01 February 2011

Further discussions with FOFOA on GLD


Firstly, I'll have to be more careful in how I write. My post was really mixing up responding to specific quotes of yours but then veering off on to related concepts/positions that are not yours. My exploration of the idea that APs would fraudulently take GLD gold or “GLD is bad because bullion banks involved” was directed at the simplistic anti-GLD ranters not looking to the subtleties and not at yourself. One of the problems with writing rather than speaking face to face I think. Anyway, on to the discussion.

“Market-price reversible swap” makes more sense, I read “essentially lent” as implying some obligation to return the physical. With regards to the “naked short” I was talking from a financial point of view, whereas you are using the term in the sense of physical.

To clarify the distinction for our readers, let us consider a bullion bank with a physical ounce asset backing an unallocated ounce liability to its clients. If that bullion bank then lends that physical to a jewellery company who use it in their operations, then the bullion bank now has an ounce claim asset backing it unallocated ounce liability. From your point they are short “physical” but I would also note that the bullion bank is not short “financially”, that is they are not exposed to any movement in the price of gold.

Yes they are exposed to the risk the jeweller does not return the physical at the end of the lease. Probably more importantly, they are exposed to liquidity risk. I think this is the sense that you use “short” and is reflecting the issue of “maturity transformation” (see Unqualified Reservations blog for an excellent explanation of why this is a big problem).

My use of the word “short” is for situations where the bullion bank exchanges (or sells) the physical backing its unallocated ounce liabilities for cash. This creates a financial risk as there is a mismatch between the denominations of the liability (ounces) and the asset (dollars). When you used the phrase “sell them for dollars that can then chase an ROI” this implied to me a financial short and that was what I was addressing.

I now understand what you meant by "special right" when you say “once the price of physical gold starts running away from the paper price”. I will have to disagree with you on this to some extent. Now by that I'm not saying GLD does not have its risks or that any not-in-your-hands gold is better than in-your-hands gold, but I have, maybe naively, a stronger belief in arbitrage and greed.

Let us consider your scenario where the markets have been closed for a week, during which no doubt the price for physical gold has risen. On market opening I agree we are likely to see much selling by retail investors who no longer have any trust in the markets. They are wanting cash so they can buy physical gold. Their selling pushes the price of GLD down.

Now you state that “the APs can just scoop up those shares at a panic discount”. This I'm not so sure about. The prospectus lists 16 APs, only some of which are actually bullion banks (with their angry) unallocated creditors):

BMO Capital Markets, CIBC World Markets, Citigroup Global Markets, Credit Suisse Securities, Deutsche Bank Securities, EWT, Goldman, Sachs, Goldman Sachs Execution & Clearing, HSBC Securities, J.P. Morgan Securities, Merrill Lynch Professional Clearing, Morgan Stanley, Newedge, RBC Capital Markets, Scotia Capital and UBS Securities.

I find it hard to believe that all of these will conspire to agree to hold off on buying GLD until a significant discount appears. Arbitrage traders in each firm will be watching GLD drop relative to the physical price of gold. As it goes to $1 to $2 discount per ounce etc, the traders will be thinking “if I don't take that discount and lock in easy profit now then one of the other APs will and I'll lose the profit”. With 16 traders I find it hard to believe that one will not jump first, providing offers to buy and thus arresting the decline in GLD's price. What does Newedge care about JP Morgan's angry unallocated customers and why let them get GLD gold at a big discount to save them and deny yourself a profit?

Now I will concede that for my scenario to work all of the 16 APs have to have access to physical in the OTC market, which may not be the case for the smaller players. But then when you say the physical price is diverging from GLD's price, this implies that there is market for physical at a price and thus would it not be more easier for the 16 APs to acquire physical compared to retail investors, given their connections in the OTC market?

As you say we are talking about systemic failure. I suppose I'm nit picking, but is not systemic failure a situation where gold goes into Feketian “hiding” in which case there ceases to be a gold price? What I'm saying is that up until that parabolic breaking point, while gold is still being sold for cash, the backstabbing greedy profit motive of the 16 APs will ensure GLD's price stays in touch with the physical gold price. That is my answer to your question “Will anything other than physical gold itself track the price of physical gold in a physical-only market?”

For readers who don't find this particularly helpful or are not comfortable assessing these risks, I would suggest taking FOFOA's advice:“I don't know the answers but I do know one way to avoid the risks.” - that is, buy physical!

The ability of non-APs to borrow GLD shares and then sell them short I think we are in agreement on and is another problem with GLD, or to be fair with stock exchanges in general it seems.

Finally, I take some issue with your statement that “or some other coin the ETF shareholders would have bought had there not been an ETF. The ETF diverted demand in many ways”.I partly disagree with this, but I also partly disagree with those who think GLD's tonnage is “additional” demand. The truth is in between both in my opinion.

There is no doubt that a fair portion of investment in GLD would have occurred anyway, either into other funds (eg Central Trust), Allocated account or cash and carry coins and bars. In this sense all GLD does is make this investment more visible than it would have been. Unfortunately commentators obsess about GLD simply because it is visible and ignore the other 28,000t or so of privately held gold (not to mention Asian demand in “jewellery”, which is really investment in nature).

However, I do believe that the creation of stock exchange listed gold products has increased demand for gold by making it easier to get exposure to gold. Buying it through a stock broker eliminated the perceived inconvenience to some investors of having to go down to a coin shop and then worry about where to store gold.

As to the WGC, in my dealings with them I don't agree with your view that “they are focused on all aspects of the gold market, including the structural integrity of the Bullion Banks' fractional reserves given that the CBs have removed their physical backstop.” They are a miner trade group. Their focus was on physical offtake and thus obsessed about the metal behind GLD being Allocated gold. Funny when you consider that the legal structure introduced, in my opinion, some holes that negated the “security” of the Allocated gold backing.

I can't say anymore except that I'd guess I'm one step closer to them than yourself (note: the first exchange traded gold product in the world was the Australian Gold Bullion Securities, the second was the Perth Mint's ASX code:PMGOLD, the WGC naturally took some interest in these Aussie upstarts). Unless of course you are close to the WGC, but then that would be revealing a bit too much? :)

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