Gold News

Gold Fix Dead. Long Live the London Fix

Gold Fix dies in London, aged 100. Immediately gets up & carries on...
 
THURSDAY 19 March 2015 will see the last ever London Gold Fix, the 100-year old process for finding and publishing the daily gold price, writes Adrian Ash at BullionVault.
 
Why, and what will replace it?
 
Here at BullionVault – the physical gold and silver exchange for private investors – we ourselves are a regular customer of the Gold Fix, buying or selling metal to re-stock or flatten the trading float we use to meet customer demand 24/7 on our live bullion Order Board.
 
Our customers can, if they prefer, also buy or sell bullion at that daily price, paying just 0.5% fees (Dollars) or 0.8% (Sterling or Euros).
 
So, while we hold no candle for London's big banks, we do know something about how the Fix works and what it achieves. Here's our take on why the Fix has lasted so long, why it is now ending, and why it will in fact continue on Friday, simply updated to meet 21st century expectations and assumptions outside the market.
 
First, what is the London Gold Fix?
The Gold Fix is a single price which matches the greatest volume of buying and selling across the wholesale bullion market. Meeting twice a day (10.30 and 3pm), the banks involved pool client business and pool their resources to meet the net demand or supply which results.
 
The price identified is truly market-wide, because the Fixing banks' customers also include other professional dealers, who have already netted their own client orders. Hence the name. It finds the global price like a ship takes a fix of its position.
 
Once the price is fixed and published, it is used to execute orders between all clients and their dealers, whether or not they are fixing members. Hence the London Fix's use as the gold price 'benchmark' worldwide – the standard reference for pricing commercial deals and retail products, and for valuations.
 
Why London?
Gold is gold is gold the world over, a single element that is no different wherever you own or trade it. (The professional wholesale market trades gold content only. You never pay for any impurities whether a bar is 995 or 999 parts per 1,000 fine.) But thanks to empire, vault facilities, expertise and time zones, London has now dominated world gold trading since the mid-18th century, and it remains the central storage and dealing location today. Its twice-daily Gold Fix offers a unique moment of deep liquidity, with demand and supply from traders across the world brought together to find the single price which does the most business.
 
The London PM Gold Fix has been the world's daily benchmark since at least 1919. Its sister, the Silver Fix, ran from 1897 to 2014. The Wall Street Journal reported an informal Gold Fixing in 1907.
 
The biggest banks quoting London gold prices now trade $23 billion (£15bn) between them each day on average. Total trade is 3-5 times that size. A huge part of that, if not the lion's shares, will be dealt at the Fix price. Thanks solely to the ebb and flow of bullion from London's vaults, precious metals feature every month in the UK's top 5 imports and top 5 exports by value. That's remarkable for a nation with zero gold mining, no refining capacity and next-to-no consumer demand.
 
Once published, the Fix acts as the basis for pricing many commercial deals and retail products worldwide, as well as for valuing holdings at central banks, ETF investment funds, and trade inventories.
 
How does it work?
Today's conference call involves four banks – Barclays, HSBC, Societe Generale, and Scotia Mocatta (part of Canada's Scotiabank, currently the chair). Run alongside other live markets (ie, 'spot' bullion and derivatives), the Fixing opens with the chair proposing a US Dollar price (the average of current spot quotes). Each of the four members then say whether, at that price, they are a net buyer, net seller, or have "no interest" (i.e., their own order book is already balanced).
 
If there's more gold offered than wanted between the four, the chair lowers the price – and orders are resubmitted – to reduce supply and boost demand (and vice versa). This is a rare example of "tâtonnement" (literally "fumbling") in financial markets, with the price tested by "trial and error" until supply and demand are in balance.
 
Doesn't this let the Fixing members control the price?
Tâtonnement pushes against manipulation. Because any member wanting to, say, push the price up so they can sell unfairly high, must in fact declare themselves a buyer, defeating their purpose. And short of illegal collusion before the event (alleged in Manhattan law suits, but not yet identified by any of the various regulatory investigations, such as the FCA's 2014 report), each Fixing member only know their own client orders, and only at the start of the process.
 
This is because the Fix is "leaky". The members' direct customers can listen to what's happening, and bid for excess metal (or offer what's needed) to balance the market. Crucially, they can also take their business elsewhere if the suggested price becomes unattractive, again helping balance supply and demand.
 
Why does the Fix exist?
In the late 19th century, the Bank of England needed the brokers it used to find a price for huge shipments of gold coming daily from Australia and South Africa. Today the Fixing members undertake to accept orders in any size, all dealt at that single market-wide price.
 
This is a valuable alternative to the 'spot' market, where the price of large bullion bars is agreed only in a unique deal between one buyer and one seller at a time. The huge volume of business done at the Fix also adds great stability to a wider market increasingly led by derivatives trading in futures and options. 
 
