There was a time when the merest mention of gold manipulation in "reputable" media was enough to have one branded a perpetual conspiracy theorist with a tinfoil farm out back. That was roughly coincident with a time when Libor, FX, mortgage, and bond market manipulation was also considered unthinkable, when High Frequency Traders were believed to "provide liquidity", or when the stock market was said to not be manipulated by the Fed, and when the ever-confused media, always eager to take "complicated" financial concepts at the face value set by a self-serving establishment, never dared to question anything. Luckily, all that changed in the past several years, and it has gotten to the point where even the bastions of "serious", if 3-5 years delayed, investigation are finally not only asking how is the gold market being manipulated, but are actually providing answers.
Such as Bloomberg.
The topic of gold market manipulation during the London AM fix is not new to Zero Hedge: in fact we have discussed both the historical basis and the raison d'etre of the London gold fix, as well as the curious arbitrage available to those who merely traded the AM-PM spread, for years. Which is why we are delighted that none other than Bloomberg has decided to break it down for everyone, as well as summarize all the ways in which just this one facet of gold trading is being manipulated.
Every business day in London, five banks meet to set the price of gold in a ritual that dates back to 1919. Now, dealers and economists say knowledge gleaned on those calls could give some traders an unfair advantage when buying and selling the precious metal. The London fix, the benchmark rate used by mining companies, jewelers and central banks to buy, sell and value the metal, is published twice daily after a telephone call involving Barclays Plc, Deutsche Bank AG, Bank of Nova Scotia, HSBC Holdings Plc and Societe Generale SA.
The fix dates back to September 1919, less than a year after the end of World War I, when representatives from five dealers met at Rothschild’s office on St. Swithin’s Lane in London’s financial district. It was suspended for 15 years, starting in 1939. While Rothschild pulled out in 2004 and the discussions now take place by telephone instead of in a wood-paneled room at the bank, the process remains much the same.
That much is known. What is certainly known is that any process that involves five banks sitting down (until recently literally) and exchanging information using arcane methods (such as a telephone), on a set schedule that involves a private information blackout phase, even if temporary, and that does not involve instant market feedback, can and will be gamed. "Traders involved in this price-determining process have knowledge which, even for a short time, is superior to other people’s knowledge,” said Thorsten Polleit, chief economist at Frankfurt-based precious-metals broker Degussa Goldhandel GmbH and a former economist at Barclays. “That is the great flaw of the London gold-fixing."
There are other flaws.
Participants on the London call can tell whether the price of gold is rising or falling within a minute or so, based on whether there are a large number of net buyers or sellers after the first round, according to gold traders, academics and investors interviewed by Bloomberg News. It’s this feature that could allow dealers and others in receipt of the information to bet on the direction of the market with a high degree of certainty minutes before the fix is made public, they said.
Yes, the broader momentum creation and ignition perspective is also known to most. At least most who never believed the boilerplate that unlike all other asset classes, gold is somehow immune from manipulation.
“Information trickles down from the five banks, through to their clients and finally to the broader market,” Andrew Caminschi, a lecturer at the University of Western Australia in Perth and co-author of a Sept. 2 paper on trading spikes around the London gold fix published online in the Journal of Futures Markets, said by phone. “In a world where trading advantage is measured in milliseconds, that has some value.”
Ah, hypothetical - smart. One mustn't ruffle feathers before, like in the case of Libor, it becomes fact that everyone was in on it.
There’s no evidence that gold dealers sought to manipulate the London fix or worked together to rig prices, as traders did with Libor. Even so, economists and academics say the way the benchmark is set is outdated, vulnerable to abuse and lacking any direct regulatory oversight. “This is one of the most concerning fixings I have seen,” said Rosa Abrantes-Metz, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business whose 2008 paper, “Libor Manipulation?” helped spark a global probe. “It’s controlled by a handful of firms with a direct financial interest in where it’s set, and there is virtually no oversight -- and it’s based on information exchanged among them during undisclosed calls.”
Unless we are wrong, there was no evidence of Libor manipulative collusion before there was evidence either. And since the cabal of the London gold fix is far smaller than the member banks of Libor, it is exponentially easier to confine intent within an even smaller group of people. But all that is also known to most.
As is the fact that when asked for comments, 'spokesmen for Barclays, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Societe Generale declined to comment about the London fix or the regulatory probes, as did Chris Hamilton, a spokesman for the FCA, and Steve Adamske at the CFTC. Joe Konecny, a spokesman for Bank of Nova Scotia, wrote in an e-mail that the Toronto-based company has “a deeply rooted compliance culture and a drive to continually look toward ways to improve our existing processes and practices."
Next, Bloomberg conveniently goes into the specifics of just how the gold price is manipulated first by the fixing banks, then by their "friends and neighbors" as news of the fixing process unfolds.
At the start of the call, the designated chairman -- the job rotates annually among the five banks -- gives a figure close to the current spot price in dollars for an ounce of gold. The firms then declare how many bars of the metal they wish to buy or sell at that price, based on orders from clients as well as their own account.
