Hoisington Quarterly Review and Outlook – Fourth Quarter 2014

John Mauldin

Feb 11, 2015


Forecasting is a singularly difficult task and is more often than not fraught with failure. The Federal Reserve has some of the smartest economists in the world, and yet their forecasts are so wrong so often (as in, they almost never get it right) that some have pointed out that it’s almost statistically impossible to be as bad as the Fed. Yet they continue to issue such forecasts and to base economic and monetary policy on them. Go figure.

Their forecasts, like most economic predictions, are based on past performance. Intricate economic models look at history to try to determine the future relationships among economic determinants. I really shouldn’t pick on the Fed so much as point out that almost all of us in the forecasting business have dismal track records. The world has grown so complex that it is singularly difficult to understand the interrelationships of the million-odd factors that determine the outcome of an economy.

This is especially true during those periods when we see economic regime change. Not only is using past performance and relationships difficult, it can actually be misleading, as what is going to happen in a uniquely turbulent future has not been modeled in the past. I have been suggesting for some time that we are coming to the end of a long cycle and entering a period where past relationships will no longer hold. I have likened this to what happens when one approaches the boundary of a black hole in space. All known physical relationships are turned on their heads, and the math that works in the rest of the universe no longer applies.

For me, the massive amount of debt we have accumulated in our own planetary confines is the ecoomic equivalent of a black hole, and we are approaching the point at which that debt will implode if it is not resolved. As with Greece, the ability of players large and small to pay debt off in a global deflationary environment has been greatly compromised. I’m not certain how this will end. Maybe everyone will sit down and hammer out something like a Plaza Accord to resolve the debt, by which I mean dilute it, destroy it, make it go away, restructure it – whatever it takes. Of course, history suggests that we will do such a thing only in the middle of or immediately following a crisis.

Today’s Outside the Box is from our old friend Dr. Lacy Hunt of Hoisington Asset Management. He muses on the effects of debt and takes us back to the ’20s and ’30s, when there were similar problems with debt in countries that had engaged in currency wars for over a decade.

Clearly the policies of yesteryear and the present are forms of “beggar-my-neighbor” policies, which the MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics explains as follows: “Economic measures taken by one country to improve its domestic economic conditions … have adverse effects on other economies. A country may increase domestic employment by increasing exports or reducing imports by … devaluing its currency or applying tariffs, quotas, or export subsidies. The benefit which it attains is at the expense of some other country which experiences lower exports or increased imports.… Such a country may then be forced to retaliate by a similar type of measure.”

The existence of over-indebtedness, and its resulting restraint on growth and inflation, has forced governments today, as in the past, to attempt to escape these poor economic conditions by spurring their exports or taking market share from other economies. As shown above, it is a fruitless exercise with harmful side effects.

This is an important OTB, and it behooves us to pay attention, because Lacy has been one of the most accurate forecasters of interest rates for the last 20 to 30 years. He will also be at our conference in San Diego, where he is always one of the most highly rated speakers. And I want to express my appreciation to Lacy for once again letting us reproduce his work.

I send this Outside the Box to you from Little Cayman Island, where I am visiting my friend Raoul Pal at his beach house, which he just finished building. It is at the “far end” of a ten-mile-long by one-mile-wide island that is a libertarian paradise in that there is no government. Just some hundred-odd neighbors taking care of what needs to be done. With 10 MB broadband. Little Cayman is a bit of an island oddity, in that it is the tippy-top ridge of a very tall undersea mountain; just off the beaches, the Cayman Trench plunges to a depth of 25,000 feet, the deepest water in the Caribbean and one of the deeper trenches in the world. It is a scuba diver’s paradise, which pretty much drives the economy of the island.

While I was working, my companion went snorkeling some 20 feet off the beach from Raoul’s home. After she raved about the beauty and all the fish, I donned a little gear and for the first time in my life went snorkeling. I need to work on my snorkeling technique, but if Raoul invites us back, I will be better prepared. It was indeed a beautiful experience.

Raoul will also be presenting, along with his partner Grant Williams (of Things That Make You Go Hmmm… fame) at my conference, and he outlined what he thinks their presentation will cover. As is typical with Raoul and Grant, their approach to this talk is very fresh and different, focused on where global growth will go in the next few decades. Not exactly were you might expect it to go. I will be in the front row.

Raoul and Grant are the founders of RealVision TV, where they present in-depth interviews with famous investors. One of their concepts is to create a chain letter of sorts, by having a person who is interviewed find another fascinating person to interview. The interviewee then becomes the interviewer in the next round, and one great mind leads to another. Raoul led off by engaging Kyle Bass in a long-form interview that is fascinating. You can see it for free right here. There is also a special introductory price for Mauldin Economics readers to subscribe to RealVision.


Finally, I know there are many people who wonder about the lives of those of us who write about macroeconomics and investments for a living. Here is a picture of two of us (Raoul would be the handsome one) in typical working attire. It’s a hard-knock life.


As it turns out, I am actually hitting the send button from Grand Cayman Island, as we were summoned and rushed to the “airport” on Little Cayman to take a helicopter flight over to a nearby island where larger planes could land, because the small plane that usually services Little Cayman had broken down. Not a big deal, and as a bonus we had a helicopter tour of Little Cayman. I speak at the iCIO gathering this afternoon (hosted by Mark Yusko) and then speak at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit tomorrow morning, where my good friend Nouriel Roubini and I will trade ideas in front of 650 attendees. It should prove to be fun. Then we’ll have a few days of R&R (hopefully) and then head back to Dallas on Sunday. You have a great week.

