Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Storing Gold & Silver: Safe Deposit Box In Australia

Information is Australian specific for those interested in the use of a Safe Deposit Box (SDB) to store precious metals. Not investment advice, draw your own conclusions about the risks and how to best store your physical assets.

Regular readers would know that while I prefer physical ownership of precious metals, I'm no stranger to highlighting the risks associated with doing so. As I wrote recently (If You Don't Hold It, You Don't Own It):
There is no risk free way of owning precious metals (or any asset for that matter) and safe storage is the key factor when dealing with physical.
I've mentioned my preference for Safe Deposit Boxes (SDBs) in an earlier article (7 Ways To Keep Your Gold And Silver Safe):
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.
SDBs offer the safety of a secure storage facility, while leaving the physical handling of precious metals or other valuables to the individual. This avails the owner with a level of privacy and independence that allocated or unallocated accounts don't, even if stored in a similarly secure premises (see my article 'How Safe Are Unallocated Bullion Accounts?' for more information about the risks that this type of precious metal ownership entails).

You can't choose to store your bullion in a SDB facility and expect that all service providers will offer the same level of protection. Several years ago I wrote about a Kennards facility which was broken into with SDBs emptied after the criminals (who were eventually caught and jailed) scoped the warehouse by hiring their own SDB with a stolen credit card. While the Kennards facility provided privacy (no 100 point ID check) and accessibility (24/7 access), it was these same features which put a hole in their security.

If we look to the more secure SDB services in Australia (those housed in a vault) then we still have a choice to make between independent private vaults and those provided by banks, though not everyone has the luxury of choice between these two varieties if they want to keep their metal stored locally. When an individual is considering a choice of facilities it's important they compare each specifically on it's own merits (not something I can do in detail here), the below is mostly a general comparison and anecdotal observations.

The eastern states have the widest selection of private vaults with well recognised names such as Reserve Vault (RV, Brisbane), Custodian Vaults (CV, Sydney) and Guardian Vaults (GV, Melbourne and Sydney).

All three of these vaulted SDB providers offer insurance options that are underwritten by Lloyds of London (CV and GV offer $10,000 complimentary cover). All three are privately owned and proudly state their independence (of banks and government) and while the vault operators may not be covered by all banking regulations they they are considered a financial service and governed by some of the same rules as the banks (for example the AML/CTF Act).

The private vault facilities are eager to differentiate themselves from the SDBs offered by banks. CV has a handy little table outlining the differences between their service and those of the banks.

Let's tackle these line by line. Some of my points will reflect personal experience, not all bank SDB facilities are identical.

Insurance: The complimentary ($10,000) insurance is a nice bonus, but if that's enough to cover your stack then a SDB is an expensive option anyway (e.g. $300/pa for the SDB is a 3% annual storage cost on $10k in metals). Having the vault provider streamline insurance options is convenient, but you can always organise your insurance independently through a broker.

Key Ownership: At the bank SDB facility I use each box is dual key, one held by the customer and they retain the second for opening in tandem. They do also keep a copy of my key, in a locked box with my signature over a seal. In my opinion the fact that you receive both copies of the key from CV is a false sense of security. As their terms and conditions state, if the Government has legal authority to access your box CV will provide it (with or without your permission and key) and if you terminate the agreement (not paying storage fees) then they reserve the right to open the box and sell the contents to recoup their loss. The bottom line here is that not having a copy of your key doesn't stop CV from accessing your SDB contents under the terms of your agreement with them.

Accessibility: I can't speak to an unlimited quantity, but at the bank SDB facility I use I was able to add a second operator with no extra charge. I also have unlimited access to the facility, though do know of some banks who limit the number of free visits during the year before additional fees start to be incurred.

Long Term Storage Discounts: This may be a unique attribute, though don't see the discounts listed on the Custodian Vault website, so they may be trivial.

Security: Ok, they've got the banks there. I don't have biometric entry to the vault and would be surprised if any other bank SDP facilities in Australia do either.

Storage Restrictions: This would vary between bank providers, but in my case I was not an existing client of the bank and was still able to open a SDB.

Regulations: It's true the banks are covered by a greater level of regulation ("Banking Law"), I will discuss this in more detail below, but while some may see this as a con, I see the tighter scrutiny and greater accountability for banks as a positive.

While each bank SDB facility will differ and need to be judged on their individual merits compared with CV, I don't think a strong case was made from the table for avoiding bank SDBs.

GV and RV embedded videos on their site outlining risks of the banking system such as excessive leverage, derivatives, monetary system change, bank holidays and bail-in risks. I would posit that 90%+ of the content was not relevant to the safety of your assets stored in a bank SDB. That said let's look at some scenarios where your precious metals might be at risk in a safe deposit box.

Gold Confiscation: In the past when discussing the merits of bank vs private SDBs, some have pointed to Part IV of the Banking Act 1959 (suspended) which can be paraphrased as being unable to "buy, hold or sell gold unless it is a legitimate part of your trade or in the form of jewellery" (via Bron Suchecki at Gold Chat). These restrictions were applicable across the board (until 1976) and while I think it's unlikely they are reinstated in their current form, I'd expect even if they are or new confiscation laws were introduced that any crackdown on SDBs would be across the board with both bank and private facilities affected in the same way. Private SDB facilities will be compliant with any government request to refuse customer access or seize contents as required by law just as their terms and conditions state. Those who think they will avoid confiscation by using a private facility because it's "out of the banking system" are being lulled into a false sense of security. In any event I think Gold confiscation is highly unlikely in Australia and if a trend emerges globally of governments doing so then we should have enough notice to change views on the risk of it occurring and act if necessary.

