by Koos Jansen, BullionStar: Head of the Financial Markets Division of the Dutch central bank, Aerdt Houben, stated in an interview for newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad published in October 2016 that releasing a bar list of the Dutch official gold reserves “would cost hundreds of thousands of euros”. In this post we’ll expose this is virtually impossible – the costs to publish the bar list should be close to zero – and speculate about the far reaching implications of this falsehood.
This story started a couple of years ago. As I am Dutch and concerned not only about my own financial wellbeing but of my country as well, I commenced inquiring my national central bank about the whereabouts and safety of our gold reserves in late 2013. One of my first actions was submitting the local equivalent of a Freedom Of Information Act – in Dutch WOB – to De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB) in order to obtain all written communication of the past decades between DNB and the Federal Reserve Bank Of New York (FRBNY). In 2013 I knew a large share of the Dutch gold was stored at the FRBNY, which I deemed to be an unnecessary risk. In a crisis situation, for example, the US government would be able to confiscate Dutch gold stored on American soil. Unfortunately, DNB responded it’s exempt from certain WOB requests under the banking law from 1998, article 3. (I thought the WOB hit a dead end, though recent developments have changed my mind regarding the legitimacy of the rejection. In a forthcoming post more on my WOB from 2013.)
Subsequently, on 21 November 2014 DNB shocked the financial world by announcing it had covertly repatriated 123 tonnes of gold from the FRBNY vaults. Did DNB question the trustworthiness of the FRBNY like myself? Most likely, as I see few other reasons for repatriating, next to losing trust in the international monetary system itself. The gold wasn’t sold in the Netherlands, as our gold reserves have remained unchanged at 612 tonnes since 2008. Apparently DNB felt safer having less gold stored at the FRBNY. Note, the FRBNY offers institutional clients to store gold free of charge, yet DNB favored to ship it home. From the FRBNY website:
The New York Fed charges account holders a handling fee for gold transactions, including when gold enters or leaves the vault or ownership transfers (moves between compartments), but otherwise does not charge fees for gold storage.
In the press release DNB stated repatriating gold “may have a positive effect on public confidence”. Suggesting the Dutch public – or central bank or government – does not have full faith in the FRBNY as a custodian.
My focus on the Dutch gold, in a way partially mine as our official gold reserves are not owned but merely managed by DNB, was sharpened in 2015. On 26 September of that year I visited the Reinvent Money conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. One of the speakers was Jacob De Haan from DNB’s Economics and Research Division. In his presentation, De Haan repeatedly emphasized the importance of transparency in central banking.
Through my WOB experience, however, DNB appeared to be not transparent at all. Thereby, if DNB wants to be transparent and boost public confidence, why doesn’t it publish a gold bar list? The publication of this list would provide one of the most important checks on the existence of the Dutch official gold reserves, as the list can then be cross checked with the inventory lists of gold ETFs and alike, possibly exposing multiple titles of ownership on single gold bars. And this act of transparency could be accomplished within minutes by uploading an excel sheet to the DNB website. When I approached De Haan after the conference and asked why DNB doesn’t put out a gold bar list, he offered me he would look into it. He gave me his email address and we agreed to stay in touch.