Your wondering why I don’t work from a beach sometimes analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box



Hoisington Quarterly Review and Outlook – Fourth Quarter 2014


Deflation


“No stock-market crash announced bad times. The depression rather made its presence felt with the serial crashes of dozens of commodity markets. To the affected producers and consumers, the declines were immediate and newsworthy, but they failed to seize the national attention. Certainly, they made no deep impression at the Federal Reserve.” Thus wrote author James Grant in his latest thoroughly researched and well-penned book, The Forgotten Depression (1921: The Crash That Cured Itself).

Commodity price declines were the symptom of sharply deteriorating economic conditions prior to the 1920-21 depression. To be sure, today’s economic environment is different. The world economies are not emerging from a destructive war, nor are we on the gold standard, and U.S. employment is no longer centered in agriculture and factories (over 50% in the U.S. in 1920). The fact remains, however, that global commodity prices are in noticeable retreat. Since the commodity index peak in 2011, prices have plummeted. The Reuters/Jefferies/CRB Future Price Index has dropped 39%. The GSCI Nearby Commodity Index is down 48% (Chart 1), with energy (-56%), metals (-36%), copper (-40%), cotton (-73%), WTI crude (-57%), rubber (-72%), and the list goes on. In some cases this broad-based retreat reflects increased supply, but more clearly it indicates weakening global demand.


The proximate cause for the current economic maladies and continuing downshift of economic activity has been the over- accumulation of debt. In many cases debt funded the purchase of consumable and non- productive assets, which failed to create a future stream of revenue to repay the debt. This circumstance means that existing and future income has to cover, not only current outlays, but also past expenditures in the form of interest and repayment of debt. Efforts to spur spending through relaxed credit standards, i.e. lower interest rates, minimal down payments, etc., to boost current consumption, merely adds to the total indebtedness. According to Deleveraging? What Deleveraging? (Geneva Report on the World Economy, Report 16) total debt to GDP ratios are 35% higher today than at the initiation of the 2008 crisis. The increase since 2008 has been primarily in emerging economies. Since debt is the acceleration of current spending in lieu of future spending, the falling commodity prices (similar to 1920) may be the key leading indicator of more difficult economic times ahead for world economic growth as the current overspending is reversed.
 
Currency Manipulation

Recognizing the economic malaise, various economies, including that of the U.S., have instituted policies to take an increasing “market share” from the world’s competitive, slow growing marketplace. The U.S. fired an early shot in this economic war instituting the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing. The Fed’s balance sheet expansion placed downward pressure on the dollar thereby improving the terms of trade the U.S. had with its international partners (Chart 2).


Subsequently, however, Japan and Europe joined the competitive currency devaluation race and have managed to devalue their currencies by 61% and 21%, respectively, relative to the dollar. Last year the dollar appreciated against all 31 of the next largest economies. Since 2011 the dollar has advanced 19%, 15% and 62%, respectively, against the Mexican Peso, the Canadian Dollar and the Brazilian Real. Latin America’s third largest economy, Argentina, and the 15th largest nation in the world, Russia, have depreciated by 115% and 85%, respectively, since 2011.

The competitive export advantages gained by these and other countries will have adverse repercussions for the U.S. economy in 2015 and beyond. Historical experience in the period from 1926 to the start of World War II (WWII) indicates this process of competitive devaluations impairs global activity, spurs disinflationary or deflationary trends and engenders instability in world financial markets. As a reminder of the pernicious impact of unilateral currency manipulation on global growth, a brief review of the last episode is enlightening.
 
 
The Currency Wars of the 1920s and 1930s

The return of the French franc to the gold standard at a considerably depreciated level in 1926 was a seminal event in the process of actual and de facto currency devaluations, which lasted from that time until World War II. Legally, the franc’s value was not set until 1928, but effectively the franc was stabilized in 1926.

France had never been able to resolve the debt overhang accumulated during World War I and, as a result, had been beset by a series of serious economic problems. The devalued franc allowed economic conditions in France to improve as a result of a rising trade surplus. This resulted in a considerable gold inflow from other countries into France. Moreover, the French central bank did not allow the gold to boost the money supply, contrary to the rules of the game of the old gold standard. A debate has ensued as to whether this policy was accidental or intentional, but it misses the point. France wanted and needed the trade account to continue to boost its domestic economy, and this served to adversely affect economic growth in the UK and Germany. The world was lenient to a degree toward the French, whose economic problems were well known at the time.

In the aftermath of the French devaluation, between late 1927 and mid-1929, economic conditions began to deteriorate in other countries. Australia, which had become extremely indebted during the 1920s, exhibited increasingly serious economic problems by late 1927. Similar signs of economic distress shortly appeared in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Finland, Brazil, Poland, Canada and Argentina. By the fall of 1929, economic conditions had begun to erode in the United States, and the stock market crashed in late October.

Additionally, in 1929 Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil devalued their currencies and left the gold standard. Australia, New Zealand and Venezuela followed in 1930. Throughout the turmoil of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the U.S. stayed on the gold standard. As a result, the dollar’s value was rising, and the trade account was serving to depress economic activity and transmit deflationary forces from the global economy into the United States.

By 1930 the pain in the U.S. had become so great that a de facto devaluation of the dollar occurred in the form of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, even as the United States remained on the gold standard. By shrinking imports to the U.S., this tariff had the same effect as the earlier currency devaluations. Over this period, other countries raised tariffs and/or imposed import quotas. This is effectively equivalent to currency depreciation. These events had consequences.

In 1931, 17 countries left the gold standard and/or substantially devalued their currencies. The most important of these was the United Kingdom (September 19, 1931). Germany did not devalue, but they did default on their debt and they imposed severe currency controls, both of which served to contract imports while impairing the finances of other countries. The German action was undeniably more harmful than if they had devalued significantly. In 1932 and early 1933, eleven more countries followed. From April 1933 to January 1934, the U.S. finally devalued the dollar by 59%. This, along with a reversal of the inventory cycle, led to a recovery of the U.S. economy but at the expense of trade losses and less economic growth for others.

