Crowdfunding and digital currencies have long gone hand in hand, ranging from centralized platforms like Pozible to decentralized crowdfunding solutions. On the grassroots level, plenty of projects have gained backing on Bitcoin Talk and other platforms through initial public offerings that take bitcoin or other alternative currencies. As well, some coin projects have been pitched as crowdfunding vehicles for charities.
StartCOIN is a new project backed by financial journalist and maxcoin founder Max Keiser and equity crowdfunding firm BankToTheFuture.com that is looking to shake up the digital currency crowdfunding landscape. The initiative pairs an altcoin with StartJOIN, a platform that aims to create a fun, inclusive environment for digital currency enthusiasts who want to support worthy causes. The altcoin is fully mineable, based on the scrypt mining algorithm. As well, an airdrop is planned to distribute 25 startcoins to every member of the StartJOIN community. BankToTheFuture.com CEO Simon Dixon explained that StartCOIN aims to create decentralized funding community that works together to provide money to artists and developers, saying:
“I see a coin for crowdfunding like quantitative easing for the people, by the people and without the central banks. People are creating money, money is used for investing in businesses and pushing forward projects, and there is no debt involved.”
Keiser told CoinDesk that, ultimately, the project could fundamentally shift how people use digital currencies as a technology:
“I think that within a few months StartJOIN, by successfully combining [crowdfunding] and crypto – as well as implementing the new features we have coming – will be on our way in completely changing the way people think about what’s possible in this space.”
BitcoinJ developer and former Google engineer Mike Hearn is working on a new decentralized crowdfunding platform that will support bitcoin transactions and could lead to a reshaping of the peer-to-peer finance landscape. The crowdfunding platform, called ‘Lighthouse’, was announced during a talk led by Hearn at the Bitcoin2014conference in Amsterdam. Hearn later elaborated on the announcement in a 17th May blog post. Like other crowdfunding platforms, Lighthouse will serve as a means for users to create projects and pledge funds to others. Hearn wrote, however, that its primary aim will be to help fund more advanced features and services within the bitcoin network, explaining:
“To make these features come alive takes work, and because they’re inherently about decentralised infrastructure it’s often hard to find anyone who will pay for that work. With no way to own the infrastructure once built, many traditional funding models can’t function.”
Lighthouse is being designed to solve this problem and will provide project fundraisers with a lightweight, encryptable wallet that is build on the same code as the Android wallet app designed by Andreas Schildbach. Lighthouse will function on the premise of ‘assurance contracts’, which means that projects are funded on the basis that the money is only collected and utilized if enough money is raised. The platform will use the block chain itself to verify transactions directed toward a project. However, the bitcoin network will only verify the transactions once the goal has been reached, said Hearn. Additionally, users will be able to revoke their pledges before the round is complete. Lighthouse will double spend the funds back to the user’s account, freeing them up for other uses. Hearn framed these characteristics as making the crowd funding process much easier for both project owners and contributors, saying:
“This simplifies life for everyone: the project owner doesn’t have to worry about being hacked, they can go on vacation for a while and not have to worry about handling withdrawals from the pot, and anyone who pledges knows they can get their money back whenever they like before the goal is reached.”
Cost and security, Hearn told CoinDesk, are some of the issues involved with centralized crowdfunding platform that can be solved by a service like Lighthouse. Websites like Kickstarter can charge as much as 10% of a project’s total funds, he pointed out, making it harder for projects to successfully raise enough money:
“If you’re trying to raise money from a community, that’s a big problem because it’s quite demoralising to wonder if you’re one of the 10% of people whose pledge will just be eaten by middlemen. For smaller projects it can render the entire process unworkable.”
Hearn added that in many cases, centralized platforms impose restrictions on project creators that add to the burden of their task. Decentralization, on the other hand, empowers them to raise funds in a more proactive manner. From a security perspective, Lighthouse protects users by not hosting private keys on any centralized server. This makes the platform a poor target for hackers or other exploiters, said Hearn. He also cited the idea that decentralized crowdfunding allows for more comprehensive vetting processes. In turn, this helps projects prove themselves to possible donors and increase their chances of success. With Hearn still hard at work on Lighthouse, it remains to be seen what features and characteristics will ultimately define this decentralized crowdfunding platform.
