A great deal of Gordon Brown’s economic strategy would strike a sane man as troubling. Not a great deal was mysterious. The orgy of consumption spending, frequent extensions of the cycle over which he would “borrow to invest”, proclamations of the “end of boom and bust”: these are part of the armoury of modern politicians, of all political hues.
One decision stands out as downright bizarre, however: the sale of the majority of Britain’s gold reserves for prices between $256 and $296 an ounce, only to watch it soar so far as $1,615 per ounce today.
When Brown decided to dispose of almost 400 tonnes of gold between 1999 and 2002, he did two distinctly odd things.
First, he broke with convention and announced the sale well in advance, giving the market notice that it was shortly to be flooded and forcing down the spot price. This was apparently done in the interests of “open government”, but had the effect of sending the spot price of gold to a 20-year low, as implied by basic supply and demand theory.
Second, the Treasury elected to sell its gold via auction. Again, this broke with the standard model. The price of gold was usually determined at a morning and afternoon “fix” between representatives of big banks whose network of smaller bank clients and private orders allowed them to determine the exact price at which demand met with supply.
The auction system again frequently achieved a lower price than the equivalent fix price. The first auction saw an auction price of $10c less per ounce than was achieved at the morning fix. It also acted to depress the price of the afternoon fix which fell by nearly $4.
It seemed almost as if the Treasury was trying to achieve the lowest price possible for the public’s gold. It was.
One of the most popular trading plays of the late 1990s was the carry trade, particularly the gold carry trade.
In this a bank would borrow gold from another financial institution for a set period, and pay a token sum relative to the overall value of that gold for the privilege.
Once control of the gold had been passed over, the bank would then immediately sell it for its full market value. The proceeds would be invested in an alternative product which was predicted to generate a better return over the period than gold which was enduring a spell of relative price stability, even decline.
At the end of the allotted period, the bank would sell its investment and use the proceeds to buy back the amount of gold it had originally borrowed. This gold would be returned to the lender. The borrowing bank would trouser the difference between the two prices.
This plan worked brilliantly when gold fell and the other asset – for the bank at the heart of this case, yen-backed securities – rose. When the prices moved the other way, the banks were in trouble.
This is what had happened on an enormous scale by early 1999. One globally significant US bank in particular is understood to have been heavily short on two tonnes of gold, enough to call into question its solvency if redemption occurred at the prevailing price.
Goldman Sachs, which is not understood to have been significantly short on gold itself, is rumoured to have approached the Treasury to explain the situation through its then head of commodities Gavyn Davies, later chairman of the BBC and married to Sue Nye who ran Brown’s private office.
Faced with the prospect of a global collapse in the banking system, the Chancellor took the decision to bail out the banks by dumping Britain’s gold, forcing the price down and allowing the banks to buy back gold at a profit, thus meeting their borrowing obligations.
I spoke with Peter Hambro, chairman of Petroplavosk and a leading figure in the London gold market, late last year and asked him about the rumours above.
“I think that Mr Brown found himself in a terrible position,” he said.
“He was facing a problem that was a world scale problem where a number of financial institutions had become voluntarily short of gold to the extent that it was threatening the stability of the financial system and it was obvious that something had to be done.”
While the market manipulation which occurred when the gold reserves were sold was not illegal as the abuse at Barclays may have been, the moral atmosphere in which it took place was identical.
The crash which began in 2007 and endures still was the result of an abdication of responsibility across the financial sector. This abdication ranged from the consumer whose thirst for goods pushed him beyond into grave debt to a government whose lust for popularity encouraged it to do the same.
Responsibility is evaded by all bar those on whose shoulders it ought to rest. The gold panic of 1999 was expensively paid for by the British public. The one thing politicians ought to have bought with that money was a lesson in the structural restraints which needed to be placed on banks now that the principle that they were ultimately public liabilities had been established.
It was a lesson which could have acted to restrain all players in the credit market boom of the 2000s. It was a lesson which nobody learnt.