One of the first casualties of this action was China. China, on a silver standard, was forced to exit that link in September 1934, which resulted in a sharp depreciation of the Yuan. Then in March 1935, Belgium, a member of the gold bloc countries, devalued. In 1936, France, due to massive trade deficits and a large gold outflow, was forced to once again devalue the franc. This was a tough blow for the French because of the draconian anti-growth measures they had taken to support their currency. Later that year, Italy, another gold bloc member, devalued the gold content of the lira by the identical amount of the U.S. devaluation. Benito Mussolini’s long forgotten finance minister said that the U.S. devaluation was economic warfare. This was a highly accurate statement. By late 1936, Holland and Switzerland, also members of the gold bloc, had devalued. Those were just as bitter since the Dutch and Swiss used strong anti- growth measures to try to reverse trade d eficits and the resultant gold outflow. The process came to an end, when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, as WWII began.

It is interesting to ponder the ultimate outcome of this process, which ended with World War II. The extreme over-indebtedness, which precipitated the process, had not been reversed. Thus, without WWII, this so-called “race to the bottom” could have continued on for years.

In the United States, the war permitted the debt overhang of the 1920s to be corrected. Unlike the 1930s, the U.S. could now export whatever it was able to produce to its war torn allies. The income gains from these huge net trade surpluses were not spent as a result of mandatory rationing, which the public tolerated because of almost universal support for the war effort. The personal saving rate rose as high as 28%, and by the end of the war U.S. households and businesses had a clean balance sheet that propelled the postwar economic boom.

The U.S., in turn, served as the engine of growth for the global economy and gradually countries began to recover from the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. During the late 1950s and 1960s, recessions did occur but they were of the simple garden-variety kind, mainly inventory corrections, and they did not sidetrack a steady advance of global standards of living.
 
2015
 
As noted above, economic conditions, framework and circumstances are different today. The gold standard in place in the 1920s has been replaced by the fiat currency regime of today. Additionally, imbalances from World War I that were present in the 1920s are not present today, and the composition of the economy is different.

Unfortunately, there are parallels to that earlier period. First, there is a global problem with debt and slow growth, and no country is immune. Second, the economic problems now, like then, are more serious and are more apparent outside the United States. However, due to negative income and price effects on our trade balance, foreign problems are transmitting into the U.S. and interacting with underlying structural problems. Third, over- indebtedness is rampant today as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Fourth, competitive currency devaluations are taking place today as they did in the earlier period. These are a combination of monetary and/or fiscal policy actions and also, with floating exchange rates, a consequence of shifting assessments of private participants in the markets.

Clearly the policies of yesteryear and the present are forms of “beggar-my-neighbor” policies, which The MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics explains as follows: “Economic measures taken by one country to improve its domestic economic conditions ... have adverse effects on other economies. A country may increase domestic employment by increasing exports or reducing imports by ... devaluing its currency or applying tariffs, quotas, or export subsidies. The benefit which it attains is at the expense of some other country which experiences lower exports or increased imports ... Such a country may then be forced to retaliate by a similar type of measure.”

The existence of over-indebtedness, and its resulting restraint on growth and inflation, has forced governments today, as in the past, to attempt to escape these poor economic conditions by spurring their exports or taking market share from other economies. As shown above, it is a fruitless exercise with harmful side effects.
 
Interest Rates

The downward pressure on global economic growth rates will remain in place in 2015. Therefore record low inflation and interest rates will continue to be made around the world in the new year, as governments utilize policies to spur growth at the expense of other regions. The U.S. will not escape these forces of deflationary commodity prices, a worsening trade balance and other foreign government actions.

U.S. nominal GDP in this economic expansion since 2008 has experienced the longest period of slow growth of any recovery since WWII (Chart 3). Typical of the disappointing expansion, the fourth quarter to fourth quarter growth rate slowed from 4.6% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014. A further slowing of nominal economic growth to around 3% will occur over the four quarters of 2015. The CPI will subside from the 0.8% level for the period December 2013 to December 2014 (Chart 4), registering only a minimal positive change for 2015. Conditions will be sufficiently lackluster that the Federal Reserve will have little choice in their overused bag of tricks but to stand pat and watch their previous mistakes filter through to worsening economic conditions. Interest rates will of course be volatile during the year as expectations shift, yet the low inflationary environment will bring about new lows in yields in 2015 in the intermediate- and long-term maturities of U.S. Treasury securities.



Van R. Hoisington
Lacy H. Hunt, Ph.D.

Germany Emerges

By George Friedman

February 10, 2015 | 09:00 GMT   

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accompanied by French President Francois Hollande, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 6. Then she met with U.S. President Barack Obama on Feb. 9. The primary subject was Ukraine, but the first issue discussed at the news conference following the meeting with Obama was Greece. Greece and Ukraine are not linked in the American mind. They are linked in the German mind, because both are indicators of Germany's new role in the world and of Germany's discomfort with it.

It is interesting to consider how far Germany has come in a rather short time. When Merkel took office in 2005, she became chancellor of a Germany that was at peace, in a European Union that was united. Germany had put its demands behind it, embedding itself in a Europe where it could be both prosperous and free of the geopolitical burdens that had led it into such dark places. If not the memory, then the fear of Germany had subsided in Europe. The Soviet Union was gone, and Russia was in the process of trying to recover from the worst consequences of that collapse. The primary issue in the European Union was what hurdles nations, clamoring to enter the union, would have to overcome in order to become members.

Germany was in a rare position, given its history. It was in a place of comfort, safety and international collegiality.

