Thursday, July 31, 2014

How Safe Are Unallocated Bullion Accounts?

Imagine you owned a small business. It’s a retail store and you sell a physical product which lines the shelves. You need to keep a variety of different products to ensure that customers who enter your store have plenty of choice. Not only do you have to stock a range of goods, but you have to keep a lot of each on hand as customers often purchase in bulk, due to fluctuating prices (they may buy large quantities when they believe it is well priced). As the store owner you have to hedge your exposure to the fluctuating price of the product you keep on hand to reduce the chance of getting caught on the wrong side of a price swing, this adds further complexity to managing your inventory.

The products you sell are expensive, this is no $2 store where your entire inventory only totals a few thousand dollars, almost all of your products cost over $20 each and up to $44,000 or more, remembering that you have to keep multiple of each in stock for those customers who want to purchase in bulk. The worst of it is you can only charge a small mark-up on the products (over cost price), otherwise your customers will go elsewhere. Obviously the capital you need for running this store will be substantial. Likely to be in the millions of dollars.

Now imagine there was a way to offer such a wide selection of expensive products, but have your customers fund the capital costs to do so… sounds too good to be true?! They will essentially pre-purchase your stock (allowing them to lock in the price they want), which provides substantial capital for putting product on your shelves. The customer can come in and use their store credit to make a purchase from your product range and take delivery at a time of their choosing. All you have to do as the store owner is promise your customers that you won’t take more funds from them than you have product on your shelves.

…you’ve probably worked out by now that I’m talking about the challenges faced by a bullion dealer. I have a lot of respect for those in the industry, it’s a cut-throat business with small margins and high volumes, lots of regulations to abide by and is littered with risks. However, as a consumer of their services, I have to think about the safety of my own capital first.

The solution I talk about above, where the customer can provide capital for stocking a larger product range, is unallocated bullion accounts. Unallocated accounts have become a popular offering from bullion dealers in Australia over the last few years, I suspect this is partially a result of an increase in the number of bullion dealers trading and also boosted by the closure of new funds to Perth Mint’s Unallocated Silver Accounts (as of March 2011, Unallocated Gold remains open at this time). The advance in functionality of bullion dealers online stores means the process to buy unallocated metal today is very easy, sign up an account, hit the buy button and transfer the money to the dealers bank account.

There are some benefits for a customer purchasing unallocated metal (as opposed to taking delivery of physical). There’s generally no cost charged for storage, the premium (over spot) charged will be lower allowing exposure to a larger number of ounces (e.g. $5000 buys 192 1 ounce silver coins at $26/oz, but buys 208 ounces of unallocated Silver at $24/oz), you don’t have to pay for delivery and it’s easier to trade (for example a dealer may offer Gold:Silver Ratio swaps or to buy it back at the click of a button). I have used unallocated accounts from two Australian bullion dealers in the past and may do so in the future, but I manage the risk by limiting my exposure to an amount I'd feel comfortable losing (the same amount that I'd risk placing any single order with a dealer).

This brings me to the problem I have with unallocated accounts. One of the reasons I own precious metals is that they have a lower level of counter-party risk compared with traditional assets such as shares. Buying precious metals in unallocated form potentially exposes the client to the solvency of the company offering the service, which is counterproductive to the reasons I hold precious metals.

The ownership (title) of the bullion in an unallocated account is a grey area and will likely differ depending on the specific setup for each dealer. I've had it explained that some bullion dealers in Australia have structured their unallocated products so that the client retains ownership of the metal in the event of bankruptcy, but I'm not an accountant or lawyer, so even if I was shown 'proof' of these claims I'd not trust myself to be confident that was definitely the case. I haven't seen any bullion dealer with a Product Disclosure Statement on their website outlining the offer, ownership structure, how the metal is treated and risks, most of them provide little more than a few sentences describing their unallocated products.

After reading the above you may be wondering how likely is the collapse of a well established bullion dealer offering an unallocated product?

