Submitted by Jeffrey Snider – Alhambra Investment Partners
The simple fact of the matter is that gold is no longer money and hasn’t been treated that way in decades. It is a frustrating and often woeful outcome, but deference isn’t a reason to color judgement. As an investment, which is more like what gold has become, it isn’t all that straight, either. Gold behaves in many circumstances erratically; often violently so. In 2008, gold crashed three times; but it also came back (and then some) three times. The metal remains stuck in some orthodox limbo of duality, sometimes acting an investment while at others, more rarely, as almost reclaiming its former status.
The junction of that dyad format is wholesale collateral. It is a difficult and dense topic because it plumbs the very depths of the wholesale arrangement – factors like leasing, swaps and collateralized lending through binary bespoke arrangements. It is there that I think it helps to form the narrative, however, starting by reviewing what the BIS was up to in late 2009 and early 2010. I am going to borrow heavily from an article I wrote in April 2013 that describes the events in question but this is one of those times when you should read the whole thing.
Back in July 2010, the Wall Street Journal caused some commotion when it happened to notice in the annual report for the Bank for International Settlements the sudden appearance of gold swap operations to the tune of 346 tons. Subsequent investigation by media outlets, including the Financial Times, reported that the BIS had indeed swapped in 346 tons of gold holdings from ten European commercial banks. That was highly unusual in that gold swaps are typically conducted between and among central banks.
Included in that list of commercial banks were, according to the Financial Times, HSBC, BNP Paribas and Société Générale. The timing of the swaps was pinned down to sometime between December 2009 and January 2010 – just as the world was getting reacquainted with the Greek Republic.
In other words, “dollar” problems had been reborn despite QE1 and ZIRP (and the follow-on programs at the ECB, SNB and elsewhere) because European banks, in particular, had swapped “toxic” MBS collateral for “toxic” PIIGS sovereigns. Now, like MBS before it, even government bonds were becoming non-negotiable in repo (haircuts) and derivative collateral. Stuck not long after the last crisis, banks were in a tight spot since no central bank appeared ready to commit to another great effort so soon risking what they found a fragile but fruitful early revival. Banks then turned to the BIS in what only can be interpreted as great desperation for survivorship.
The amount of physical bullion purchased by private investors in the decade of the 2000’s had ended at custodial accounts in various commercial banks. Some of these investors were discerning and suspicious enough to demand allocated accounts. Some were not. Unallocated gold can get pooled into a house custodial account with rights over custody being retained by the bank, not the investor. In this case, said investor owns not gold, but rather a bank liability payable in gold.
Unallocated gold in pooled accounts residing in a bank with growing funding stress makes for a rather easy liquidity target. The gold market offers depth in a broad range of currencies. Gold markets are also very well interconnected, between the physical market in London and various paper markets, particularly the CME in Chicago.
In the case of the large gold swap in 2010, the commercial banks accessed dollar liquidity “off-market” since the BIS simply held the bullion in its custody. Being accustomed to holding physical gold, it did have $23 billion, about 1,200 tons already on account, meant no additional hassle. The BIS surely incurred storage and administrative costs, but they would easily be absorbed by the interest rate the banks would pay on this collateralized loan (essentially the gold swap in this case amounted to a dollar denominated loan with gold bullion held as collateral by the BIS).
The reason that customers’ unallocated gold was such an “easy liquidity target” for banks in tight spots was that gold in that position had become a liability of the bank rather than being construed, as it should have under purely monetary terms, in constructivebailment. Unallocated gold was nothing more than another kind of deposit account; you didn’t actually own gold but possessed instead a financial claim on gold through the bank. Under bank liability, the bank may do what it wishes so long as it presumes meaningful care in being able to deliver any physical gold (not specific bars) upon convertibility.
On December 7, 2011, the Financial Times reported that:
Gold dealers said that banks – primarily based in France and Italy – had been actively lending gold in the market in exchange for dollars in the past week
There were rumors (admittedly unsubstantiated to this day) that a large bank (or two) in France was to be declared insolvent on December 8; only a week earlier, on November 30, 2011, the Fed had announced a sudden alteration to its dollar swap lines with five reciprocating central banks, both reducing the cost (OIS +50 instead of OIS +100) but more intriguingly mentioning “temporary bilateral swap agreements so that liquidity can be provided in each jurisdiction in any of their currencies should market conditions so warrant.” Then on December 8, the ECB announced their trillion, the LTRO’s.
On November 30, 2011, the Fed finally relented to unlimited dollar swaps at a low premium (OIS + 50). But still banks were looking to gold leases. So much so that we have no idea at what rates these transactions were occurring. The same Financial Times article cited above quoted “traders” as indicating:
“…few, if any, banks were likely to receive the published rates since they have been skewed in recent months by a widespread reluctance among bullion banks to take gold for dollars.”
The implication here is that “markets” had no reasonable idea how desperate for dollars some banks had become. It is no surprise in that context that the very day after the Financial Times published that article the ECB announced its massive lending facilities through the LTRO’s. In conjunction with the Fed’s swap lines, the two central banks, coordinating with other central banks, aimed to end the liquidity crisis through massive money stock means.