The world that Merkel faces today is startlingly different. The European Union is in a deep crisis. Many blame Germany for that crisis, arguing that its aggressive export policies and demands for austerity were self-serving and planted the seeds of the crisis. It is charged with having used the euro to serve its interests and with shaping EU policy to protect its own corporations. The vision of a benign Germany has evaporated in much of Europe, fairly or unfairly. In many places, old images of Germany have re-emerged, if not in the center of many countries then certainly on the growing margins. In a real if limited way, Germany has become the country that other Europeans fear. Few countries are clamoring for membership in the European Union, and current members have little appetite for expanding the bloc's boundaries.

At the same time, the peace that Germany had craved is in jeopardy. Events in Ukraine have aroused Russian fears of the West, and Russia has annexed Crimea and supported an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Russia's actions have sparked the United States' fears of the re-emergence of a Russian hegemon, and the United States is discussing arming the Ukrainians and pre-positioning weapons for American troops in the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. The Russians are predicting dire consequences, and some U.S. senators are wanting to arm the Ukrainians.

If it is too much to say that Merkel's world is collapsing, it is not too much to say that her world and Germany's have been reshaped in ways that would have been inconceivable in 2005. The confluence of a financial crisis in Europe that has led to dramatic increases in nationalism — both in the way nations act and in the way citizens think — with the threat of war in Ukraine has transformed Germany's world. Germany's goal has been to avoid taking a leading political or military role in Europe. The current situation has made this impossible. The European financial crisis, now seven years old, has long ceased being primarily an economic problem and is now a political one. The Ukrainian crisis places Germany in the extraordinarily uncomfortable position of playing a leading role in keeping a political problem from turning into a military one.

The German Conundrum

It is important to understand the twin problems confronting Germany. On the one hand, Germany is trying to hold the European Union together. On the other, it wants to make certain that Germany will not bear the burden of maintaining that unity. In Ukraine, Germany was an early supporter of the demonstrations that gave rise to the current government. I don't think the Germans expected the Russian or U.S. responses, and they do not want to partake in any military reaction to Russia. At the same time, Germany does not want to back away from support for the government in Ukraine.

There is a common contradiction inherent in German strategy. The Germans do not want to come across as assertive or threatening, yet they are taking positions that are both. In the European crisis, it is Germany that is most rigid not only on the Greek question but also on the general question of Southern Europe and its catastrophic unemployment situation. In Ukraine, Berlin supports Kiev and thus opposes the Russians but does not want to draw any obvious conclusions. The European crisis and the Ukrainian crisis are mirror images. In Europe, Germany is playing a leading but aggressive role. In Ukraine, it is playing a leading but conciliatory role. What is most important is that in both cases, Germany has been forced — more by circumstance than by policy — to play leading roles. This is not comfortable for Germany and certainly not for the rest of Europe.

Germany's Role in Ukraine

The Germans did play a significant part in the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's government. Germany had been instrumental in trying to negotiate an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, but Yanukovich rejected it. The Germans supported anti-Yanukovich demonstrators and had very close ties to one of the demonstration leaders, current Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who received training in a program for rising leaders sponsored by the Christian Democratic Union — Merkel's party. The Germans condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for the Ukrainian secessionists in the east. Germany was not, perhaps, instrumental in these events, but it was a significant player.

As the Germans came to realize that this affair would not simply be political but would take on a military flavor, they began to back away from a major role. But disengagement was difficult.

The Germans adopted a complex stance. They opposed the Russians but also did not want to provide direct military support to the Ukrainians. Instead, they participated in the sanctions against Russia while trying to play a conciliatory role. It was difficult for Merkel to play this deeply contradictory role, but given Germany's history the role was not unreasonable.

Germany's status as a liberal democracy is central to its post-war self-conception. That is what it must be. Therefore, supporting the demonstrators in Kiev was an obligation. At the same time, Germany — particularly since the end of the Cold War — has been uneasy about playing a direct military role. It did that in Afghanistan but not Iraq. And participating in or supporting a military engagement in Ukraine resurrects memories of events involving Russia that Berlin does not want to confront.

Therefore, Germany adopted a contradictory policy. Although it supported a movement that was ultimately anti-Russian and supported sanctions against the Russians, more than any other power involved it does not want the political situation to evolve into a military one. It will not get involved in any military action in Ukraine, and the last thing Germany needs now is a war to its east. Having been involved in the beginnings of the crisis, and being unable to step away from it, Germany also wants to defuse it.

The Greek Issue

Germany repeated this complex approach with Greece for different reasons. The Germans are trying to find some sort of cover for the role they are playing with the Greeks. Germany exported more than 50 percent of its gross domestic product, and more than half of that went to the European free trade zone that was the heart of the EU project. Germany had developed production that far exceeded its domestic capacity for consumption. It had to have access to markets or face a severe economic crisis of its own.

But barriers are rising in Europe. The attacks in Paris raised demands for the resurrection of border guards and inspections. Alongside threats of militant Islamist attacks, the free flow of labor from country to country threatened to take jobs from natives and give them to outsiders.

If borders became barriers to labor, and capital markets were already distorted by the ongoing crisis, then how long would it be before weaker economies used protectionist measures to keep out German goods?

The economic crisis had unleashed nationalism as each country tried to follow policies that would benefit it and in which many citizens — not in power, but powerful nonetheless — saw EU regulations as threats to their well-being. And behind these regulations and the pricing of the euro, they saw Germany's hand.

This was dangerous for Germany in many ways. Germany had struggled to shed its image as an aggressor; here it was re-emerging. Nationalism not only threatened to draw Germany back to its despised past, but it also threatened the free trade essential to Germany's well-being.

Germany didn't want anyone to leave the free trade zone. The eurozone was less important, but once they left the currency bloc, the path to protectionism was short. Greece was of little consequence itself, but if it demonstrated that it would be better off defaulting than paying its debt, other countries could follow. And if they demonstrated that leaving the free trade zone was beneficial, then the entire structure might unravel.

