
Even COMEX has more Transparency
Anyone familiar with the rudimentary vaulting and delivery procedures for gold and silver deliverable under the COMEX 100 oz gold and 5000 oz silver futures contracts will know that at least that system generates vault facility reports that specify how much eligible gold or silver is being stored in each of the designated New York vaults, the locations of the vaults, and also how much of the eligible gold or silver in storage has warehouse warrants against it (registered positions). The COMEX ‘system’ also generates data on gold and silver deliveries against contracts traded.
However, nothing in the above planned LME contract specs published so far gives any confidence that anyone will be the wiser as to how much gold or silver is in the London vaults backing up the trading of these spot and future contracts, how much gold or silver has been converted post-settlement to allocated positions in the vaults, nor how much gold or silver has been delivered as a consequence of trading in these spot and futures contract, nor importantly, where the actual participating vaults are.
This is because the LMPCL system is totally opaque and there is absolutely zero trade reporting by the LBMA or its member banks as to the volumes of gold and silver trading in the London market, and the volumes of physical metals held versus the volumes of ‘metal’ represented by unallocated account positions. Furthermore, the LBMA’s stated goal of introducing trade reporting looks as dead as a dodo, or at least as frozen as as a dodo on ice.
LBMA stall on Trade Reporting, LPMCL clear as Mud
On 9 October 2015, the LBMA announced that it had launched a Request for Information (RFI) asking financial and technology providers to submit help with formulating solutions to deficiencies which regulators thought the London bullion market such as the need for transparency, and issues such as liquidity that had supposedly been recommended as strategic objectives by consultant EY in its report to the LBMA, a report that incidentally has never been made publicly available. On 25 November 2015, the LBMA then announced that it had received 17 submissions to its RFI from 20 entities spanning “exchange groups, technology firms, brokers and data vendors".
On 4 February 2016, the LBMA then issued a statement saying that it was launching a Request for Proposals (rRfP) and inviting 5 of these service providers (a short-list) to submit technical solutions that would address requirements such as an LBMA data warehouse and that would support the introduction of services such as trade reporting in the London bullion market. The RfP statement said that the winning service provider would be chosen in Q2 2016, with a planned implementation in H2 2016.
However, no progress was announced by the LBMA about the above RfP during Q2 2016, nor since then. The only coverage of this lack of newsflow came from the Bullion Desk in a 27 May article titled “Frustration Grows over London Gold Market Reform" in which it stated that the 5 solution providers on the short-list were “the LME, CME Group, the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), Autilla/Cinnobar and Markit/ABS“, and that:
“the pace at which the LMBA is moving forward are causes for consternation in some quarters of the sector"
A quote within the Bullion Desk article seems to sum up the sentiment about the LBMA’s lack of progress in its project:
“It’s not going to happen any time soon. Look at how long it’s been going on already,” another market participant said. “Don’t hold your breath. It seems like we still have a long way to go.”
What could the hold up be? Surely 17 submissions from 20 entities that were whittled down to a short-list of 5 very sophisticated groups should have given the LBMA plenty of choice for nominating a winning entry. Whatever else this lack of progress suggests, it demonstrates that increased transparency in London gold and silver market trading data is not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.
Furthermore, the opacity of the London clearing statistics that are generated out of the LPMCL clearing system need no introduction to most, but can be read about here.
According to the LBMA, ‘Loco London’ “refers to gold and silver bullion that is physically held in London“, however, given the secrecy which surrounding trading data in the London gold and silver markets, and the lack of publication by any bank about the proportion of unallocated client balances in gold or silver that it maintains versus the physical gold or silver holdings that it maintains, this ‘loco London‘ term appears to have been abused beyond any reasonable definition, and now predominantly refers to debit and credit entries in the virtual accounting systems of London based bullion banks. Nor, in my opinion, will the LME contracts change any of this. One would therefore be forgiven in thinking that the real underlying inventories of gold and silver in the London market and their associated inverted pyramid unallocated account positions are too ‘precious’ to divulge to the market. The Bank of England is undoubtedly licking its chops to the continued opacity of the market.
And its not just my opinion. This latest LME / World Gold Council / investment bank announcement has generated other skeptical reactions. The last word goes to Jim Rickards, who tweeted this in reaction to the latest LME / World Gold Council news:
— Jim Rickards (@JamesGRickards) August 9, 2016
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