Internal Theft: While theft by an employee is an unlikely event, it could arguably be made easier if the SDB facility has a copy of both keys to your box. Furthermore I have seen some bank facilities where they retrieve the box for you from the vault (so your only key is to a padlock attached to the metal storage box). It may not be the case that every private facility gives you both keys or that every bank facility keeps a copy, but in my experience the risk of internal theft from an SDB is potentially higher at a bank facility (if ease of doing so is the only consideration).

The Canberra Times, 25th April 1991
External Theft: The risk of this occurring comes down to the security of each facility. I'd expect that some bank facilities exceed the security of some private vaults and vice versa. Reading through Guardian Vaults list of security measures leaves me impressed, but whether this is a significant step up from other facilities I can't be sure. While listing security specifics may help clients feel good about their choice, marketing in this way also puts more information into the hands of those who may want to get around it.

The Canberra Times, 10th October 1984
Insolvency: In the event of insolvency of any facility the contents of your SDB should be owned free and clear. The biggest risk here is if you want access to your SDB contents while the administration processes takes place (the facility may be closed for regular access while that occurs). Here is where a bank facility might be safer than a private facility. We have a greater insight into the solvency of the banks who are open to scrutiny from the public due to their annual reports and other financial transparency. Even if you don't personally understand how to read the financial position of the bank you have your SDB with, it's likely their share price will be an indicator of health and financial news outlets will be quick to report on any trouble. Furthermore it's a fair assumption that a bank insolvency would result in government support. Contrast that to private SDB facilities, we don't know their financial position and you're not likely to have any warning of their insolvency until the day they shut their doors.

Bank Holiday: In the case we see events unfold where there are wide spread bank failures then there's a chance we see bank holidays. Like insolvencies described above this should only result in a temporary lack of access to the contents of your SDB. Some have suggested that bail-ins may extend to SDBs, but I see that as a highly unlikely. I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that SDBs in Cyprus were seized as part of their recent bail-in measures.

Bank SDB facilities get characterised as unsafe due to their connection to the banking system, but in my opinion there are some pros and some cons that result from this association and on the whole I don't see bank SDBs as less safe than their private counterparts. 

The banks are written off by precious metal holders as shady, but if the last 12 months has taught us anything it's that the bullion industry has it's flaws too (ATO and AFP Investigate Australian Gold Industry Fraud). In fact one of the aforementioned private SDB providers (CV) has management ties to the refiner implicated in the GST fraud story from Vedelago.

As it stands there is no private vault SDB facility in Adelaide so my only option for local storage is with a bank, but I feel comfortable doing so and would only consider moving to a newly available private vault if there were measurable benefits in doing so.

Whichever you choose I think both private and bank (vaulted) safe deposit box services are a smart option and in most cases much safer than keeping your precious metals at home.

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  1. I read twice looking for the questions, but didn't find them, so will assume you were just theorising and looking for general feedback on the ideas.

    I agree with your suggestion that Russia *could* buy Gold with rubles instead of by selling US Treasuries, but this would still show up somewhere, i.e. increase in Russia's CB balance sheet? That is increasing but may be accounted for by other asset purchases (I don't know offhand).

    I found this document which may be worth your perusal if you haven't seen:

    "In recent years, the bulk of annual gold production has been retained within the Federation, approximately 159 tonnes (90%) in 2008, used mainly to supply the jewellery fabrication and electronics industries and increase official gold reserves.

    This has resulted in annual gold exports in the form of bars, powders, granules, semi-finished products and other forms (excludes finished products, such as jewellery) falling from 128 tonnes (2003) to 17 tonnes (2008)."

    See also:

    "Official statistics record that the manufacture of small cast and minted bars (1000 g and less) has increased significantly in recent years, growing from 6.2 tonnes (2002) to 22.1 tonnes (2008).

    Dealers attribute the growth mainly to more Russian jewellery fabrication over the period (smaller fabricators using more kilobars) and to more investors taking physical delivery of bars, despite the payment of 18% VAT."

    We can't assume that all Russian Gold production is manufactured into 400oz LGD Bars. Perhaps recent mining production and delivery looks something like this (250t total):

    100t added to official reserves

    60t of jewellery manufactured

    30t of miscellaneous output (powder, semi-refined, etc)

    30t in bars taken up in local investment demand

    30t worth of kilobars shipped to China (investment)

    This is just a stab in the dark though, like China there's not enough or the right data published to make an informed guesstimate.

  2. Hello again BB,

    You're right I was thinking out loud. Thanks for the links. I have a couple of comments about the breakdown of consumption of Russia's gold production that you sketched out. Let's assume for the sake of argument that all of Russia's mine production and scrap is absorbed locally. I think we can discount industry as a major consumer. Aside from military products what other industries do they have that would be major gold consumers?

    If as reported Russia added 173 m/t to its official reserves last year then supply to the domestic market was abruptly cut in half. If that happened why haven't we seen any reports of shortages in Russia or discussion of a sudden increase in demand coming from Russia in the international market? The Indian jewellery trade was very vocal every time their government implemented a policy that affected the local gold market.

    Another issue I have a problem with is the notion that wealthy Russians would be prepared to pay 18% VAT on gold and store the gold locally. The oligarch's and less wealthy Russians have had no difficulty in getting money out of Russia over the years. Hence the large amounts of Russian money in banks in Cyprus prior to their financial collapse. It would make much more sense if gold was purchased outside Russia by their wealthier citizens and stored somewhere safe (out of Moscow's reach) e.g. Switzerland and/or London. (Look at the huge amount of Russian money that has poured into London real estate in recent years.)

    I realize that we can never know for sure what Russia or China are doing because of the lack of reliable information so we can only speculate. I speculate that both Russia and China are much further down the track in their preparations for a new international financial architecture than many Western pundits would expect.

    In any case thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topi.