Germany needed to make an example of Greece, and it tried very hard last week to be unbending, appearing to be a bit like the old Germany. The problem Germany had was that if the new Greek government wanted to survive, it couldn't capitulate. It had been elected to resist Germany. And whatever the unknowns, it was not clear that default, in whole or part, wasn't beneficial. And in the end, Greece could set its own rules. If the Greeks offered a fraction of repayment, would anyone refuse when the alternative was nothing?

Therefore, Germany was facing one of the other realities of its position — one that goes back to its unification in 1871. Although economically powerful, Germany was also extremely insecure.

Its power rested on the ability and willingness of other countries to give Germany access to their markets. Without that access, German power could fall apart. With Greece, the Germans wanted to show the rest of Europe the consequences of default, but if Greece defaulted anyway, the only lesson might be that default works. Just as it had been in the past, Germany was simultaneously overbearing and insecure. In dealing with Greece, the Germans could not risk bringing down the European Union and could not be sure which thread, if pulled on, would unravel it.

Merkel's Case in Washington

It was with this on her mind that Merkel came to Washington. Facing an overwhelming crisis within the European Union, Germany could not afford a war in Ukraine. U.S. threats to arm the Ukrainians were exactly what she did not need. It wasn't just that Germany had a minimal army and couldn't participate or, in extremis, defend itself. It was also that in being tough with Greece, Germany could not go much further before being seen as the strongman of Europe, a role it could not bear.

Thus, she came to Washington looking to soften the American position. But the American position came from deep wells as well. Part of it had to do with human rights, which should not be dismissed as one source of decision-making in this and other administrations. But the deeper well was the fact that for a hundred years, since World War I, through World War II and the Cold War, the United States had a single rigid imperative: No European hegemon could be allowed to dominate the Continent, as a united Europe was the only thing that might threaten national security. Therefore, regardless of any debate on the issue, the U.S. concern about a Russian-dominated Ukraine triggered the primordial fear of a Russian try at hegemony.

It was ironic that Germany, which the United States blocked twice as a hegemon, tried to persuade the United States that increased military action in Ukraine would not solve the problem. The Americans knew that, but they also knew that if they backed off now, the Russians would read it as an opportunity to press forward. Germany, which had helped set in motion both this crisis and the European crisis, was now asking the United States to back off.

The request was understandable, but simply backing off was not possible. She needed to deliver something from Putin, such as a pledge to withdraw support to Ukrainian secessionists. But Putin needed something, too: a promise for an autonomous province. By now Merkel could live with that, but the Americans would find it undesirable. An autonomous Ukrainian province would inevitably become a base for undermining the rest of the country.

This is the classic German problem told two ways. Both derive from disproportionate strength overlying genuine weakness. The Germans are trying to reshape Europe, but their threats are of decreasing value. The Germans tried to reshape Ukraine but got trapped in the Russian reaction. In both cases, the problem was that they did not have sufficient power, instead requiring the acquiescence of others. And that is difficult to get. This is the old German problem: The Germans are too strong to be ignored and too weak to impose their will.

Historically, the Germans tried to increase their strength so they could impose their will. In this case, they have no intention of doing so. It will be interesting to see whether their will can hold when their strength is insufficient.

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

by Ronan Manly

Posted on 9 Feb 2015



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

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

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

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

Because it’s a concept critical to the FRBNY stored gold, the concept of US Assay Office / Mint gold bar ‘Melts’ is also highlighted below. Melts are batches of gold bars, usually between 18 and 22 bars, that when produced, were stamped with a melt number and a fineness, but were weight-listed as one unit. The US Assay Office produced both 0.995 fine gold bars and coin bars as Melts. The gold bars in a Melt are usually stored together unless that melt has been ‘broken’.
New York Fed – Coin Bars ‘Я’ Us
I think it’s critical to note that a reference to low-grade ‘coin bars’ in the 1991 version of the Fed’s ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ (KTTGV) has been omitted in subsequent additions of KTTGV.

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

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

The butter yellow bars in the vault are nearly 100 percent pure and are usually made of newly mined gold.
 
Reddish bars contain copper and other impurities and generally consist of melted gold coins and jewellery containing alloys. Since 1968, a number of these “coin” bars, dating back to the early 1900s, have been stored in the Bank’s vault.
 
Silver and platinum impurities make gold white; iron produce shades of green.” (KTTGV 1991)

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

Traces of silver and platinum give the gold a whitish shade, copper is most often found in reddish bars, and iron produces a greenish hue.
 
The butter-yellow bars in the vault are made of newly mined gold.” (KTTGV 1991, 2004, 2008)
 
There is also no mention of coin bars on the current NY Fed gold information page here. This is despite the fact that there are still coin bars held in the Fed’s New York gold vaults, as illustrated by the US Treasury’s gold bar inventory weight lists at the FRBNY. See below.

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

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

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

“1934 LONDON GOOD DELIVERY LIST
 
Specification of bars acceptable on the London Gold Market
1. Gold bars conforming to the following specification are Good Delivery in the London market:
(a) Fine bars, i.e. bars assaying 995 per mille or over and containing between 350 and 430 ounces of fine gold;
 
(b) Coin bars, i.e. bars assaying 899 to 901 per mille or 915 1/2 to 917 per mille and containing between 350 and 420 ounces of fine gold; provided that they bear the stamp of the following:”
 
(Source: The London Good Delivery List – Building a Global Brand 1750 – 2010)
 
The 1934 definition specified that if a coin bar was produced by one of nineteen European mints or the United States Assay Office, then it was considered a ‘good delivery’ gold bar at that time. The European mints spanned Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland.