Fritz Lang’s silent movie classic Metropolis (1927) depicts the downfall of a hierarchical megacity. Metropolis is a city of skyscrapers. At the top, in their penthouse C-suites, lives a wealthy elite led by the autocrat Joh Fredersen. Down below, in subterranean factories, the proletariat toils. After he witnesses an industrial accident, Fredersen’s playboy son is awakened to the squalor and danger of working-class life. The upshot is a violent revolution and a self-inflicted if inadvertent disaster: When the workers smash the power generators, their own living quarters are flooded because the water pumps fail. Today,Metropolis is perhaps best remembered for the iconic female robot that becomes the doppelgänger of the heroine, Maria. Yet it is better understood as a metaphor for history’s fundamental dialectic between hierarchies and networks.
Lang said the film was inspired by his first visit to New York. To his eyes, the skyscrapers of Manhattan were the perfect architectural expression of a hierarchical and unequal society. Contemporaries, notably the right-wing media magnate Alfred Hugenberg, detected a communist subtext, though Lang’s wife, who co-wrote the screenplay, was a radical German nationalist who later joined the Nazi Party. Viewed today, the film transcends the political ideologies of the mid-20th century. With its multiple religious allusions, culminating in an act of redemption, Metropolis is modernity mythologized. The central question it poses is as relevant today as it was then: How can an urbanized, technologically advanced society avoid disaster when its social consequences are profoundly anti-egalitarian?
There is, perhaps, an even more profound question in the subtext of Lang’s film: Who wins, the hierarchy or the network? The greatest threat to the hierarchical social order ofMetropolis is posed not by flooding but by a clandestine conspiracy among the workers. Nothing infuriates Fredersen more than the realization that this conspiracy was hatched in the catacombs beneath the city without his knowledge.
In today’s terms, the hierarchy is not a single city but the state itself, the vertically structured super-polity that evolved out of the republics and monarchies of early modern Europe. Though not the most populous nation in the world, the United States is certainly the world’s most powerful state, despite the limits imposed by checks (to lobbyists) and balances (as in bank). Its nearest rival, the People’s Republic of China, is usually seen as a profoundly different kind of state, for while the United States has two major parties and a gaggle of tiny ones, the People’s Republic has one and only one. American government is founded on the separation of powers, not least the independence of its judiciary; the PRC subordinates law, such as it has evolved in China over the centuries, to the dictates of the Communist Party.
Yet both states are republics, with roughly comparable vertical structures of administration and not wholly dissimilar concentrations of power in the hands of the central government. Economically, the two systems are certainly converging, with China looking ever more to market signals and incentives, while the United States keeps increasing the statutory and regulatory power of government over producers and consumers. And, to an extent that disturbs civil libertarians on both Left and Right, the U.S. government exerts control and practices surveillance over its citizens in ways that are functionally closer to contemporary China than to the America of the Founding Fathers.
To all the world’s states, democratic and undemocratic alike, the new informational, commercial, and social networks of the internet age pose a profound challenge, the scale of which is only gradually becoming apparent. First email achieved a dramatic improvement in the ability of ordinary citizens to communicate with one another. Then the internet came to have an even greater impact on the ability of citizens to access information. The emergence of search engines marked a quantum leap in this process. The advent of laptops, smartphones, and other portable devices then emancipated electronic communication from the desktop. With the explosive growth of social networks came another great leap, this time in the ability of citizens to share information and ideas.
It was not immediately obvious how big a challenge all this posed to the established state. There was a great deal of cheerful talk about the ways in which the information technology revolution would promote “smart” or “joined-up” government, enhancing the state’s ability to interact with citizens. However, the efforts of Anonymous, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden to disrupt the system of official secrecy, directed mainly against the U.S. government, have changed everything. In particular, Snowden’s revelations have exposed the extent to which Washington was seeking to establish a parasitical relationship with the key firms that operate the various electronic networks, acquiring not only metadata but sometimes also the actual content of vast numbers of phone calls and messages. Techniques of big-data mining, developed initially for commercial purposes, have been adapted to the needs of the National Security Agency.