It's not something that has occurred very often, the last recorded instance that I've been made aware of was back in 1996 with the collapse of "Perth Bullion Exchange" (of Sydney, not to be confused with any current trading entities with similar names). This particular case was highlighted in a Sunday Mail article where a couple had written to "The Fixer". They had purchased 20 bars of silver bullion totaling $12,900 (in 1993-1994) for which they had certificates showing ownership and when they went to redeem their metal in 1998 the business had vanished. The Fixer managed to track down the bankruptcy proceedings and the couple supposedly got around half their money back following the sale of the companies assets:

Perth Bullion Exchange had been trading for some 18 years at the time of their bankruptcy (via records of the bankruptcy proceedings). Over those years they had offered various services that would be comparable to some unallocated accounts today (keeping in mind that all dealers do things a little differently). Early on their certificates of ownership stated that "THE ABOVE INGOT IS BEING STORED BY THIS EXCHANGE - FULLY COVERED BY INSURANCE AND FREE OF STORAGE CHARGE UNTIL REQUIRED", other customers had received notification that "The Perth Bullion Exchange agrees to store these ingots free of charge under the best security available on the condition that we may use the physical bullion in the normal course of our business". As prices for bullion fell and the bankrupt's business deteriorated, the owner progressively sold all his stock of bullion. At the date of the sequestration order, the bankrupt was in possession of various giftware, jewellery, fixtures and fittings (but no bullion).

There was little warning of Perth Bullion Exchange's demise, in fact just several months prior the Sydney Morning Herald ran a positive article
(read in full here) on the company describing a proprietor who was interested in floating the company publicly:

Another example, this time in New Zealand, was that of Goldcorp Exchange Ltd, Wikipedia summarises:
Goldcorp Exchange Ltd had a business of holding gold reserves in coins and ingots for customers wishing to invest in gold. Some gold was held for customers, but the levels varied from time to time. The company's employees also told customers that the company would maintain a separate and sufficient stock of each type of bullion to meet their demands, but in fact it did not. The Bank of New Zealand on 11 July 1988, being owed money by Goldcorp Exchange Ltd, petitioned for the business to be wound up. It transpired that Goldcorp had not held anywhere near enough money for the members of the public, around 1000 people, who had supposedly bought gold with it, even though in their contracts they were entitled to delivery of the gold (in 7 days, for a fee) if they wished. The company also lacked enough assets to satisfy the debts to the bank. The members of the public alleged that the gold that remained in stock was entrusted to them. The bank argued that because the gold stocks had never been isolated, it did not, that all the gold customers were unsecured creditors and that its security interest (a floating charge) took priority.
In this case, there was Gold remaining in stock at the time of their bankruptcy but the title of the metal hadn't been structured to verify ownership by the clients holding unallocated accounts. An early brochure read "Basically you agree to buy metal at the prevailing market rate and a paper transaction takes place. [The company] is responsible for storing and insuring your metal free of charge and you are given a 'Non-Allocated invoice' which verifies your ownership of the metal. In the case of gold or silver, physical delivery can be taken upon seven days notice and payment of nominal delivery charges." (via records of the bankruptcy proceeding), but the judgement was made:
The Privy Council advised that the customers had no property interest in the gold, and therefore the bank could use it to satisfy its debts. The customers' purchase contracts did not transfer title, because which gold specifically was to be sold was not yet certain. Although Goldcorp's brochures had promised title, a trust did not arise because there was no declaration of it. It was contrary to policy to imply a fiduciary duty simply because there was a breach of contract. It was also rejected that equity required any restitution of the purchase money.
Both of these examples are very dated. One might look at these precedents and think that recurrence is unlikely today. However, my current concern lies with the recent revelation of missing Gold and suspected tax fraud occurring as previously covered on this site in my article 'ATO & AFP Investigate Australian Gold Industry Fraud'.

I don't know what will come of this investigation and those companies named in the exposé by Chris Vedelago, but the potential for some of them to suffer losses (or potentially worse) as a result of these events seems worthy of consideration. As far as I know ATO garnishee notices take priority over other creditors, so unlike the New Zealand case detailed above, you'd want to be sure that the customer ownership of any metal in unallocated accounts was air tight if you have a substantial holding in this form.