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

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

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

the (fixing) price was now quoted for 400-ounce / 995 Good Delivery bars, rather than the traditional 916 standard coin bars which rapidly became extinct as minting of coin virtually ceased.”
 
In the 19th century and very early 20th century, some refineries used to specifically produce ‘916 standard’ coin bars back that were used as a source to make gold coins. But the now famous 400 oz fine gold bars had been accepted by the Bank of England since 1871 when Sir Anthony de Rothschild convinced the Bank of England to accept them. The Bank of England had also begun to accept US Assay Office 400 oz bars of 995 fineness (fine bars) in 1919.

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

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

“The inclusion of mints (in the 1936 list) is interesting, suggesting that some like the Royal Mint in London, were melting coin, but there is little evidence of any producing significant quantities of bars.”
 
By the late 1920s, gold bar demand had shifted to central banks who wanted fine gold bars for their vaults. Green says that by 1929, 90 per cent of ‘monetary’ gold resided in these central bank vaults.

(Source:  “The London Good Delivery List – Building a Global Brand 1750 – 2010. Authors: Timothy Green (Part I) and Stewart Murray (Part II). Published by the LBMA, 2010)
Roosevelt’s Coin Bars
Apart from melted coins from Europe, there is another significant source of coin bars, namely the coin bars produced from US gold coins that were melted down during the US gold confiscation period circa 1933-1934.

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

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

“It is understood that the bars (produced by the US Mint / AssayOffices) had a minimum purity of 995+ parts gold in 1,000 parts, with the exception of those 400 oz bars that contained “Coin Gold”.
 
“Coin Gold” 400 oz bars were manufactured by melting down and then casting into bars gold coins that had been withdrawn from public circulation, mainly as a result of the prohibition in 1933 of private gold ownership in the United States. The gold purity of these bars reflected the purity of U.S. gold coins, usually 900 or 916 parts gold in a 1,000 parts. 
 
Roosevelt news
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In an article about the US confiscation and the US coins that were actually melted, lawyer and coin expert David Ganz demonstrates that there were not a large amount of US gold coins melted by the US authorities in the 1930s.

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

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

Ganz says “All told, over 124 million coins were melted through the years (102 million gold coins were melted as a result of government assistance from 1933- 1939).”

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

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

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

Since there were not that many European coin bars made by European mints in the 1930s (for example, the Royal Mint 1930 programme made only 650-700 tonnes of coin bars), then there cannot have been more than a few thousand tonnes of European coin bars entering the US at that time.
 
 999.5 US Assay Office
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Coin Bars ceased to be ‘Good Delivery’ bars in 1954
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During World War II the London Gold Market essentially closed down and really only re-opened in March 1954 when the Gold Fixing restarted. When the London Gold Market re-opened, a  new 1954 London Good Delivery List for gold was published. This list only included gold bars of 0.995 fineness or higher, and coin bars ceased to be London good delivery standard. As Stewart Murray, former LBMA CEO says: “The new List published in 1954 only allowed fine bars of 995+.” (page 40, “Good Delivery Accreditation – A Short History”).

It’s therefore very strange that the Fed’s 1991 ‘Key to the Gold Vault’ publication states that it was only “since 1968″ that  “a number of these ‘coin bars’, dating back to the early 1900s, have been stored in the Bank’s vault.” This implies that coin bars were not at the New York Fed gold vaults immediately prior to 1968.
Why would these coin bars suddenly appear at the FRBNY vault in 1968? To answer this question, its important to recall that 1968 was the year in which the London Gold Pool collapsed (March 1968).

Since coin bars have not been good delivery bars since 1954, US Treasury coin bars appear to have begun to turn up in the New York gold vaults in 1968 because there was a shortage of good delivery US Assay Office gold bars to satisfy foreign central bank gold transaction settlements.
Scraping the barrel – March 1968
That the US Treasury and Federal Reserve had a major shortage of good delivery gold in March 1968 is illustrated by a Bank of England memo from 14th March 1968, which highlights that the London Gold Pool collapsed because the US monetary authorities were unable to find any good delivery gold in their own stocks, and were confronted with the prospect of having to supply their Fort Knox low-grade ‘coin bars’ to the market.

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

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

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

“1. The current specification of bars which are good delivery in the London market requires that they shall be of a minimum fineness of .995 and shall have a minimum gold content of 350 fine ounces and a maximum of 430 fine ounces.”
 
“2. In the 1930s when the Bank were delivering bars to the market to satisfy French demands for gold, they had to deliver coin bars and the specification in the 1930’s included bars not only .995 fine but coin bars assaying between .899 and .901 and also .915 1/2 to .917. Bars of both varieties had to contain between 350 and 430 ounces of fine gold.”
 
“3. It has emerged in conversations with the Federal Reserve Bank that the majority of the gold held at Fort Knox is in the form of coin bars, and that in certain cases these bars have a gold content of less than 350 fine ounces. If the drain on U.S. stocks continues it is inevitable that the Federal Reserve Bank will be forced to deliver what bars they have.
 
Capacity to further refine coin bars to the current minimum fineness of .995 in the United States is entirely inadequate to cope with conversion on the scale that would be required if the Americans wished to continue to deliver bars assaying .995 or better. Equally the capacity in the U.K. is inadequate for this task.”
 
The Fed asked the Bank of England to discuss the situation with Rothschilds (the chair of the gold market) at partner level. The memo then covers some discussion with Mr Bucks and Mr Hawes of Rothschilds about the acceptability of delivering coin bars to the London Gold Market. Supplying the market with coin bars was thought by the Bank and Rothschilds to be problematic, and the memo concluded, somewhat ominously:

“it would appear that the circumstances might well be such that very few bars of the current acceptable fineness could be found” (by the Americans)
Ominously, because, as some readers will be aware, the London Gold Pool collapsed that evening, Thursday 14th March 1968. On the following day, 15th March 1968, an emergency bank holiday was called for British financial markets, the London gold market remained closed (and stayed close for the next two weeks), and the gold price began to float for non-official transactions.
Migration of Coin Bars from FRBNY to the Bank of England
That foreign central banks were provided with coin bars at the New York Fed is a fact, as illustrated by the following.