The most recent, and perhaps most important, network challenge to hierarchy comes with the advent of virtual currencies and payment systems like Bitcoin. Since ancient times, states have reaped considerable benefits from monopolizing or at least regulating the money created within their borders. It remains to be seen how big a challenge Bitcoin poses to the system of national fiat currencies that has evolved since the 1970s and, in particular, how big a challenge it poses to the “exorbitant privilege” enjoyed by the United States as the issuer of the world’s dominant reserve (and transaction) currency. But it would be unwise to assume, as some do, that it poses no challenge at all.
Clashes between hierarchies and networks are not new in history; on the contrary, there is a sense in which they are history. Indeed, the course of history can be thought of as the net result of human interactions along four axes. The first of these is time. The arrow of time can move in only one direction, even if we have become increasingly sophisticated in our conceptualization and measurement of its flight. The second is nature: Nature means in this context the material or environmental constraints over which we still have little control, notably the laws of physics, the geography and geology of the planet, its climate and weather, the incidence of disease, our own evolution as a species, our fertility, and the bell curves of our abilities as individuals in a series of normal distributions. The third is networks. Networks are the spontaneously self-organizing, horizontal structures we form, beginning with knowledge and the various “memes” and representations we use to communicate it. These include the patterns of migration and miscegenation that have distributed our species and its DNA across the world’s surface; the markets through which we exchange goods and services; the clubs we form, as well as the myriad cults, movements, and crazes we periodically produce with minimal premeditation and leadership. And the fourth is hierarchies, vertical organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control, and communication. These begin with family-based clans and tribes, out of which or against which more complex hierarchical institutions evolved. They include, too, tightly regulated urban polities reliant on commerce or bigger, mostly monarchical, states based on agriculture; the centrally run cults often referred to as churches; the armies and bureaucracies within states; the autonomous corporations that, from the early modern period, sought to exploit economies of scope and scale by internalizing certain market transactions; academic corporations like universities; political parties; and the supersized transnational states that used to be called empires.
Note that the environment is not wholly a given; it can be shaped by, as well as shape, humanity. It may well be that, in the foreseeable future, our species’ impact on the earth’s climate will become the dominant driver of history, but that is not yet the case. For now, the interactions of networks and hierarchies are more important. Networks are not planned by a single authority; they are the main source of innovation but are relatively fragile. Hierarchies exist primarily because of economies of scale and scope, beginning with the imperative of self-defense. To that end, but for other reasons too, hierarchies seek to exploit the positive externalities of networks. States need networks, for no political hierarchy, no matter how powerful, can plan all the clever things that networks spontaneously generate. But if the hierarchy comes to control the networks so much as to compromise their benign self-organizing capacities, then innovation is bound to wane.
Consider some examples of history along these four axes. The population of the entire Eurasian landmass was devastated by the Black Death of the 14th century, a natural disaster transmitted along trade networks. But the impact was very different in Europe compared with Asia. The main difference between the West and the East of Eurasia after 1500 was that networks in the West were much freer from hierarchical dominance than in the East. No monolithic empire rose in the West; multiple and often weak principalities prevailed. Printing existed in China long before the 15th century, but its advent in Germany was explosive because of the network effects generated by the rapid spread of Gutenberg’s easily replicated technology. The Reformation, which was printed as much as it was preached, unleashed a wave of religious revolt against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was only after prolonged and bloody conflict that the monarchies were able to re-impose their hierarchical control over the new Protestant sects.
European history in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was characterized by a succession of network-driven waves of innovation: the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. In each case, the sharing of novel ideas within networks of scholars and tinkerers produced powerful and mainly positive externalities, culminating in the decisive improvements in economic efficiency and then life expectancy experienced in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America from the late 18th century. The network effects of trade and migration were especially powerful, as European merchants and settlers exploited falling transportation costs to export their ideas, as well as their techniques and goods, to the rest of the world. Thanks to those ideas, this was also an era of political revolutions. Ideas about liberty, equality, and fraternity crossed the Atlantic as rapidly as pirated technology from the cotton mills of Lancashire. Kings were toppled, aristocracies abolished, and churches dissolved or made to compete without the support of a state.