This article was not written with the intent to panic those investors with unallocated accounts, but simply to draw attention to the risks associated with having another party store your precious metals. In the case of outright theft of customer metal, which seems to be what occurred in the case of Perth Bullion Exchange, allocated accounts aren't completely safe either. However, even if bullion dealers offering unallocated accounts do everything by the book and are a reputable long-standing business, they may inadvertently expose themselves to external risks that put their company and the unallocated accounts of their clients at risk.

I said in another recent article '7 Ways To Keep Your Gold And Silver Safe' that "there is no completely risk free way to own precious metals, as is the case with any other investment", it's just a matter of assessing the risks of the various options available and judging for yourself which you think is safest.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

7 Ways To Keep Your Gold And Silver Safe

In the spirit of these lists that have flooded some of the most popular media and news sites (Business Insider I'm looking at you), I thought I'd do a series for precious metals, starting with 7 ways you can keep your Gold and Silver safe (keeping in mind there is no completely risk free way to own precious metals, as is the case with any other investment). 

Some suggestions are tongue in cheek (so don't take them all too seriously), but hopefully it gets your mind ticking about the safety of your stack. Here we go...

Keep Them On You

Keeping precious metals on your person may sound silly, but for the majority of the population that is exactly what they do. If you have Gold or Silver rings and other jewellery on your person, then someone breaking into your hotel, car or house is not going to be able to get their hands on them. It may be the safest place for them depending on your situation. If you have a more substantial investment in precious metals then some shabby looking sneakers (the smellier the better, less likely to be stolen) with trenches cut into the sole might fit some Gold bars (up to a kilo in each) snugly.

Hide Them Well

A recent thread on Silver Stackers highlighted the care you need to take if deciding to store your precious metals at home, where during a break-in thieves had emptied potted plants, pulled out electrical sockets, removed picture frames, moved furniture and more. You really can't be too careful here, but if you decide your home is a more secure place than any, then you might consider taking a look at this book for some ideas: How to Hide Anything - Michael Connor, keeping in mind that if you can read a book about where to hide something, then so can a thief. Be creative and don't share your ideas publicly.

Get a Safe Deposit Box

This is a personal favourite of mine. If there is anywhere that's likely to be safe for your Gold and Silver it's in a facility that is built for that very purpose. Just remember that not all safe deposit box facilities are created equally. Many large banks will offer safe deposit box services, make sure you shop around for the mix of safety and price that best fits your situation as in my experience both of these factors can vary substantially between providers. While I expect it's far less likely today than in times past, you should consider that keeping precious metals in a safe deposit box does make it an easy target for any government crackdown and confiscation should it occur.

Defend Them

Now this wouldn't be my first choice, putting my safety (or that of my loved ones) at risk, but if you are up to the challenge of defending your Gold and Silver at home, then you may not even need to hide them. You could take some martial arts classes or buy yourself some weapons (depending on what is legal where you live, knives or guns). Just be sure that you are familiar enough with local laws to know what constitutes 'self defense' should someone break in while you are there to take action. Another option to defend your precious metals at home might be to buy a guard dog, just be sure you are ready for that commitment.

Don't Tell Anyone You Own Them

If you do keep your stack at home perhaps one of the easiest ways to protect your stack is just to limit the number of people you tell. As they say 'Loose lips sink ships'. That also means being wary of giving out your address when buying or selling precious metals via post. Either get a post office box or get them shipped to work. Having your precious metals shipped to a home address is asking for trouble, even if you don't store them there permanently.

Bury Them

I would suggest the safest way to store your precious metals (if done right) is to seal them up into airtight containers and bury them somewhere on your own property (assuming you have one that is large enough to do so discreetly). That said this method should also be used in conjunction with the tip above about keeping quiet about your stack as burying your metals is far from infallible if someone knows to search your property with a metal detector. One woman lost over a quarter million dollars worth of Gold Krugerrands using this method after burying a safe full of them. If you do use this method, make sure you have a surefire way of finding them again and that at least a trusted loved one knows where they are in case something happens to you.