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

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

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

H. David Willey was “formerly Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in charge of the discount window, and later responsible for oversight of the Federal Reserve’s accounts (including gold) with foreign central banks (1964-82); advisor to Morgan Stanley’s gold and fixed-income business (1982-2000).
(Source: Page 62: https://www.aier.org/sites/default/files/publications/GC%20%2704%20-%20Text.pdf)

A central bank would only be confronted with a need to convert its FRBNY coin bar holdings to good delivery gold and move them to London if it didn’t have any 995 fine gold at the FRBNY. As to how many banks engaged in this activity and sent their coin bars to the refineries is unclear.
US Treasury coin bars
While some foreign central banks seem to have tried to get rid of their non-good delivery coin bars over the years by having them melted down, there are still coin bars held in the New York Fed vault(s).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header FRBNY - UST gold
Schedule of US Treasury gold held at the FRBNY

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

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

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

All the bars listed in the Treasury’s Compartment J are US Assay Office coin bars, listed in melts.

This amounts to 968,000 fine ounces, or about 30 tonnes. See the following two screenshots.

FRBNY Compartment J - coin bars of the US Treasury 1
FRBNY Compartment J - coin bars of the US Treasury 2

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

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

FRBNY Compartment E - non US Assay Office coin bars of the US Treasury B
FRBNY Compartment E - non US Assay Office coin bars of the US Treasury C
Source: http://financialservices.house.gov/uploadedfiles/112-41.pdf

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

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

The LBMA’s London Good Delivery List is a list of refineries worldwide whose gold bars are acceptable by the London Gold Market. This list contains two parts, a current list and a former list.

The former list includes refineries whose gold bars are still accepted by the London Gold Market but who no longer produce these gold bars.

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

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

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

US Assay Office gold bar MELTS

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

Here’s the Federal Reserve Board explaining 0.995 Melts:

“US Assay Office bars, like bars in other countries, are produced in melts or a series of bars, numbered in succession. For instance, melt No. I contains 20 bars. Hence, the bars are stamped 1-1, 1-2, etc… , 1-20.”
 
“US Assay Office bars are gold bars that are originally issued by the US Assay Office and that have not been mutilated and which, if originally issued in the form of a melt, are re-deposited as a complete melt. These bars are not melted and assayed. They weigh approximately 400 troy ounces, the fineness of their gold content is .995 (99.5% purity or better), and they come in complete melts.
 
“When an US Assay Office bar is removed from a melt, it is referred to as a mutilated US Assay Office bar.”
 
Source: ‘Final report of the gold team’, draft June 30th, 2000. Page 13 of document: (http://www.clintonlibrary.gov/assets/storage/Research-Digital-Library/holocaust/Holocaust-Theft/Box-227/6997222-final-report-of-gold-team.pdf)

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

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

“1/ A melt is an original cast of a number of bars, usually between 18 and 22. The bars of an unbroken melt are stamped with the melt number and fineness but weight-listed as one unit; when a melt is broken, individual bars must be weighed and stamped for identification. It is the practice in New York and Paris to keep melts intact.”
swiss
Swiss National Bank refining operations
The Swiss National Bank (SNB) admits that it too has held non-good delivery gold, and has sought, over a 30 year period from 1977-2007, to get it refined to good delivery status:

The National Bank has commissioned numerous refining operations during the last thirty years in order to obtain the ‘good delivery’ quality label for its entire gold holdings.
Swiss gold refining firms were prepared to undertake these operations free of charge, as the SNB provided them, in return, with a ‘working capital’ of several tonnes – more than was strictly necessary for their activity on behalf of the central bank.
 
This mutually profitable arrangement was challenged in 1982, when the SNB’s legal services concluded that it raised a number of problems, in particular that it effectively constituted an unsecured advance, similar to a gold loan. The National Bank’s deposits with refining firms were therefore liquidated in the same year, and subsequently, the cost of refining operations was invoiced directly to the SNB.“
 
(page 433, section 8.2 The National Bank’s gold operations, from the 800+ page publication “The Swiss National Bank 1907 – 2007” (large file: 800+ pages.)

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

The Curious Case of the German Bundesbank

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

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

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

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

SMELT dictionary definition: Smelt (verb):

1. to fuse or melt (ore) in order to separate the metal contained
2. to obtain or refine (metal) in this way.

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

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

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

in the Link attached you will find more information about your matter.

 http://www.bundesbank.de/Redaktion/EN/Pressemitteilungen/BBK/2014/2014_01_21_gold_en.html
Yours sincerely, DEUTSCHE BUNDESBANK
 
Since I had asked about ‘coin bars’ and the Bundesbank had sent me a link to the press release about smelting, could the Bundesbank have been conceding that the smelting was of coin bars? Quite Possibly.

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

“Some of the bars in our stocks in New York were produced before the Second World War.”
“Our internal audit team was present last year during the on-site removal of gold bars and closely monitored everything. The smelting process is also being monitored by independent experts.”
 
“The very same gold arrived at the European gold smelters that we had commissioned.”
 
“The gold was removed from the vault in the presence of the internal audit team and transported to Europe. Only once the gold had arrived in Europe was it melted down and brought to the current bar standard.”
 
The frequent use of the words ‘smelting’ and ‘smelters’, in my opinion, suggests that not only were the Bundesbank’s gold bars melted and reformed into fresh bars, but that the gold was smelted and refined from a lessor purity to a ‘good delivery’ purity. This is why the opaque manoeuvres of the Bundesbank suggest ‘coin bars’.