Yet the 19th century saw the triumph of hierarchies over the new networks. This was partly because hierarchical corporations—which began, let us remember, as state-sponsored monopolies like the East India Company—were as important in the spread of industrial capitalism as horizontally structured markets. Firms could reduce the transaction costs of the market as well as exploit economies of scale and scope. The railways, steamships, and telegraph cables that made possible the first age of globalization had owners.
The key, however, was the victory of hierarchy in the realm of politics. Why revolutionary ideologies like Jacobinism and Marxism-Leninism so quickly produced highly centralized hierarchical political structures is one of the central puzzles of the modern era, though it was an outcome more or less accurately predicted by much classical political theory. Whatever the democratic aspirations of the revolutionaries, their ideologies ended up as sources of legitimation for autocrats who were markedly more power-hungry than the monarchs of the ancien régime.
True, the energies unleashed by the overthrow of the Bourbons were (just barely) insufficient to overcome those produced by the British synthesis of monarchism and the pursuit of Mammon, which restored or revived the continental monarchies, including, temporarily, the Bourbons themselves. But the old order was only partially restored. Napoleon had taught even his most ardent enemies an unforgettable lesson, as Clausewitz understood, about how an imperial leader could wield power by commanding a people in arms.
For a time it seemed that a modus vivendi had arisen between the new networks of science and industry and the old hierarchies of hereditary rule. Half the world fell under the sway of a dozen Western empires, and much of the rest was under their economic sway. But optimists, from Norman Angell to Andrew Carnegie, felt sure that these empires would not be so foolish as to jeopardize the benefits of international exchange. After all, it was partly by taxing the fruits of the first era of globalization that the empires could finance their vast armies, navies, and bureaucracies. This proved wrong. So complete was the imperial system of command, control, and communication that when the empires resolved to go to war with one another over arcane issues like the status of Bosnia-Herzegovina or the neutrality of Belgium, they were able to mobilize in excess of seventy million men as soldiers or sailors. In France and Germany about a fifth of the prewar population ended up in uniform, bearing arms.
The triumph of hierarchy over networks was symbolized by the complete failure of the Second International of socialist parties to prevent the World War. When the leaders of European socialism met in Brussels at the end of July 1914, they could do little more than admit their own impotence. What the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus called the alliance of “thrones and telephones” had marched the young men of Europe off to Armageddon. Those who thought the war would not last long underestimated the hierarchical state’s ability to sustain industrialized slaughter.
The mid 20th century was the zenith of hierarchy. Although World War I ended with the collapse of no fewer than four of the great dynastic empires—the Romanov, Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Ottoman—they were replaced with astonishing swiftness by new and stronger states based on the normative paradigm of the nation-state, the ethno-linguistically defined anti-imperium.
Not only did the period after 1918 witness the rise of the most centrally controlled states of all time (Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich and Mao’s People’s Republic); it was also an era in which hierarchies flourished in the economic, social and cultural spheres. Central planners ruled, whether they worked for governments, armies or large corporations. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the Fordist World State controls everything from eugenics to narcotics and euthanasia; the fate of the non-conformist Bernard Marx is banishment. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) there is not the slightest chance that Winston Smith will be able to challenge Big Brother’s rule over Airstrip One; his fate is to be tortured and brainwashed. A remarkable number of the literary heroes of the high Cold War era were crushed by one system or the other: from Heller’s John Yossarian to le Carré’s Alec Leamas to Solzhenytsin’s Ivan Denisovich.
Kraus was right: The information technology of mid-century overwhelmingly favored the hierarchies. Though the telegraph and telephone created vast new networks, they were relatively easy to cut, tap, or control. Newsprint, radio, cinema, and television were not true network technologies because they generally involved one-way communication from the content provider to the reader or viewer. During the Cold War the superpowers were mostly able to control information flows by manufacturing or sponsoring propaganda and classifying or censoring anything deemed harmful. Sensation surrounded every spy scandal and defection; yet in most cases all that happened was that classified information was passed from one national security state to the other. Only highly trained personnel in governmental, academic, or corporate research centers used computers, and those were anything but personal computers. The self-confidence of the technocrats at that time is nicely exemplified by MONIAC (the Monetary National Income Analogue Computer), a hydraulic device designed by Bill Phillips (of Phillips Curve fame) that was supposed to simulate the effects of Keynesian economic policy on the UK economy.