Don't Own Any

One way to avoid the loss of something is to never own it in the first place. If you don't have any precious metals then you have none to lose. However the way I see it, those who don't hold any precious metals also have a lot to lose. This is one of those cases where you can be damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Just remember, not all of these methods are practical for everyone. You should take into consideration your location and personal situation before making a decision on how to best keep your precious metals protected. Safe stacking!

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Truth About "Gold Backed" Cryptocurrencies

Another day, another salesman tries to sell us the story that they are launching the first Gold backed cryptocurrency. On this occasion it's Anthem Vault (founded by Anthem Blanchard, son of well known Gold advocate Jim Blanchard):
Newnote Financial Corp. is pleased to announce the successful development and launch of the first open-source gold-backed alternative crypto-currency, commissioned by Anthem Vault Inc. Business Wire
So are they really the first? They certainly aren't the first to launch a "Gold backed" cryptocurrency. The first I recall reading about was NoFiatCoin (XNF) which trades on the Ripple Network and was launched earlier this year:

Click Chart To Enlarge
Despite this cryptocurrencies favourable return for early adopters, the claim that it's backed by Gold (bullion) is dubious. The company simply allows those holding the cryptocurrency to exchange it for precious metals they have in stock. As Michael Suede wrote shortly after the announcement of XNF:
NoFiatCoin says that only a 1/3rd of XNFs are backed by bullion and that the market will determine the price for an XNF.  To me, this doesn’t make much sense.  This means an XNF does not represent a fixed weight of gold.  Further, NoFiatCoin says redemption of XNFs for bullion requires a minimum of $3000 worth of XNFs at current market prices.

If XNFs were actually a “gold backed” currency, each XNF would have to represent a fixed unit of weight.  For example, they could set an XNF to be worth .001 ounces of gold, and if you saved up 1000 XNFs, then you could always exchange them with NoFiatCoin for an ounce of bullion.  Of course, under this system, it would be impossible to have a fixed limit of currency creation, and there would have to be a way to take XNFs out of circulation once they were redeemed for physical specie.
Without convertibility at a fixed ratio with the coins, how is this Gold backed?

Other cryptocurrencies purporting to be Gold backed include Gold Backed Coin (GBC) which also trades on the Ripple Network, they suggest that each of these coins is backed by 1/10oz of Gold. But what do we really know about this company and how or where they are storing the Gold that is supposedly backing all these coins? The domain for the website was registered only a few months ago.

Then there is Ripple Singapore which claim to be able to load your Ripple wallet with XAU (Gold), XAG (Silver) and XPT (Platinum) with the bullion backing these positions stored in Singapore by Silver Bullion Pte Ltd. Though take up doesn't appear strong, they published these audit figures on their website:

What is the benefit of storing these in your Ripple wallet? There's not much liquidity given the published reserves, why not just setup a regular unallocated account with the dealer? Not that I would recommend storing your precious metal that way either.

Further to those already mentioned there is also G8Coin, MinaCoin, XGOLD (a work in progress) and probably others that I've missed. None of these currencies really offer anything that hasn't been seen before in one form or another, for example E-gold was founded in 1996 and topped 5 million users before the Gold was eventually seized and company placed into receivership. Also, there are already online exchanges where one can buy precious metals electronically or trade peer to peer with other account holders, some of which are well established and trusted, such as BullionVault and Gold Money.

So... Anthem Vault's new offering may be the first open source currency in this space (although some of those mentioned do trade on Ripple, which is an open source platform), but it's far from something new and exciting. Let's hear more about it though...
The virtual currency was secretly launched on the 4th of July 2014 by Anthem Vault’s technology team, in conjunction with Newnote Financial Corp. Dubbed the 4th of July Coin, this first Anthem Vault alt-coin is commonly referred to as MGC (Micro Gold Coin).