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

Bundesbank bar display
From 5 to 50 tonnes
The 2013 five tonne smelting mystery was merely a prelude to much more of the same in 2014, because in January 2015, the Bundesbank issued a press release in which it claimed to have repatriated 85 tonnes of gold from the FRB in New York, of which approximately 50 tonnes was melted and recast.

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

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

“The Bundesbank press release from yesterday (see link below) refers to the fact that 50 tonnes of gold that was repatriated from the Federal Reserve in New York was recast / remelted before being received by the Bundesbank.
 
Can you clarify what the gold fineness (parts per thousand of gold in the bars) of these 50 tonnes of bars was before they were recast / remelted?

The Bundesbank replied to my email:

“Please understand that we do not provide any information on the physical details of single gold bars owned by Deutsche Bundesbank. Nevertheless, we would like to draw your attention on the fact that no irregularities where found concerning the gold melted down and recast according to the London Good Delivery standard. Please take into account that this standard asks i.a. for a minimum fineness of 995 parts per thousand.“
(i.a.= inter alia = among other things)
 
Notwithstanding that I didn’t ask about single gold bars, its very interesting that the Bundesbank mentions 995. Why mention the fineness of 995? If the bars were already 995, why melt them down in the first place?

I then sent the Bundesbank a follow-up email:

“Thanks for the reply but I wasn’t asking about the details of single gold bars. 
My question is what was the average fineness of the 50 tonnes of gold bars that the Bundesbank had remelted in 2014. That’s the average fineness on approximately 4,000 bars. 
 
The Bundesbank replied:

“Please understand that we do not provide any further information on the
details of specific gold bars or a specific amount of gold bars owned by
Deutsche Bundesbank.”
 
In my view, the Bundesbank’s complete secrecy on this smelting issue speaks volumes. And you also see now that the Bundesbank cannot give a straight answer when asked simple questions about its gold.

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

In January 2014 Thiele said:

“The Bundesbank has repatriated the gold from New York City in close cooperation with the Bank for International Settlements. “The Bank for International Settlements is a repository of expertise in the repatriation of gold. It is a very trustworthy institution.”
 
In January 2015 Thiele said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Dutch

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

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

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

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

“De voorraad in New York voldoet echter niet aan de standaarden die gelden op de internationale goudmarkt, de zogenoemde Londense ‘good delivery’ standaard. Het grootste verschil is dat de baren in New York niet zijn geïndividualiseerd, maar onderdeel zijn van een pakket van circa 20 baren waarbij het pakket als geheel een gewicht en nummer heeft. Door de baren in het pakket individueel te wegen en te nummeren, konden deze op‘good delivery’ standaard worden gebracht.”
 
(Source: “Gold Management of the Bank” by Jan Lamers, Senior Policy, Financial Markets Division. http://web.archive.org/web/20081117183716/http://www.dnb.nl/binaries/goudbeheer%20van%20DNB_tcm46-146095.pdf pages 7-8 of the pdf.)

So, the fact that the Dutch didn’t need to smelt anything but the German’s did shows that the bars that the Germans sent to the European Smelters were not regular 995 fine US Assay Office bars. If the Germans had possessed 995 US Assay Office bars, they would just need to be weighed and individually stamped with their weights, not melted down and recast.
 
The fact that the Bundesbank will not publish any weight lists is very suspicious. Even the US Treasury published their weight lists of their bars held at the FRBNY (see above).
 
Peter Boehringer, of the German ‘Repatriate our Gold’ campaign, says that allegedly, the bar lists of the gold that the Bundesbank had melted have now been destroyed. If this has happened, then this is further bizarre behaviour from the Bundesbank.
 
There are various other theories apart from ‘coin bars’ as to why the Bundesbank may have wanted to melt down gold bars from New York but the other alternatives are also embarrassing to the bar holder.
 
The old bars may have had cracks or fissures in them. This has happened to some of the old gold that is stored in the Bank of England as this report from 2007 shows.  The Bank of England spokesman at the time said:
 
“This is not about purity, this is about physical appearance.”
 
Speaking of Peter Boehringer, a recent Bloomberg article from February 2015 about Boehringer and the Bundesbank gold quoted a Bundesbank spokesman as telling Bloomberg, on the subject of gold melting, that:
 
meeting the London good delivery standard “cannot be reduced entirely to the weight of a gold bar but needs to take various other features into account, one criterion being the outer appearance.”
 
However, this Bloomberg article is the first time that the Bundesbank has mentioned ‘appearance’ of bars, and to me it looks like a story that keeps changing, possibly with some inspiration from the Bank of England 2007 story.
 
Cracks and fissures in 55 tonnes of gold would be quite alarming given that the LBMA said that ‘defects’ are ‘fortunately not typical!’ (see slide 13 here), and this would throw the quality of all the Fed’s New York held gold into doubt.
 
The quality of US Assay Office 995 fine bars was seen to be less than perfect by London refiners in 1968, as demonstrated by this 2012 article from Zerohedge, but if the Bundesbank was melting down US Assay Office 995 fine bars this would also be an alarm bell for all holders of similar gold. And why would the Dutch not think its necessary to melt down their repatriated US Assay Office bars if the Germans thought this was a problem?
 
The Bundesbank gives some details of a gold swap with the FRB back in 1968, and claim that a portion of the gold returned to the  Bundesbank (the return leg of the gold swap) was gold of a lessor quality than good delivery. They say “the remaining bars with a countervalue of $750 million were of a different quality”. This is absolutely not correct. All of the gold bars returned to the Bundesbank in that potion of the swap were good delivery US Assay Office bars and a lot of it came from Ottawa where the Fed had sourced some bars from the Canadians.

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

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

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