There were moments of truth, particularly in the 1970s, when classified information reached the public through the free press in the West or through samizdat literature in the Soviet bloc. Yet the striking feature of the later Cold War was how well the national security state managed to withstand exposures like the report of the Church Committee or the publication of the Gulag Archipelago. George H.W. Bush, appointed head of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1976—in the midst of the Church Committee’s work—went on to serve as Vice President and President. Within a decade of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation had a former KGB operative as its President. The Pentagon proved to be mightier than the Pentagon Papers.
Today, by contrast, the hierarchies seem to be in much more trouble. The most obvious challenge to established hierarchies is the flow of information unleashed by the advent of the personal computer, email, and the internet, which have allowed ordinary citizens to organize themselves into much larger and more dispersed networks than has ever been possible before. Indeed, the trajectories for the production and price of PCs in the United States between 1977 and 2004 are remarkably similar to the trajectories for the production and price of printed books in England from 1490 to 1630. The differences are that our networking revolution is much faster and that it is global.
In a far shorter space of time than it took for 84 percent of the world’s adults to become literate, a remarkably large proportion of humanity has gained access to the internet. Although its origins can be traced back to the late 1960s, the internet as a system of interconnected computer networks did not really begin until the standard protocol suite (TCP/IP) was adopted at universities in the 1980s. As recently as 1998 only around 2 percent of the world’s population were internet users. Today the proportion is 39 percent; in the developed world, 77 percent.
Google was incorporated in 1998. Its first premises were a garage in Menlo Park. Today its has the capacity to process more than a billion search requests and 24 petabytes of user-generated data every day. Facebook was founded at Harvard ten years ago. Today it has 1.23 billion regular users a month. Twitter was created eight years ago. Now it has 200 million users, who send more than 400 million tweets daily.
The challenge these new networks pose to established hierarchies is threefold. First, they vastly increase the volume of information to which citizens can have access, as well as the speed with which they can have access to it. Second, they empower individual citizens to publicize things that might otherwise remain secret or known only to a few. Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg did the same thing by making public classified documents, but Snowden has already revealed much more than Ellsberg and to vastly more people, while Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has far out-scooped Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (even if he has not yet helped to bring down an American President). Third, and perhaps most importantly, the networks expose by their very performance the inefficiency of hierarchical government.
Politicians and voters remain the captives of a postwar campaign vocabulary in which the former pledge to the latter that they will provide not just additional public goods but also “create jobs” without significantly increasing the cost to most voters in terms of taxation. The history of President Barack Obama’s Administration can be told as a series of pledges to increase employment (“the stimulus”), reduce the risk of financial crisis, and provide universal health insurance. The President’s popularity has declined fastest when, as with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the inability of the Federal government to fulfill these pledges efficiently has been most exposed. The shortcomings of the website Healthcare.gov in many ways epitomized the fundamental problem: In the age of Amazon, consumers expect basic functionality from websites. Daily Show host Jon Stewart spoke for hundreds of thousands of frustrated users when he taunted former Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sebelius: “I’m going to try and download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.”
Yet the trials and tribulations of “Obamacare” are merely a microcosm for a much more profound problem. The modern state, at least in its democratic variant, has evolved a familiar solution to the problem of increasing the provision of public goods without making proportionate increases to taxation, and that is to finance current government consumption through borrowing, while at the same time encouraging citizens to increase their own leverage by various fiscal incentives, such as the deductibility of mortgage interest payments. The vast increase of private debt that preceded the financial crisis of 2008 was succeeded by a comparably vast increase in public debt. At the same time, central banks took increasingly unorthodox steps to shore up tottering banks and plunging asset markets by purchases of securities in exchange for excess reserves. With short-term interest rates at zero, “quantitative easing” was designed to keep long-term interest rates low too. The financial world watches with bated breath to see how QE can be “tapered” and when short-term rates will be raised. Most economists nevertheless take for granted the U.S. government’s ability to print its own currency without limit. Many assume that this offers some relatively easy way out of trouble if rising interest rates threaten to make debt service intolerably burdensome. But this assumption may be wrong.