The relevance of this particularly unnoticed angle in the 2011 re-crisis is the behavior of gold since that point. As noted a few days ago, gold has only come lower as if to signal the “deflationary” impulse of the imploding eurodollar; and that makes sense as that particular time and flow of circumstances was in many ways convincing that there was never going to be a possible pathway to recreating or revisiting the pre-crisis financial system – as every central bank intended and still intends to this day.
What we don’t know, probably can’t know, is how much gold was traded and where it all ended up during that time. In the more traditional setup of gold swaps, the practical effect was for producers to dislodge stored gold sitting in central bank vaults around the world. It was win-win for central banks because they got to both actualize gold into an interest-earning investment while also, through quite dubious accounting rules, never admitting that gold was gone (all activity contained under a single line item: gold and gold receivables; and you never knew how much was the latter and how little the former).
The 2011 episode with the BIS reversed in many ways the causal flows of physical, assuming it was physical at all. Commercial banks that had been receiving customer deposits of the metal were now turning it over the central bank of central banks out of “dollar” (and euro, likely even euroeuro) desperation. While we can’t figure out where the physical gold ends up, we can at least recognize the fingerprints of the gold collateral/liquidity arrangement in various forms such as the stretching of claims on gold in “physical” markets such as COMEX; the more gold swaps churn physical or its approximates, the more opportunity there was to create “paper supply.”
This is the hard part for those who appreciate real money, as money is itself an asset without liability. But here are banks and central banks abusing gold to turn it into just another agent of rehypothecation – further distorting capitalism’s foundational respect for property rights into more financial terms that obey no such constraint (MF Global being the institution caught at it). I wrote about this in May 2013, explaining why, in general, gold leasing in these kinds of situations is negative on gold price:
The accounting rules are such that the central bank continues to hold “gold” on its books despite the leasing arrangement that moved that actual physical metal into the marketplace. Thus the market has actual gold sold into it while central banks report no loss of supply (under the accounting line “gold and gold receivables”). Since these are opaque transactions, nobody really knows what has been leased out and what actually remains.
Gold lending takes a similar form. Banks typically hold client gold in unallocated accounts – this is intentional since unallocated accounts have smaller fees and clients have not been educated as to the legal distinctions. Unallocated gold is a liability of the bank; the client continues to hold title to physical bullion, but that is in the form of a “paper” promise by the bank to deliver future gold. Often, the agreement that creates the unallocated arrangement even allows for the bank custodian to settle the client claim in cash under certain circumstances.
Therefore, the bank can use the unallocated metal toward its own purposes, in exactly the same way that prime brokers rehypothecate hedge fund credit holdings in margin accounts. In a gold lending relationship, the bank uses the unallocated gold as collateral for cash (in whichever currency is needed, which is one of the appeals of using bullion for collateral). Now, the gold is in the hands of an intermediary that, apart from any haircut set with the borrowing bank, is at price risk. The cash lending bank will either sell the gold outright, since it only has to replace metal at the end of the agreement, or hedge its collateral position (based on the cost of selling futures).
That would also hold for central bank claims in the prevailing leg of an earlier swap arrangement. Like rehypothecated treasury securities in repo, all that matters is balance sheet ledgers between counterparties agree on balance at the end of the day; each and every day. So long as that happens, there are no cascading triggers that reveal the fractioning.
While my intent in revisiting the gold crash in 2013 was to add to the weight of financial warnings that have occurred almost regularly since then about the fate of the global “dollar” system, it was a ZeroHedge article from yesterday that brought it further into focus – particularly the current unknown (out)flow of physical metal that “somehow” left undisturbed the futures volume (the paper gold). From that article:
This means that the ratio which we have been carefully tracking since August 2015 when it first blew out, namely the “coverage ratio” that shows the total number of gold claims relative to the physical gold that “backs” such potential delivery requests, – or simply said physical-to-paper gold dilution – just exploded.
As the chart below shows – which is disturbing without any further context – the 40 million ounces of gold open interest and the record low 74 thousand ounces of registered gold imply that as of Monday’s close there was a whopping 542 ounces in potential paper claims to every ounces [sic] of physical gold. Call it a 0.2% dilution factor.
Is that the anguishing end of years of “dollar” liquidity being literally swapped for physical and paper gold? Much more so the latter? It is, of course, impossible to determine but there are so many corroborating factors that the suggestion is at the very least compelling; and thus why gold has been warning about the eurodollar system since 2013 and really 2011. The fact that gold had so much collateral appeal at that time speaks to that very notion; the artificial MBS “toxic waste” that stood for it during the ravenous runup to 2007 was no sustainable substitute for a small monetary system, let alone the global predicate for global finance and trade.
To that fact, banks were forced throughout 2007-09 and again in 2011 (2013 too? How about 2015?) to alternate funding means no matter how distasteful (to the eurodollar practitioner, gold stands against all of it). Wholesale banking in its purest distillation is a system that seeks to fraction every kind of liability no matter original intent or even customer intent (banks are the central focus, where their balance sheet and financial resources stand as “money”) – to the point of fractions upon fractions; rehypothecations of rehypothecations. It went so badly that the system seems to have repurposed gold once more, the only asset where fractioning is still sensitive enough to signal the desperation. In other words, if the eurodollar and wholesale banking system had been sliced to such a thin margin again by 2011 so as to so heavily depend on the modern duality of gold, it not only would not survive it literally could not survive. The paper dilution we see now may just be that judgement finally seeking open admission.