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What sets the Gold Price – Is it the Paper Market or Physical Market?


The following article is arranged in Question and Answer (Q & A) format. Through the Q & A approach, this article raises some important issues about price discovery in the gold markets and aims to explain the view that the gold price is being set by the paper gold markets.

BullionStar’s CEO Torgny Persson and precious metals analyst Ronan Manly are of the opinion that due to the structure of contemporary gold markets, it is primarily trading activity in the paper gold markets which sets the international price of gold.

Question: The international gold price is constantly quoted in the financial media alongside other major financial indicators. What is this international gold price, and how is it defined?The international gold price usually refers to the price of gold quoted in US Dollars per troy ounce as traded on the 24-hour global wholesale gold market (XAU/USD). Gold is traded non-stop globally during the entire business week, creating a continuum of international gold price quotes from Sunday evening New York time all the way through to Friday evening New York time. Depending on the context, this international gold price sometimes refers to a spot gold market quote, such as spot gold traded in London, and at other times may refer to the front month of a gold futures contract price as traded on the US Commodity Exchange (COMEX). The front month contract is a nearby month which will usually exhibit the highest trading volume and activity.

The international gold price can also at times be referring to the LBMA Gold Price benchmark price as derived during the London daily gold price auctions (morning and afternoon auctions). LBMA is an abbreviation for London Bullion Market Association.

Therefore, this ‘international price’ could be referencing a spot gold price, a futures gold price, or a benchmark gold price, but all three would, at a comparable time, be roughly similar in magnitude.

Question: Where does this international gold price come from, where is it derived?Recent empirical research has determined that gold price discovery is jointly driven by London Over-the-Counter (OTC) spot gold market trading and COMEX gold futures trading, and that the “international gold price” is derived from a combination of London OTC gold prices and COMEX gold futures prices. See “Who sets the price of gold? London or New York (2015)” by Hauptfleisch, Putni?š, and Lucey.

In general, the higher the trading volume and liquidity in a specific asset market, the more that market contributes to discovering prices for that asset. This is also true of the global gold market. Between them, the London OTC and New York trading venues account for the vast majority of global gold trading volume, and in 2015, the London OTC spot market represented approximately 78% of global gold market turnover while COMEX accounted for a further 8% (See Hauptfleisch, Putni?š, and Lucey (2015)).

Based on London gold clearing statistics for 2016, a quick calculation shows that total trading volume in the London OTC gold market is estimated to have been at least the equivalent of 1.5 million tonnes of gold in 2016, while trading volume of the 100 oz COMEX gold futures contract reached 57.5 million contracts during 2016, equivalent to 179,000 tonnes of gold. Gold trading volume on the London OTC gold market in 2016 was therefore about 8.4 times higher than trading volume in the COMEX 100 oz gold futures contract.

LBMA Unallocated Gold Trading
LBMA Unallocated Gold Trading, 1.5 million tonnes in 2016

However, COMEX has been found, by the above academic research, to have a larger influence on price discovery than London OTC, despite the lower trading volumes of COMEX. This is most likely due to a combination of factors such as COMEX’ accessibility and extended trading hours via use of the GLOBEX platform, the higher transparency of futures trading compared to OTC trading, and the lower transaction costs and ease of leverage in COMEX trading. In contrast, the London OTC gold market has limited trading hours (during London business hours), barriers to wider participation since it’s an opaque wholesale market without central clearing, and trading spreads which are dictated by a small number of LBMA bullion bank market-makers and a handful of London-based commodity brokerages.

The bottom line though is that both sets of trading statistics, London OTC and COMEX, are gigantic in comparison to the size of the underlying physical gold markets in London and New York.

Question: So, does the physical gold market or the paper gold market set this international price of gold?The international gold price is purely set by paper gold markets, in other words it is set by non-physical gold markets. Based on their respective gold market structures, the London OTC gold market and COMEX are both paper gold markets. Supply of and demand for physical gold plays no role in setting the gold price in these markets. Physical gold transactions in all other gold markets just inherit the gold prices that are discovered in these paper gold markets.

The London OTC gold market predominantly involves the trading of synthetic unallocated gold, where trades are cash-settled and not physically delivered (i.e. no delivery of physical gold). These synthetic gold transactions have little connection to any underlying gold holding, hence they are de-facto gold derivative positions. By definition, unallocated gold positions are just a series of claims on bullion banks where the holder is an unsecured creditor of the bank, and the bank has a liability to that claim holder for an amount of gold. The holder, on its side, takes on credit risk towards the bullion bank. The London OTC gold market is therefore merely a venue for trading gold credits.

The London OTC gold market is also one in which the bullion banking participants employ fractional-reserve gold trading to create large amounts of paper gold out of thin air (analogous to commercial lending), where the trading is also leveraged and opaque, and where this paper gold is only fractionally backed by physical gold. This “gold” is essentially synthetic gold. See BullionStar Gold university article “Bullion banking Mechanics” for further details on fractional-reserve gold trading.

Since COMEX only trades exchange-based gold futures contracts, it is, by definition, a derivatives market. Cash-settlement is the norm. Only 1 in 2500 gold futures contracts traded on COMEX is delivered with a transfer of warrants representing metal. The rest of the contracts are cash-settled. This means that 99.96% of COMEX gold futures contracts are cash-settled. See BullionStar US Gold Market Infographic for details.

Given COMEX trading gold futures and London trading synthetic unallocated gold, both the London and COMEX gold markets essentially trade gold derivatives, or paper gold instruments, and by extension, the international gold price is being determined in these paper gold markets.

Beyond the London OTC gold market and COMEX, all other gold trading venues are predominantly price takers that take in and use the gold prices established by the paper gold markets in London and New York. These other markets include physical gold markets around the world which look to the international gold price as an input into their domestic gold price setting mechanisms and conventions.

