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Robert Lambourne: After sharp rise in November, BIS gold swaps ended the year at zero
By Robert Lambourne
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Based on its December statement of account, published today --
-- the Bank for International Settlements, the central bank of the central banks and their gold broker, appears to have closed its gold swap business as of the end of the year.
It has been a rather wild ride for the bank's gold swap business since October, as the estimate for that month showed only 7 tonnes of gold swaps outstanding, and then In November the estimated volume of swaps rose dramatically to 105 tonnes.
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It may be notable that the BIS has also recently published its guidance on how to complete the reports required under the revised Basel III reporting now being implemented.
The reduction in swaps more recently has been linked to the requirements of Basel III for more capital to be held in support of these transactions.
As is usually the case with the BIS, it seems unlikely that more information about the swaps will be released. It is also possible that the worsening outlook for the finances of Western nations, especially the United States, reduces the attraction of the gold swaps to the BIS and the central bank or banks for which the BIS seemingly has been acting.
As is clear from Table B below, the level of BIS swaps had been significantly higher in the first half of the year, and the October and December totals were easily the lowest in more than four years.
Table A below highlights the level of gold swaps reported in the annual reports of the BIS all the way back to 2010, when the bank's use of gold swaps appears to have begun. At only one year-end since then, in March 2016, has the swap level been zero.
The BIS' half-year report to September 30, 2022, has also just been published, and while it offers no direct comment on the use of gold swaps, its disclosures include confirmation that the BIS still holds 102 tonnes of its own gold and that very little of its activities in derivatives are with central banks.
An assumption that the gold held by the BIS remains at 102 tonnes has been used to make the estimate of the gold swap level for December. The low level of derivatives using central banks as counterparties disclosed in the last interim report is taken as a reason to assume that the swaps are almost certainly done with gold bullion banks rather than central banks. Historically, the first swaps described below were done with bullion banks.
While not necessarily related to the reduction in swaps sourced by the BIS, the recent strength of the gold price together with the conundrum facing the U.S. Federal Reserve about raising dollar interest rates must reduce the attraction of having to return swapped gold to bullion banks. Despite the rhetoric about pushing for higher interest rates, the Federal Reserve needs to avoid an erosion of confidence in the U.S. Treasuries market when the federal government's rising debt is becoming more controversial.
Also, recent increases in interest rates are already hitting federal government finances. The recently published December Monthly Treasury Report focuses in its Highlights section on the federal government's interest charge of $107 billion in the month. This is a higher interest charge than would arise on a full accruals basis, but is still rising sharply:
This appears to be the first month when the reported interest bill has exceeded $100 billion. An annual interest cost of maybe $800 billion in the current fiscal year seems possible even without further interest rate increases. In these circumstances the room for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates seems really limited and hence it seems unwise for the BIS, probably acting as an agent for the Fed, to face future deliveries of gold via the use of swaps, since the parlous state of U.S. government finances is probably a significant boost for gold.
... Historical context
The BIS rarely comments publicly on its gold activities, but its first use of gold swaps was considered important enough to cause the bank to give some background information to the Financial Times for an article published July 29, 2010, coinciding with publication of the bank's 2009-10 annual report.
The general manager of the BIS at the time, Jaime Caruana, said the gold swaps were "regular commercial activities" for the bank, and he confirmed that they were carried out with commercial banks and so did not involve central banks. It also seems highly likely that the BIS' remaining swaps are still all made with commercial banks, because the BIS annual report has never disclosed a gold swap between the BIS and a major central bank.
The swap transactions potentially created a mismatch at the BIS, which may have ended up being long unallocated gold (the gold held in BIS sight accounts at major central banks) and short allocated gold (the gold required to be returned to swap counterparties). This possible mismatch has not been reported by the BIS.
The gold banking activities of the BIS have been a regular part of the services it offers to central banks since the bank's establishment 90 years ago. The first annual report of the BIS explains these activities in some detail:
A June 2008 presentation made by the BIS to potential central bank members at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, noted that the bank's services to its members include secret interventions in the gold and foreign exchange markets:
The use of gold swaps to take gold held by commercial banks and then deposit it in gold sight accounts held in the name of the BIS at major central banks doesn’t appear ever to have been as large a part of the BIS’ gold banking business as it has been in recent years, although the recent declines suggest this is changing.
As of March 31, 2010, excluding gold owned by the BIS, there were 1,706 tonnes held in the name of the BIS in gold sight accounts at major central banks, of which 346 tonnes or 20% were sourced from gold swaps from commercial banks.
If the BIS was adopting the level of disclosures made by publicly held companies, such as commercial banks, some explanation of these changes probably would have been required by the accounting regulators. This irony may not be lost on those dealing with regulatory activities at the BIS. Presumably the shrinkage of the BIS' gold banking business shows that even central banks now prefer to hold their own gold or hold it in earmarked form -- that is, as allocated gold.