So why is the Fix ending? 
More than 7 in 10 respondents to market surveys in 2014 said they were perfectly satisfied with the existing process. As a member of the professional market, and a regular customer of the Fixes, BullionVault certainly finds this 100-year old mechanism tried, tested, proven and very useful.
 
But to outside observers, its longevity means the Fix must be "past its sell-by date". There are also concerns over how the process is managed (or not) by member banks. In May 2014 Barclays was fined £26m by the Financial Conduct Authority for failing "to organise and control" its participation in the process (most notably record-keeping and staff training), as well as failing on one occasion to manage "conflicts of interest" with a client betting the Fix would be set above a certain level – the "Plunkett case".
 
The Fixing members are also being sued in a class action by a group of hedge funds and private investors in New York for "manipulating" the benchmark – a suit they believe to be groundless and plan to defend "vigourously". But the US Department of Justice is also now running a criminal investigation of 10 or more bullion banks regarding the Fixings, and despite the CFTC dismissing such allegations in 2003 and 2013, former commissioner Bart Chilton in late-February repeated his 2010 claim that he found "repeated attempts to deviously control" the Fixing prices, but had lacked enough evidence to meet the statutory burden of proof.
 
Against all this, and knowing how important the London gold market is to the City, and to the wider world, the Treasury has followed a recommendation from the Fair & Effective Markets Review (run by the Bank of England) to make misconduct in the Fixings a criminal offence, as it is in the LIBOR interest-rate benchmark.
 
What changes are coming? 
Thursday 19 March will see the last London Gold Fix, ending as the Silver Fix ended in August last year. Like silver, gold's market-wide price will still be determined by tâtonnement, with participant dealers now aggregating their order books through an electronic platform from Friday 20 March – the first LBMA Gold Price.
 
Named after (and owned by) the London Bullion Market Association (of which BullionVault is a member, along with bullion banks, wholesale dealers, and vault operators) this event will still be held twice a day at 10.30 and 3pm London time. It continues the Fixing process of price discovery, and will continue to involve the whole market, as smaller orders (such as those from BullionVault users) are aggregated with orders to buy and sell from across the market.
 
Instead of a telephone call and isolated record-keeping by each member, the banks will report their net interest via an electronic platform, provided and managed by specialists ICE Benchmark Administration. Launched last August, the LBMA Silver Price also continues the previous fixing process, but is administered by trading exchange the CME Group working with data and news providers Thomson Reuters. It has been well-received by users, such as BullionVault, to date. It has already broadened participation in the 'fixing' auction from 3 banks under the old system to 6 companies today – former members HSBC and Scotia Mocatta, as well J.P.Morgan, UBS, Toronto Dominion Bank, and Japanese trading house Mitsui & Co. Precious Metals Inc.
 
Friday's participants for the first LBMA Gold Price haven't yet been announced. But as with silver, there's nothing but trading appetite – and in-house compliance ready to meet regulatory requirements – between Chinese or other Asian dealers joining the US, Canadian, Swiss and UK banks likely to step up. After all, two Chinese banks – the giant ICBC and also the China Construction Banking Corp. – are already Ordinary Members of the LBMA. Their registered addresses are in Beijing.
 
In sum? The price of gold is a key indicator of confidence in other assets, currencies, the economy and government policy. Gold is also a huge market, turning over perhaps £75 billion per day.
 
Falling into place a century ago much as one Victorian said Britain won its empire – "in a fit of absent-mindedness" – the twice-daily Gold Fix has for a century offered a unique moment of deep liquidity, with demand and supply from traders across the world brought together to find the single price which does the most business.
 
Replacing this with new electronic systems and record-keeping is quite an achievement inside the just 12 months. It also brings the Fix in line with the latest and most stringent 'benchmark' requirements, and should also help repair outside perceptions of London's role in the market, damaged by association with other, unrelated financial benchmarks and by the one known case of abuse at Barclays in 2012.
 
But it won't in fact change the underlying process of price discovery. Nor should it. The fixing finds the market-wide price for physical gold at that moment. If it's higher than you'd like, or lower, then I think I can guess whether you're a buyer or a seller. You can always deal principal-to-principal in a one-off deal at a one-off price with one dealer instead. Or get price exposure, rather than gold itself, with an ETF. Or take your leveraged chances with futures and options.

Adrian Ash is director of research at BullionVault, the physical gold and silver market for private investors online. Formerly head of editorial at London's top publisher of private-investment advice, he was City correspondent for The Daily Reckoning from 2003 to 2008, and is now a regular contributor to many leading analysis sites including Forbes and a regular guest on BBC national and international radio and television news. Adrian's views on the gold market have been sought by the Financial Times and Economist magazine in London; CNBC, Bloomberg and TheStreet.com in New York; Germany's Der Stern; Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore, and many other respected finance publications.

See the full archive of Adrian Ash articles on GoldNews.

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