As South Africa Reels From Unexpected Bailout, One Bank Has A Modest Proposal: Give Us Your Gold

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In a historic first, three days ago, South Africa's Rand Merchant Bank, a division of FirstRand Bank Limited, announced it would issue the FirstRand Gold Bond, or a bond denominated in South African Krugerrand gold coins. In other words, for the first time "holding" gold will pay a dividend (or in this case, interest). Sound odd? Maybe because it is.

Here is the statement from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange:

The Gold Bond has a term of five years and the first issue amounts to R2 billion. It requires investors to buy Krugerrands, which they then lend to FirstRand when purchasing the bond. At its expiry the value of the bond is determined by the current gold price, the Dollar/Rand exchange rate and the interest earned. This interest is calculated in terms of ounces of gold as represented by Krugerrands. Investors may take physical delivery of the Krugerrands on maturity or opt to get settled in cash.

Or they may end up with nothing if the bank is "suddenly" found to be insolvent. The marketing pitch is clear: have your gold and collect interest on it:

"The notes provide direct exposure to the rand gold price and a positive yield in the form of interest ounces payable on maturity. It offers both inflation and rand/dollar exchange rate protection while avoiding the significant storage and administration costs associated with other direct gold investment options available. Current market conditions are particularly attractive for gold investment because of rand/dollar weakness and expectations of higher inflation," says RMB Debt Capital Markets co-head Dale Wood.

 

Investors may not hold gold in unwrought form according to South African law; however they still need to pay for the administrative costs associated with holding and storing gold when they invest in products which track the price of gold. These costs are eliminated by the Gold Bond because investors earn a yield on the bond instead of paying fees. Investors can also opt to take physical delivery of the underlying gold because it is in the form of Krugerrands which are legal tender in South Africa. "Investors also benefit as they are able to buy and sell the Gold Bonds on the JSE, with RMB acting as a market facilitator to ensure liquidity and price transparency of the notes," says Wood.

In an attempt to get as many possible investors, the issuer has made the smallest bond denomination anyone can participate in this once in a lifetime opportunity to collect 0.5% per year for their gold: "Investors can also get a Gold Bond note with a single Kruger rand, which means that retail investors can use it to gain exposure to the gold price. Investors who already own Krugerrands can use the Gold Bond to achieve the same exposure to the gold price they would have enjoyed when physically holding Krugerrand coins, while also earning interest on the bond."

So is this truly a can't miss opportunity for institutions and, better yet, retail investors?

It all depends on one's quantification of counterparty risk: if the owner of gold believes that it makes sense to have someone else hold the gold in exchange for a meager sliver of interest, then by all means yes. The problem is that increasingly gold owners realize that possession is critical when it comes to the shiny metal in a world in which paper claims on gold are rehypothecated countless times. Which is surely the main attraction of the physical metal for all those who increasingly believe that the financial system is the precipice of completely collapse. Perhaps FirstRand Bank underestimated this part of the sales pitch.

However, one entity for which the deal makes perfect sense is none other than FirstRand Bank, because all the bank is doing is paying someone a nominal fee in order to be a gold holder. What it does with that gold subsequently is anyone's guess, and good luck trying to demand receipt of physical if something should happen to the bank.

But perhaps the biggest question is why now? This BBC report from two days ago should answer the question:

Shares in South Africa's largest banks fell on Wednesday, following downgrades from the ratings agency Moody's.

Standard Bank, FNB, Nedbank and ABSA, which is owned by Barclays, were all downgraded on Tuesday and Moody's warned of more possible ratings cuts.

 

The move comes a week after South Africa's central bank bailed out the smaller lender African Bank. Last week the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) announced a rescue plan for African Bank, a smaller lender that specialised in unsecured loans. The SARB bought up around $700m of bad loans from African Bank, but some investors still lost out.

 

On Monday, another lender, Capitec, saw its shares plunge after seeing its rating downgraded.

And some more from BusinessReport:

South Africa's decision to rescue a small lender seen as neither “too big” nor “too interconnected” to fail shows that taxpayers worldwide may have to accept that bank bailouts are here to stay.

 

When South Africa's central bank recently announced a $700 million (520 million euro) rescue of faltering African Bank Investments Limited, it scarcely made a splash outside the country. The bottom line, at least for the rest of the world, was that African Bank is not very big and not very important.

 

The bank's managers made far too many bad loans to too many South Africans who could not afford to pay them back.

Because it had not asked borrowers to put up their car or any other asset as collateral, it was left with a massive hole in its balance sheet when they failed to pay.

 

African Bank is not one of South Africa's “big-four” - Standard Bank, FNB, Nedbank or ABSA (Barclays Africa) - which are deeply enmeshed in the global financial system.

In other words, South Africa is just the latest country to undergo a banking sector crisis. But don't worry: "The South African Reserve Bank insisted the country's banking sector remained "healthy and robust."

So what does one of these "healhty and robust", but not systematic, banks do? It has a modest proposal: please give us your gold, for which generous offer we will pay you a whopping 0.5% per year.

Good luck.

P.S. why not just borrow the gold from the BIS, or are they also out?