Question: Explain a little more about the market structures of these London OTC and COMEX markets?By definition, futures trading is trading of securities whose value is derived from an underlying asset but whose securities are distinct from those of the underlying asset, i.e. derivatives. COMEX gold futures contracts are derivatives on gold. COMEX registered gold stocks are relatively small, very little physical gold is ever delivered on COMEX, and even less physical gold is withdrawn from COMEX approved gold vaults. COMEX gold trading also employs significant leverage. Hauptfleisch, Putni?š, and Lucey (2015) state that “such trades [on COMEX] contribute disproportionately to price discovery”. Note that the COMEX gold futures market is actually a 24-hour market but its liquidity is highest during US trading hours.

Turning to the London OTC gold market, nearly the entire trading volume of the London OTC gold market represents trading in unallocated gold, which to reiterate, merely represents a claim by a position holder on a bullion bank for a certain amount of gold, a claim which is rarely exercised. London OTC gold trades also predominantly cash-settle. Traders, speculators and investors in unallocated gold positions virtually never take delivery of physical gold.

This is a fact confirmed by a UK HMRC / LBMA Memorandum of Understanding published in 2013 which states that in the London gold market “investors acquire an interest in the metals, although in most situations, physical delivery will not occur and in 95% of trades, trading in unallocated metals will be undertaken.” Additionally, in 2011, the then LBMA CEO Stuart Murray also confirmed that there were ‘very substantial amounts of unallocated gold’ held in London.

A 2015 legal opinion on unallocated gold drafted by respected global law firm Dentons describes unallocated gold as ‘synthetic’ gold and as a derivatives transaction.

Dentons states that “the reality of unallocated bullion trading is that buyers and sellers rarely intend for physical delivery to ever take place. Unallocated bullion is used as a means to have “synthetic” holdings of gold and so obtain exposure to the price of gold by reference to the London gold fixing.

Although the LBMA does not publish gold trading volumes on a regular basis, it did publish a one-off gold trading survey covering Q1 2011 in which it was revealed that during the first quarter of 2011, 10.9 billion ozs of gold (340,000 tonnes) were traded in the London OTC gold market. During the same period, 1.18 billion ozs of gold (36,700 tonnes) were cleared in the London OTC gold market. This would suggest a trading turnover to clearing turnover ratio of 10:1. In the absence of live trading data from the London OTC gold market, this 10:1 proxy ratio can continue to be applied as a multiplier to the LBMA London Gold Market daily clearing statistics, which are published every month, and which are always phenomenally high.

For example, average daily clearing volumes in the London Gold Market during January 2017 totalled 20.5 million ounces. That’s the equivalent 638 tonnes of gold cleared per day in London.  On a 10:1 trading to clearing multiple, that’s the equivalent of 6,380 tonnes of gold traded per day, or 1.6 million tonnes of gold traded per year.

Since there are only about 6,500 tonnes of gold stored in London, most of which represents static holdings of central banks, ETFs and other holders, the London OTC gold trading activities are totally disconnected from the underlying physical gold holdings. Furthermore, only about 190,000 tonnes of gold have ever been mined throughout history, half of which are estimated to be held in the form of jewellery. Therefore, the trading of nearly 6,500 tonnes of gold per day within the London OTC gold market has nothing to do with the physical gold market, yet perversely, this trading activity drives global gold price discovery and the pricing of physical bullion trades and transactions.

Revealingly, according to the LBMA bullion bankers who established the reporting of London gold clearing statistics, who specifically were the then LMPCL chairman, Peter Fava, and JP Morgan’s Peter Smith, these LBMA gold clearing statistics include trading activities such as “leveraged speculative forward bets on the gold price” and “investment fund spot price exposure via unallocated positions”, activities which are just side-bets on the gold price. See October 2003 article titled “Clearing the Air Discussing Trends and Influences on London Clearing Statistics“, from LBMA Alchemist Issue 32.

In essence, trading activity in the London gold market predominantly represents huge synthetic artificial gold supply, where paper gold trading is deriving the price of gold, not physical gold trading. Synthetic gold is just created out of thin air as a book-keeping entry and is executed as a cashflow transaction between the contracting parties. There is no purchase of physical gold in such a transaction, no marginal demand for gold. Synthetic paper gold therefore absorbs demand that would otherwise have flowed into the limited physical gold supply, and the gold price therefore fails to represent this demand because demand has been channelled away from physical gold transactions into synthetic gold.

Likewise, if an entity dumps gold futures contracts on the COMEX platform representing millions of ounces of gold, that entity does not need to have held any physical gold, but that transaction has an immediate effect on the international gold price. This has real world impact, because many physical gold transactions around the world take this international gold price as the basis of their transactions.

Although gold clearing volumes and the LBMA’s market survey provide some useful inputs into calculating London gold trading volumes, there is very little known publicly about how much physical gold actually trades in the London gold market. This is because the LBMA and its member banks choose not to reveal this information. There is no trade reporting in the London OTC gold market, no reporting of physical gold vault positions, no reporting of the unallocated gold liabilities of LBMA member bullion banks, and no reporting of how much physical gold in total these bullion banks retain to back up their fractional-reserve unallocated gold trading system. However, physical gold trading is by definition an extremely minuscule percentage of average daily trading volumes in the London OTC gold market. For details on the workings of the gold market in London, see BullionStar Infographic the “London Gold Market“.

While one of the three components that comprise the London gold clearing statistics is stated to be “physical transfers and shipments by LPMCL clearing members”, the LBMA doesn’t even see fit to publish a breakdown of these 3 components. This compounds the secrecy and is another example of where bullion banks and central banks keep the global gold market in the dark about how much gold is being physically transferred and shipped.

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