The MGC is an open source crypto-currency which means any person can download and look at the source code behind the coin, which is similar to Bitcoin. However, the coin has some unique attributes which sets it apart from Bitcoin. For example, there will only be a total of 10 million MGC’s in this series. All coins will be fully mined within one year, meaning all 10 million MGC’s will be in circulation and/or ownership by July of 2015. The entire series of MGC’s are backed by 100 grams of Gold stored at Anthem Vault, providing a base value to all MGC’s from the first moment the coins are “mined”. Business Wire
So the whole currency is "backed" by only 100 grams of Gold (spot value currently US$4192)? Based on 10 million coins, that means each coin will be worth 0.00001 gram of Gold. Talk about an anticlimax, this is nothing more than a marketing stunt designed to attract new customers to the brand or to have people write about it (game, set, match, they got me). Though according to the company founder this was only a taste of what's to come:
Blanchard said Wednesday's launch was a promotional offering, and the company has plans to offer a full suite of virtual currencies backed by a larger amount of gold as well as other precious metals at the end of September. Reuters
Let's face it though. Most of these "Gold backed" cryptocurrencies are a complete farce.

Those that aren't linked to a fixed amount of Gold, 100% backed and redeemable (by physical delivery of your Gold portion) I wouldn't consider to be Gold backed. Otherwise one could make the argument that any fiat currency is Gold backed (where the issuing country has official reserves), which is preposterous.

Those that are linked to a fixed amount of Gold, 100% backed and redeemable by physical delivery are illiquid or have been launched by unknown entities, not a system you want to be relying on for your exposure to Gold.

The reality is that combining cryptocurrencies with Gold doesn't make a lot of sense. The whole idea behind most cryptocurrencies is having a distributed electronic method of transferring value without the need to be tied to a physical location. Adding Gold to the mix literally destroys the advantages of a cryptocurrency because the asset it's tied to is stored centrally, leaving it vulnerable to the negative effects of government regulation.

If you want exposure to cryptocurrencies, then do some research, find one that fits your risk profile and take a punt.

If you want exposure to Gold, then buy it physically from a trusted source.

There's absolutely no reason at this point in time to try and combine these two very different assets.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reserve Bank of Australia Releases Gold Bar Details

A few months ago I wrote about an FOI request that I had applied for with the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA):

BoE Tells RBA: Don't Release Gold Bar Details (FOI)

It had been rejected based on the Bank of England (BoE) claiming the information was confidential, the RBA used this response to suggest that release of the information would cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth.

I lodged an appeal with the OAIC (as recommended by Peter Timmins of Open and Shut) and it was successful (mostly, as explained further down).

The argument for review of the decision was as follows:
My request for a list identifying the gold bars that form Australia’s 80 tonnes gold reserves was denied on the basis that it would divulge information shared in confidence between a foreign government (or authority of) and Government of the Commonwealth (or authority of), however the custody arrangement of Australia’s Gold between the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and the Bank of England (BoE) is purely a commercial relationship, rather than a governmental relationship. Furthermore the RBA has revealed to multiple individuals via general enquiry that “at 30 June 2011, 99.9% of the gold is held in the United Kingdom, at the Bank of England”, which is inconsistent with the exemption claim that correspondence between the RBA and the BoE regarding their commercial custody arrangement is confidential. Given that the RBA has openly revealed the location of the gold, further to the total physical amount, there is no reason to expect that revealing the physical properties of the bars would in any way risk the security of the asset.

Releasing the document/s requested is in the matter of the public interest. How can the BoE restrict the ability of the RBA to comply with a valid FOI request regarding a matter of public interest in the stewardship by the RBA of the Australian public’s gold?

The US Government has published a bar list of deep storage gold reserves in the matter of transparency and public interest and I think it’s a reasonable expectation that Australia follows this lead in order to allay any fears of the public, proving that the gold is there and physically accounted for.
The review process took some time, it was around 7 weeks from initial contact with the OAIC to this point.

I'm pleased to inform readers that upon reconsideration (the RBA contacted the BoE again in relation to the request), details of the bars have been released (minus the serial number). The FOI Officer provided this reasoning on retaining confidentiality of the serial number:
We are in a position to release to you melter/assayer, gross weight, assay and fine weight information relating to the bars in the inventory.  The only information we will withhold from release are the individual bar numbers, as this information remains confidential (in the opinion of both the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of Australia). The Bank of England (as our custodian) use their own numbering system to uniquely identify each bar and have reaffirmed to us that these numbers should not be disclosed to third parties as the information is confidential.