Since ancient times, states have exploited their ability to issue currency, whether coins stamped with the king’s likeness or electronic dollars on a screen. But if the new networks are in the process of creating an alternative form of money, such as Bitcoin purports to be, then perhaps the time-honored state privilege to debase the currency is at risk. Bitcoin offers many advantages over a fiat currency like the U.S. dollar. As a means of payment—especially for online transactions—it is faster, cheaper, and more secure than a credit card. As a store of value it has many of the key attributes of gold, notably finite supply. As a unit of account it is having teething troubles, but that is because it has become an attractive speculative object. It is too early to predict that Bitcoin will succeed as a parallel currency, but it is also too early to predict that it will fail. In any case, governments can fail, too.
Where governments fail most egregiously, new networks may well increase the probability of successful revolution. The revolutionary events that swept the Middle East and North Africa beginning in Tunisia in December 2010—the so-called Arab Spring—were certainly facilitated by various kinds of information technology, even if for most Arabs it was probably the television channel Al Jazeera more than Facebook or Twitter that spread the news of the revolution. Most recently, the revolutionaries in Kiev who overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych made effective use of social networks to organize their protests in the Maidan and to disseminate their critique of Yanukovych and his cronies.
Yet it would be naive to assume that we are witnessing the dawn of a new era of free and equal netizens, all empowered by technology to speak truth to (and about) power, just as it would be naive to assume that the hierarchical state is doomed, if not to revolutionary downfall then at least to a permanent diminution of its capacity for social control.
Modern networks have prospered, paradoxically, in ways that are profoundly inegalitarian. That is because ownership of the information infrastructure and the rents from it are so concentrated. Google at the time of writing is worth $359 billion by market capitalization. About 16 percent of its shares, worth $58 billion, are owned by its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The market capitalization of Facebook is $161 billion; 28 percent of the shares, worth $45 billion, are owned by its founder Mark Zuckerberg. If Thomas Piketty needs further proof of his thesis that the world is reverting to the inequality of a century ago because, absent world wars and revolutions, the rate of return on capital (and the rate of growth of executive compensation) tends to outstrip the rate of growth of aggregate income, it is there in abundance in Silicon Valley. Granted, the young and very wealthy people who literally own the modern networks tend to have somewhat liberal political views. A few of them are libertarians. But few of them would welcome Gallic rates of taxation, much less a French-style egalitarian revolution.
At the same time, the hierarchical state has not been slow to appreciate the opportunities that the new social networks present. Edward Snowden’s most startling revelation was the complicity of companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Facebook in the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs, notably PRISM. It is all very well for Mark Zuckerberg to complain that he has been “so confused and frustrated by the repeated reports of the behavior of the U.S. government” and to declare self-righteously: “When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government.” But he knows full well that since at least 2009 Facebook has responded to tens of thousands of U.S. government requests for information about Facebook users. If not for Snowden’s leaks, we would not have known just how freely the NSA was making use of the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The owners of the networks are also well aware that plotting jihad is not the principal use to which their technology is put, any more than plotting revolution is. They owe their security much more to network surfers’ apathy than to the NSA. Most people do not go online to participate in flash mobs. Most women seem to prefer shopping and gossiping; most men prefer sports and pornography. All those neural quirks produced by evolution make us complete suckers for the cascading stimuli of tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook pokes from members of our electronic kinship group. The networks cater to our solipsism (selfies), our short attention spans (140 characters), and our seemingly insatiable appetite for “news” about “celebrities.”
In the networked world, the danger is not popular insurrection but indifference; the political challenge is not to withstand popular anger but to transmit any kind of signal through the noise. What can focus us, albeit briefly, on the tiresome business of how we are governed or, at least, by whom? When we speak of “populism” today, we mean simply a politics that is audible as well as intelligible to the man in the street. Not that the man in the street is actually inthe street. Far more likely, he is the man slumped on his sofa, his attention skipping fitfully from television to laptop to tablet to smartphone and back to television. And what gets his attention? The end of history? The clash of civilizations? The answer turns out to be the narcissism of small differences.
Liberals denounce conservatives with astonishing vituperation; Republicans inveigh against Democrats. But to the rest of the world what is striking are the strange things nearly all Americans agree about (for example, that children should be packed off to camps in the summer). Many English people are outraged about immigrant Romanians. But to East Asian eyes the English are scarcely distinguishable from Romanians. (Indeed, in many parts of formerly working-class England people live much as the reviled Roma are alleged to: in squalor.)