If there are more buyers than sellers, the starting price is raised and the process begins again. The talks continue until the buy and sell amounts are within 50 bars, or about 620 kilograms, of each other. The procedure is carried out twice a day, at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. in London. Prices are set in dollars, pounds and euros. Similar gauges exist for silver, platinum and palladium.
The traders relay shifts in supply and demand to clients during the calls and take fresh orders to buy or sell as the price changes, according to the website of London Gold Market Fixing, which publishes the results of the fix.
.. only this time the manipulation is no longer confined to a purely theoretical plane and instead empirical evidence of the fixing leak is presented based on academic research:
Caminschi and Richard Heaney, a professor of accounting and finance at the University of Western Australia, analyzed two of the most widely traded gold derivatives: gold futures on Comex and State Street Corp.’s SPDR Gold Trust, the largest bullion-backed exchange-traded product, from 2007 through 2012.
At 3:01 p.m., after the start of the call, trading surged to 47.8 percent above the average for the 20-minute period preceding the start of the fix and remained 20 percent higher for the next six minutes, Caminschi and Heaney found. By comparison, trading was 8.7 percent higher than the average a minute after publication of the price. The results showed a similar pattern for the SPDR Gold Trust.
“Intuitively, we expect volumes to spike following the introduction of information to the market” when the final result is published, Caminschi and Heaney wrote in “Fixing a Leaky Fixing: Short-Term Market Reactions to the London P.M. Gold Price Fixing.” “What we observe in our analysis is a clustering of trades immediately following the fixing start.”
The researchers also assessed how accurate movements in gold derivatives were in predicting the final fix. Between 2:59 p.m. and 3 p.m., the direction of futures contracts matched the direction of the fix about half the time.
From 3:01 p.m., the success rate jumped to 69.9 percent, and within five minutes it had climbed to 80 percent, Caminschi and Heaney wrote. On days when the gold price per ounce moved by more than $3, gold futures successfully predicted the outcome in more than nine out of 10 occasions. “Not only are the trades quite accurate in predicting the fixing direction, the more money that is made by way of a larger price change, the more accurate the trade becomes,” Caminschi and Heaney wrote. “This is highly suggestive of information leaking from the fixing to these public markets.”
Oh please, 9 out of 10 times is hardly indicative of any wrongdoing. After all, JPM lost money on, well, zero trading days in all of 2013, and nobody cares. So if a coin landing heads about 200 times in a row is considered normal by regulators, then surely the CTFC will find nothing wrong with a little gold manipulation here and there. Manipulation, which it itself previously said did not exist. But everyone already knew that too.
Cynicism aside, to claim that this clearly gamed process is not in fact gamed, not to say criminally manipulated (because it is never manipulation unless one is caught in the act by enforcers who are actually not in on the scheme) is the height of idiocy. Which is why we are certain that regulators will go precisely this route. That too is also largely known. Also known are the benefits for traders who abuse the London fix:
For derivatives traders, the benefits are clear: A dealer who bought 500 gold futures contracts at 3 p.m. and knew the fix was going higher could make $200,000 for his firm if the price moved by $4, the average move in the sample. While the value of 500 contracts totals about $60 million, traders may buy on margin, a process that involves borrowing and requires placing less capital for the bet. On a typical day, about 4,500 futures contracts are traded between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m., according to Caminschi and Heaney.
Finally what is certainly known is that the "London fixing" fix would be very simple in our day and age of ultramodern technology, and require a few minutes of actual implementation.
Abrantes-Metz, who helped Iosco formulate its guidelines, said the gold fix’s shortcomings may stretch beyond giving firms and clients access to privileged information. “There is a huge incentive for these banks to try and influence where the benchmark is set depending on their trading positions, and there is almost no scrutiny,” she said.
Abrantes-Metz said the gold fix should be replaced with a benchmark calculated by taking a snapshot of trading in a market where $19.6 trillion of the precious metal circulated last year, according to CPM Group, a New York-based research company. “There’s no reason why data cannot be collected from actual prices of spot gold based on floor or electronic trading,” she said. “There’s more than enough data.”
Which is precisely why nothing will change. Sadly, that is also widely known.
So did Bloomberg put together an exhaustive article in which virtually everything was known a priori? it turns out the answer is no: we learned one thing.
London Gold Market Fixing Ltd., a company controlled by the five banks that administers the benchmark, has no permanent employees. A call from Bloomberg News was referred to Douglas Beadle, 68, a former Rothschild banker, who acts as a consultant to the company from his home in Caterham, a small commuter town 45 minutes south of London by train. Beadle declined to comment on the benchmark-setting process.
You learn something new every day (incidentally, the same Douglas Beadle who acted as a consultant to the LBMA until March 2010 and was involved from the outset in the project to find a suitable scale for the electronic weighing of gold as documented in "Electronic Weighing of Gold - A Success Story").