We note that this information is broadly consistent with the example you quote in your application for review (namely the US inventory of deep storage gold reserves), although our list is not aggregated into groups of bars.

The Bank is of the view that withholding of the bar details is required, to ensure that our obligations to the Bank of England (in terms of confidentiality of their information) are maintained.  This also accords with the burdens placed on the Bank in terms of section 33(a)(iii), which exempts information the disclosure of which would, or could reasonably be expected to, cause damage to the international relations of the Bank.  Section 33(b) also exempts ‘any’ information exchanged in confidence between the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of Australia.
You can access the file which contains the records below:

Further to the bar list, Warren from Screwtape Files (who has constructed a Bullion Bars Database, the largest known public repository of historical bar lists on the internet) provided the following information showing the refiner breakdown compared with a much larger data set he has compiled from various sources:
... If a refiner is not listed in the RBA document, then it's not shown in the other columns.
(i.e. you'll note the GLD comparison will not add up to 100%, neither does the 'Universe'.)

Explanation of the other columns:

PercentageUniverse = every single gold bar we have on record (247,477)
PercentageGLDHistorical = every gold bar ever seen across 700+ GLD bar lists (157,593)
PercentageGLDCurrent = every single gold bar currently in GLD (approx 64,000 in this sample).

Basically what you can see is that the BoE composition is somewhat different.
I haven't yet checked for any direct matches for weight, fineness + refiner, but a few random checks on the Royal Mint bars were negative, it's my guess the only matches to ETF data would be coincidental (i.e. expected from statistics).
* NULL means there are no matches
Click Table To Enlarge
While it's not a complete record of each bars attributes (lacking serial number), it does confirm that Australia's Gold reserves are held in allocated form as identifiable bars (which to the best of my knowledge wasn't already publicly known). The below is a description from the IMF on allocated vs unallocated Gold (from a central bank reserve asset perspective):
Allocated gold

4. Allocated gold is gold deposited under a safe-keeping or custody arrangement. It is “a specific and uniquely numbered physical piece of gold, which remains in the ownership of the individual or institution placing it for safe custody with a bank” (paragraph 15 of Philip Turnbull, BOPTEG issues paper # 27A). The owner of allocated gold keeps legal ownership over the allocated gold even if it is deposited with a custodial facility provider. In the economic system, it remains an asset without a counterpart liability.

Unallocated gold

5. Unallocated gold represents a claim on a fixed quantity of gold. “Account providers hold title to a reserve base of physical (allocated) gold and issue claims to account holders denominated in unallocated gold. The account holder does not hold title to physical gold but instead holds an unsecured claim against the account provider, in effect a deposit with the account provider” (paragraph 13 of Chris Wright and Stuart Brown, issues paper for the fourth AEG meeting). The account holder does not have legal ownership of the physical gold but is an unsecured depositor. The account holder is a creditor to the account provider, and so in the economic system this asset has a counterpart liability. Unallocated gold targets the professional gold market.

6. In many cases, similar to deposits, an account holder of unallocated gold account deposits its physical gold to its account provided by, for instance, a bullion bank. Then, the account holder undertakes gold transactions (outright purchase/sale, gold swaps, and gold deposits) via the account. But specific gold bars are not ascribed to the holder unless the holder takes delivery of the gold. The bullion bank can use the deposited physical gold for its own trading purpose and so does not necessarily have 100 percent backing in physical gold for the unallocated gold accounts.
A positive result from the OAIC review which I will be closing (despite the lack of serial number). Unfortunately the process for such a review will become more difficult in the near future due to the government announcing that the OAIC will be abolished. Peter Timmins wrote about the issue when first announced in the budget:
The changes wipe the review model adopted in the reform package of 2010, and it's back to where things used to be and we know they didn't work properly then. Not to mention the gaps: in effect no one has the leadership function so essential to the culture change talked about for 30 years but still a long, long way off and going in the wrong direction under this government; and no mention also of the what happens regarding the role the OAIC played in moving towards a government wide information policy. The AAT cannot provide inexpensive FOI review - the flagfall is $816, refundable but for $100 if the applicant meets with some success.
Not likely to have been an amount I would have risked for the information that was provided to me in this case. With the OAIC being wound up at the end of this year, I would encourage you to get any FOI requests lodged soon if you want the opportunity to have any rejections reviewed by the OAIC given the lengthy process it took for my results.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

