The role of GLD and SLV

Good Delivery gold bars

Alasdair Macleod – 12 May 2013

In August 2011 I wrote to the Financial Services Authority to seek confirmation that the London-based custodians of SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) and iShares Silver Trust (SLV) were being regulated as custodians, despite the fact that physical bullion is not a regulated investment. After some chasing on my part I finally got a response, kicking my letter firmly into touch. The FSA accepted that the custodians (HSBC Bank USA NA for GLD and JP Morgan Chase Bank NA London Branch for SLV) were regulated, but appeared to be unwilling to do anything about it other than to pass my letter on to “the supervisors of the relevant firms”.

My reason for writing to the FSA was to establish if allegations were true that bullion owned by these two trusts was being used in contravention of custody agreements. If they had any foundation there would be an important regulatory risk for the FSA which should be drawn to their attention, and in any event needed clarification to prevent a false market. Suspicions that this was the case were fuelled by obvious conflicts of interest in the firms concerned. The sensible course for the FSA would have been to investigate the matter with the custodians and give them a clean bill of health, or alternatively take appropriate action in the event of a breach. Instead, they ducked the issue, leaving the impression that there was indeed a problem.

This may have been to do with the fact that bullion, being dealt with in an over-the-counter market, operated under a different set of dealing and settlement procedures from a normal regulated investment. Subsequently the 2012 GLD prospectus was amended under “Risk Factors” on page 12, by the insertion of a new clause headed “The custody operations of the custodian are not subject to specific governmental regulatory supervision.” It is now clear that the FSA had ceded its custodial responsibility to the “best practices of the LBMA”.

This matters because investors naturally expect custodians to be properly regulated. It also matters because the bullion market settles through a separate entity called London Precious Metals Clearing Limited (lpmcl.com) owned by five LBMA members, including the two custodians for GLD and SLV. LPMCL is therefore at the heart of the London bullion market.

Because the bullion market in London is over-the-counter, bullion banks are exposed to counterparty risk, unlike traders on a regulated market. And if a big bullion bank fails, which is certainly possible in a global banking crisis, all the bullion held by the members of the LPMCL both for themselves and their clients could become available to central banks managing the crisis through the Bank of England.

In a systemic meltdown it may be naïve to expect central banks to fully respect property rights. So GLD and SLV are only suitable for investors prepared to accept a lower standard of custodial regulation, and who look to benefit from a rising gold or silver price until they decide to take their profits. They are definitely not for those seeking a safe haven or hedge from a financial crisis.

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FinanceAndEconomics

Alasdair started his career as a stockbroker in 1970 on the London Stock Exchange. In those days, trainees learned everything: from making the tea, to corporate finance, to evaluating and dealing in equities and bonds. They learned rapidly through experience about things as diverse as mining shares and general economics. It was excellent training, and within nine years Alasdair had risen to become senior partner of his firm. Subsequently, Alasdair held positions at director level in investment management, and worked as a mutual fund manager. He also worked at a bank in Guernsey as an executive director. For most of his 40 years in the finance industry, Alasdair has been de-mystifying macro-economic events for his investing clients. The accumulation of this experience has convinced him that unsound monetary policies are the most destructive weapon governments use against the common man. Accordingly, his mission is to educate and inform the public in layman’s terms what governments do with money and how to protect themselves from the consequences.

7 thoughts on “The role of GLD and SLV”

  1. Thank you, Mr. Macleod, for this information.
    In a systemic meltdown I would expect any paper certificate to become worthless. The only hedge from a financial crisis is a fully controlled metal we may carry around in our pockets.
    Therefore in the current market I would not be interested in GLD and SLV or any other “monetary certificate” of any kind.
    Or do you see any other certificate we may trust in a systemic meltdown?
    Thank you for clarifying the topic.

  2. Hi jwr

    I would want to be out of paper in a systemic meltdown. Having said that if you want to go the ETF route, there are far better ETFs around. They must be independent and incorporated outside the G20.

  3. bullionvault.com; you can google this; is a custodial partner for the small investor. you can read all about them on their website. They have an extrememly transparent and simple business model; I suppose you call it a paper substitute; because it is a depository and at the end of the day what you have is a certificate that your silver or gold is deposited; but there’s absolutely no nonsense going on; and as you’ll see when you study the website; it’s all very real. Actually it’s a unique business model.

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