Although it does not appear until almost the end of this article in the Financial Times, BIS Gold Swaps Mystery Unravelled, the source of the gold provided in the dollar swaps with BIS is coming from customers of about 10 European banks who are holding their gold at the banks in 'unallocated accounts.'
"The gold used in the swaps came mainly from investors’ deposit accounts at the European commercial banks. Some investors prefer to deposit their gold in so-called “allocated accounts”, which restrict the custodian banks’ ability to use the gold in their market operations by assigning them specific bullion bars. But other investors prefer cheaper “unallocated accounts”, which give banks access to their bullion for their day-to-day operations.The European Banks, including HSBC, Société Générale and BNP Paribas, were desperately in need of dollars because of a repeat of the eurodollar short squeeze which we had previously identified. Their customers were withdrawing dollars previously on deposit at the banks, which were unable to meet the demand because of the deterioration of the dollar assets they held, and because of the fractional reserve nature of their operations.
So the BIS stepped in, supplementing the swap lines the ECB has with the Fed, and swapped its dollar holdings directly for the some of the banks' customer's gold. Let us be clear about this. The gold is on deposit at the banks, in the same way that customer dollars had been on deposit. I do not wish to fuss too much about it, but at the time that the BIS swaps were revealed, a noted blogger pooh-poohed it with the toss off that 'everyone knows that the European commercial banks own quite a lot of gold.' Well, in this case, the ownership is greatly exaggerated. It is on deposit, owned by other people, but utilized as an asset by the bank. There is a difference.
In lending out the gold to BIS, they were relieved of their dollar short squeeze and were able to supply their customer demands. BIS obtained a fee of some sort in the swap, and so it is happy. But it should be noted that BIS had not done gold swaps for over forty years. So why now?
The question remains unanswered though. What is the duration of the swap, and does BIS intend to hold the gold or use it in other interbank operations?
A secondary question would be: why did the banks go directly to the BIS and swap their customer's gold, rather then to the ECB which is perfectly capable of managing swaplines for currency with the BIS and the Fed. Is the Fed running out of dollars? I have an open tab in my mind that the BIS was seeking gold to balance out demands from other banks for gold, not for dollars, and the eurodollar swaps were a convenient way to do it. This story that 'the BIS had lots of dollar lying around and were itching to use them' strikes me as being of the whole cloth.
Yes, the nice high level chart the FT includes shows the spike in gold holdings at the BIS, but does this mean that it is sitting there in their reserves unencumbered, or are they leasing any or all of it out, 'putting it to work' as they say? Central banks are notorious for making little distinction between unencumbered gold assets and real assets in the vault.
But it is nice to see verification in the mighty Financial Times that if you hold your bullion gold in an 'unallocated account' even with a prestigious bank, it may very well not be there when you wish to have it, and the prices will soar as the banks scurry to cover, just as has happened twice of late with their US dollar assets.
Or you may be asked to settle in cash if there is some clause in the contract, as in the case of the ETFs or the Comex.