ATO & AFP Investigate Australian Gold Industry Fraud

You may recall that late last year I wrote about a case of fraud being investigated in the bullion industry by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and Australian Federal Police (AFP). With suspected fraud of over $65 million dollars (according to official sources, an unnamed industry source suggests the figure is in excess of $200m) and garnishee notices / GST amended assessments issued with liabilities of more than $130 million, the question on everyone's mind was, "Who are they looking at?".

A court filing by an Australian bullion dealer and the affidavits of the respondents has revealed accusations of companies being investigated (though some deny it) and uncovered a shocking account of how fast and loose some gold trade occurs in Australia.

Chris Vedelago (and Cameron Houston) broke the story publicly in The Age today:

A golden fleecing: the mystery of the missing millions

Normally I would quote a paragraph or two and dissect some of the material, but I think in this case it's important to actually hit the link and read the story in it's entirety (then come back and read the rest of my post).

The investigation is still ongoing, some of the companies and people named may be found guilty of fraud, others may be innocent and just ended up in bed with the wrong Gold trading partners. With the conflicting stories and some denials it's difficult to know who is telling the truth and it may be the case that we will never know it in it's entirety.

Those in the bullion industry who've provided conflicting stories have a lot to lose if found to be acting fraudulently (even confirmation that they are under investigation may be enough to rattle the confidence of their clientele or those they do business with). When considering where the truth sits, I do have to wonder what an ex-employee of one of the respondents would have to gain by lying in her affidavit, given that she faces the risk of harsh punishment if found doing so (although the same goes for all who've submitted them)...

Regardless of who is under investigation or who has been issued with the ATO garnishee notices and GST amended assessments, there are two significant points that I took away from the uncovering of these events...

Fraud can occur in any industry. Investors seeking financial safety in the purchase of precious metals (or those involved with trading of it in scrap or investment form) can expose themselves to risk from the companies who provide it. It's important that, when diversifying your portfolio with physical Gold and Silver, you also diversify exposure to the companies through which it's purchased and stored (especially when doing so in quantity). For the investor that means keeping your order sizes to an amount that you would feel comfortable losing if not taking immediate delivery. It means being wary of product offerings such as unallocated accounts where the buyer don't always hold official title to the metal (I hope to cover this in more detail in another post soon).

The other thing I took away is that we could do with a review of the way tax is applied to precious metals. In the post 'Let Australians Save in Gold Instead of Debt' I argued for the removal of capital gains tax on Gold, to allow for competing currencies / savings vehicles (something Glenn Stevens laughably said we had already). Another suggestion I made was increasing scope of the GST exemption on precious metals to include legal tender coins which trade as a function of spot price:
Increase the scope of the definitions "precious metal" & "investment grade bullion" for taxation purposes to include coins containing Gold, Silver, Platinum or Palladium (any finesse) which are now or once were legal tender of Australia or any other nation and which trade as a function of the spot price.

Precious metals are often traded in widely recognised investment forms which don't meet the strict scope defined by the Australian Taxation Office. Investment grade bullion below 99% for Platinum, 99.5% for Gold and 99.9% for Silver is subject to Goods and Services Tax (GST). This means dealers are required to charge GST on coins which many hold for investment purposes, but aren't exempt from GST, for example American Gold Eagles (91.6% Gold), Gold Sovereigns (91.6% Gold) and Round Australian 1966 50 Cent Pieces (80% Silver). Such legal tender coins which trade as a function of spot price (consistently trade at spot + x% premium) would be made exempt from GST.
Perhaps the exemption could be expanded to cover any precious metal which trades as a function of spot price, so that tax fraud is no longer as simple as defacing investment grade bullion, changing it into a form which can suddenly benefit from input tax credits. Given the simplicity, it's hard to believe that the companies the ATO is investigating now are the only ones doing the wrong thing, but should any companies being investigated now or in the future land a tax bill that is above their capacity to pay, then the secured and unsecured creditors may just be left out in the cold, sitting in line behind the ATO in liquidation proceedings.

