Gold’s price in December recorded the largest jump since January 2017.
And that’s after the last quarter of 2018 that saw investors pile into exchange-traded funds backed by bullion - the biggest increase over a comparable period in more than 18 months. The critical words here are “backed by bullion”, which is a statement that could mean anything or nothing.
Since times immemorial gold is money. Based on physical ownership, not on trust in the willingness and ability of another party to honor their promises. However, gold is not freely traded, it’s the most artificial market in the world. The daily gross trading on the LBMA (London Bullion Market Association) is about 16 times annual mine production (not the settlements but trading). So, it’s a real casino with paper claims that can never possibly be settled. The price of gold is where it is right now only because of this artificial trading.The only way the system will unravel is when people holding the paper claims will start worrying if they can take delivery. And they won’t be able to – there is just not enough physical gold to go around.
Germany has a stronger relationship with gold than most nations. The country’s experience with hyperinflation during the years of the Weimar Republic is ingrained in the national consciousness. Gold, above all, stands for stability. Today, Germany is one of the biggest holders of gold in the world: it owns 3,378 tonnes, second only to the US.
This time the critical word is “owns”.
In the times of the Cold War, the Germans, flush with cash from their export surplus, were hesitant to hold their gold in Frankfurt, which was not far from a Russian controlled part of Europe. They moved the gold west, to Paris and New York. This practice is not unusual, the Dutch, for example keep a big chunk of their gold in Ottawa. With the fall of Soviet Union and unification of Germany everything changed. When the Bundesbank first asked the New York Fed “can we please have our gold back?” they were politely told to go focus on something else. Then they requested to at least audit their gold storage but got a similar response. Eventually, in 2012 serious negotiations began with the goal to move German gold to Frankfurt. The German negotiating position was much enhanced by the leakage of a report from the German Court of Auditors, which was very critical of the conditions under which German gold was being held in New York.
Later, with big fanfare, Deutsche Bundesbank announced on February 9, 2017 that ahead of plan they had repatriated 300 tons of gold from New York. This put a positive spin on a rather disturbing fact: 1236 tons of gold that is supposed to be part of Germany’s currency reserve will continue to be kept outside of German control in New York.
Having to give a rationale for the more than 1200 tons of German gold in New York, the Bundesbank came up with the fact that it is so convenient to have it at the Fed, because many other countries have gold there. That way, you do not have to move the gold around, the logic went, if you want to sell it to some other country, you just have to re-designate it inside the Fed building.
Note, that the only situation in which it would become necessary to do this quickly and in large amounts would be when the dollar-based currency-system brakes down and countries insist on payment in gold again.
I guess the Bundesbank is keeping its options open.
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler