No gold conspiracy in London fix

The chief executive officer of Sharps Pixley Ltd., who has traded gold for 30 years, challenged a study that says the market’s price-setting mechanism is susceptible to manipulation, compromising the $19.6 trillion of the precious metal that trades annually.

The price fluctuations for gold when five banks meet daily to determine the so-called fixing in London are a consequence of supply and demand, not a sign of manipulation, said Ross Norman, the chief executive of Sharps Pixley, a broker of physical gold in the city. Norman previously worked at Johnson Matthey Plc, N.M. Rothschild & Sons Ltd. and Credit Suisse Group AG.

Five banks meet twice a day to set benchmark prices used by miners, jewelers and central banks to trade and value the metal. Unusual trading patterns in the spot market during the afternoon session suggest collusive behavior and should be investigated, New York University’s Stern School of Business Professor Rosa Abrantes-Metz and Albert Metz, a managing director at Moody’s Investors Service, wrote in a draft research paper.

The bigger price swings in the afternoon are caused by both London and New York being open and more people trading bullion because of increased liquidity as the so-called fixing happens, said Norman. The volatility also reflects differing views on the value of metal rather than price manipulation, he said.

“The fix is a price-discovery mechanism where you’re trying to match buyers and sellers and as such price volatility is a natural and even desirable part of that process,” Norman said in a phone interview March 3. “It’s natural that you’re going to get these sharp movements. I don’t accept the assertion that the structure is inefficient and open to manipulation.”

Bullion Bars

The members of the fix are Deutsche Bank AG, Bank of Nova Scotia, Barclays Plc, HSBC Holdings Plc and Societe Generale SA, who also trade on behalf of clients. The calls take place at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. and usually last about 10 minutes. The banks declare how many bars they want to buy or sell at the current market value. The price is adjusted until the buyers and sellers are within 50 bars, or about 620 kilograms, of each other. A kilogram of gold is valued at about $43,000.

Abrantes-Metz advises the European Union and the International Organization of Securities Commissions on financial benchmarks. Her 2008 paper “Libor Manipulation?” helped uncover the rigging of the London interbank offered rate. Metz heads credit policy research at Moody’s and wrote the paper independently of his position at the ratings company. Bloomberg News reported last week the draft paper, which hadn’t yet been submitted for publication.

Mining Companies

The authors screened trading in the spot gold market from 2001 to 2013 and found that typically downward swings in prices started appearing more frequently in the afternoon fixings from 2004. Goldby then was in the fourth year of a bull market that ran through 2012, during which prices rose more than sevenfold.

The tendency for prices to drop in the afternoon fixing more likely reflects the balance of traders, Norman said. Sellers such as mining companies can often outweigh buyers, said the 54-year-old.

“Those that would want to sell would typically use the fix and of course buyers will know that,” Norman said. “Producers will typically sell through the fix because they have relationships with bankers on their hedging programs that require an objective price.”

There could be legitimate reasons to explain some spikes, but on average moves around the afternoon fixing seem “disproportionately large,” Abrantes-Metz said in an interview March 4. The size and frequency of the swings need to be evaluated within the context of how the fixing is structured, how opaque the trading is, the conflicts of interest, potential gains from abuse and a lack of appropriate governance and oversight of the benchmark, she said.

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