A review of Table B below highlights recent BIS activity with gold swaps, and despite the recent declines, the recent positions estimated from the BIS monthly statements have regularly been large, especially in early 2022, and the volume of trading has been significant.
No explanation for this continuing use of swaps has been published by the BIS. Indeed, no comment on the bank's use of gold swaps has been offered since 2010.
This gold is supplied by bullion banks via the swaps to the BIS. The gold is then deposited in BIS gold sight accounts (unallocated gold accounts) at major central banks such as the Federal Reserve.
The reasons for this activity have never been fully explained by the BIS and various conjectures have been made as to why the BIS has facilitated it. One conjecture is that the swaps are a mechanism for the return of gold secretly supplied by central banks to cover shortfalls in the gold markets. The use of the BIS to facilitate this trade suggests of a desire to conceal the rationale for the transactions.
As can be seen in Table A below, the BIS has used gold swaps extensively since its financial year 2009-10. No use of swaps is reported in the bank's annual reports for at least 10 years prior to the year ended March 2010.
The February 2021 estimate of the bank's gold swaps (552 tonnes) was higher than any level of swaps reported by the BIS at its March year-end since March 2010. The swaps reported at March 2021 were at the highest year-end level reported, as is clear from Table A.
Table A -- Swaps reported in BIS annual reports
March 2010: 346 tonnes.
March 2011: 409 tonnes.
March 2012: 355 tonnes.
March 2013: 404 tonnes.
March 2014: 236 tonnes.
March 2015: 47 tonnes.
March 2016: 0 tonnes.
March 2017: 438 tonnes.
March 2018: 361 tonnes.
March 2019: 175 tonnes
March 2020: 326 tonnes
March 2021: 490 tonnes
March 2022: 358 tonnes
The table below reports the estimated swap levels since August 2018. It can be seen that the BIS is actively involved in trading gold swaps and other gold derivatives with changes from month to month reported in excess of 100 tonnes in this period.
Table B - Swaps estimated by GATA from BIS monthly statements of account
Month ….. Swaps
& year … in tonnes
Dec-22 ... /0
Nov-22 ... /105
Dec-22 ... /0
Nov-22 ... /105
Oct-22 ..... /7
Aug -22 ..... /75
Jul-22 ..... /56
Jun-22 ..... /202
May-22 ..... /270
Apr-22 ..... /315
Mar-22 .... /358
Feb-22 .... /472
Jan-22 ..... /501
Sep-21 .... /438
Aug-21 .... /464
Jul-21 .... /502
Apr-21 .... /472
Jan-21 .... /523
Dec-20 .... /545
Nov-20 .... /520
Oct-20 .... /519
Jul-20 ..... / 474
Jun-20 .... / 391
May-20 .... / 412
Apr-20 .... / 328
Mar-20 .... / 326*
Feb-20 .... / 326
Jan-20 .... / 320
Dec-19 .... / 313
Nov-19 .... / 250
Oct-19 .... / 186
Sep-19 .... / 128
Aug-19 .... / 162
Jul-19 ..... / 95
Jun-19 .... / 126
May-19 .... / 78
Apr-19 ..... / 88
Mar-19 .... / 175
Feb-19 .... / 303
Jan-19 .... / 247
Dec-18 .... / 275
Nov-18 .... / 308
Oct-18 .... / 372
Sep-18 .... / 238
Aug-18 .... / 370
± The estimate originally reported by GATA was 487 tonnes, but the BIS annual report states 490 tonnes, It is believed that slightly different gold prices account for the difference.
* The estimate originally reported by GATA was 332 tonnes, but the BIS annual report states 326 tonnes. It is believed that slightly different gold prices account for the difference.
GATA uses gold prices quoted by USAGold.com to estimate the level of gold swaps held by the BIS at month-ends.
As noted already, the BIS in recent times has refused to explain its activities in the gold market, nor for whom the bank is acting:
Despite this reticence the BIS has almost certainly acted on behalf of central banks in taking out these swaps, as they are the BIS' owners and control its Board of Directors.
This refusal to explain prompts some observers to believe that the BIS acts as an agent for central banks intervening surreptitiously in the gold and currency markets, providing those central banks with access to gold as well as protection from exposure of their interventions.
As mentioned above, it is possible that the swaps provide a mechanism for bullion banks to return gold originally lent to them by central banks to cover bullion bank shortfalls of gold. Some commentators have suggested that a portion of the gold held by exchange-traded funds and managed by bullion banks is sourced directly from central banks.
Robert Lambourne is a retired business executive in the United Kingdom who consults with GATA about the involvement of the Bank for International Settlements in the gold market.
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