Hopefully this story will get you thinking about ways that you can invest in and trade precious metals in a more careful manner.

Safe stacking and trading!

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Gold as a Symbol of Power, Perfection and Prosperity

It’s incredible just how widespread the use of Gold is in western culture, as a symbol of power, perfection and prosperity.

It's used in figures of speech to note something being of excellent quality (that’s gold) or as something that should always be followed (a golden rule).

It's used to colour jewellery as decoration and/or a display of wealth, sometimes where the piece contains little or even no gold (the west shows off Gold poorly compared with many other places, see 'Gold in Istanbul').

It's used as a symbol of winning the ultimate prize such as in the movie 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' (golden ticket) or in competition (gold ribbon, medal or trophy).

Despite all this, the west seems to have lost it's connection with the physical metal this symbolism represents. Take for example the front of the current issue of Money magazine which displays Gold bars (3D rendered, that look plastic) as a symbol of wealth (prosperity), but Gold didn't even get a mention on the cover (only property, shares and cash).

Now I couldn't bring myself to buy the magazine at the time and didn't want to treat the newsagent as a library, but I'd be fairly confident that Gold doesn't even get a mention in their article on wealth building strategies. 

I did find a portion of the article online (read here) which talks about some of Australia's favourite investment strategies including negatively geared property and borrowing to buy a diversified share portfolio. The writer of this section was Suzanne Haddan, Managing Director of BFG Financial Services who claim on their website to specialise in "holistic personal financial planning". How 'holistic' is their approach when Gold, the most commonly used symbol of wealth, doesn't even rate a mention on their website?

In comparison a search for 'property' returned 33 hits and 'shares' was 29 hits. I'm sure this deficiency of Gold on the websites of financial planners is common and it's one reason I think Gold is still heading higher in the near future (lack of exposure to the asset even after a magnificent price gain over the past 10-15 years). While there were signs of the market heating up a few years ago (I speculated we were entering the third phase of the bull market), I think it's unlikely that 2011 was the pinnacle. The correction we've had over the last several years is not unlike that experienced in the midpoint of the 1970s Gold bull market (see below from The Short Side of Long):
"After a few requests to compare the current correction to 2008 as well as 1975/76, I am posting this chart below. The timeframe is from September 2011 peak all the way until this mornings Asian low at $1179 per ounce."

Of course when talking about wealth, PRICE shouldn't be the only focus, even if we are constantly bombarded with such thinking... especially so in Australia where rising house prices have led to Australian's having record household "wealth":

Wealth that is "accumulated" through the flipping of an asset amongst investors at higher and higher prices can just as easily reverse, whether it be held in property, Gold or shares. Furthermore, wealth measured in nominal dollars doesn't account for the decay in value of the fiat currency used to measure it.  A better way to measure wealth is in a tangible sense such as ounces or acres, either that or by the income it returns (yield).

Yields can fall of course (though the flavour of our current monetary system with inflation targets tends to keep pushing them nominally higher measured against purchase price), but those who have some wealth tied up in tangible assets need not worry about the number of their ounces or acres reducing. The definition of wealth is simply an abundance, plentiful amount or great quantity of something valuable, there's nothing to say that the measure used must be dollars.

So stack some Gold for price gains if you like, personally I am positioned for this too (with intention to exit when Gold represents poor value relative to other assets), but put aside some ounces that you aren't selling and don't measure in dollars... because it doesn't need to be in order to be considered wealth.
"To most Westerners, gold is an investment. To the gold bugs and HMS crowd, gold is money. And to the bullion banks, gold is a currency (ISO code XAU) upon which credit is issued and traded. So what did A/FOA mean by the statement that gold is wealth, not any of these other things? I mean, surely gold is whatever its users think it is, subjective use value and all, right?

Actually, that's exactly right! Gold is whatever its users think it is. And the point A/FOA was driving at was that the vast majority of the above-ground gold, today somewhere around 165,000 tonnes, is held by people who understand it as wealth." - FOFOA

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