It is no accident that most of the world’s conflicts today are not between civilizations, as Samuel Huntington foresaw, but between neighbors. That, after all, is what is really going on in Syria, Iraq, and the Central African Republic, not to mention Ukraine. Can anyone other than a Russian or a Ukrainian tell a Russian and a Ukrainian apart? And yet how readily one is pitted against the other, and how distractingly.
At times, it can seem as if we are condemned to try to understand our own time with conceptual frameworks more than half a century old. Since the financial crisis that began in 2007, many economists have been reduced to recycling the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who died in 1946. At the same time, analysts of international relations seem to be stuck with terminology that dates from roughly the same period: “realism” or “idealism”, containment or appeasement. (George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” was dispatched just two months before Keynes’s death.)
Yet our own time is profoundly different from the mid-20th century. The near-autarkic, commanding and controlling states that emerged from the Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War exist only as pale shadows of their former selves. Today, the combination of technological innovation and international economic integration has created entirely new forms of organization—vast, privately owned networks—that were scarcely dreamt of by Keynes and Kennan. We must ask ourselves: Are these new networks really emancipating us from the tyranny of the hierarchical empire-states? Or will the hierarchies ultimately take over the networks as they did a century ago, in 1914, successfully subordinating them to the priorities of the national security state?
A libertarian utopia of free and equal netizens—all networked together, sharing all available data with maximum transparency and minimal privacy settings—has a certain appeal, especially to the young. It is romantic to picture these netizens, like the workers in Lang’s Metropolis, spontaneously rising up against the world’s corrupt hierarchies. Yet the suspicion cannot be dismissed that, despite all the hype of the Information Age and all the brouhaha about Messrs. Snowden and Assange, the old hierarchies and new networks are in the process of reaching a quiet accommodation with one another, much as thrones and telephones did a century ago. We shall all know what it means when (as begins to be imaginable) Sheryl Sandberg leans all the way into the White House. It will mean that Metropolis lives on.
In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department will begin studying“alternative options for the penny and the nickel.” The problem is that the cost of producing the lowest-denomination coins is now nearly twice their face value.According to the 2013 annual report of the U.S. Mint, a penny now costs 1.8 cents to make, and a nickel costs 9.4 cents to make. The Brookings Institution estimates that the difference costs taxpayers $1 billion a year. And if Canada, which eliminated its penny in 2012, is a good example, U.S. banks will save billions of dollars a year that they spend transporting, storing and counting all those pennies and nickels.
“What if the wealthy numismatist was interested in nickels? The 1913 Liberty 5-cent piece that recently sold at auction for $3,172,500 is definitely the kind of trophy that attracts big bidders. Dallas-based hedge fund manager Kyle Bass has a serious interest in nickels, but he takes a dramatically different approach than what might be expected. Bass could easily afford coins in the six-figure and up range, but (for now) he is targeting much more mundane pieces. The contrarian investor sunk exactly $1 million into U.S. coins, but his purchase didn’t require numismatic expertise or third-party grading. That’s because Bass purchsed 20 million common-date Jeffersons at face value.
Why would a guy who deals in big numbers and sophisticated investing strategies bother with lowly nickels? At the time of the mega-purchase of 20 million circulated nickels in 2011, the coins contained 6.8 cents apiece in metallic value per planchet. Nickel and copper have dropped since that time, and the current melt price is just under face value according to the Coinflation web site. Since Bass paid face value for his nickel hoard, there was no downside risk. Obtaining such a vast amount of 5-cent pieces obviously requires more than ordering the coins through normal channels such as armored car companies. This multi-ton request had to be filled by the Federal Reserve. When the Fed asked Bass why he wanted a cool million in Jeffersons, he calmly replied “I like nickels.” The purchase involved deeper motives than what might be perceived as an eccentric act. Bass made his reputation on successfully betting against heavily indebted nations such as Greece and Ireland as well as the large pool of subprime mortgages in America. That naturally led Bass to invest in gold and platinum through his Hayman Capital hedge fund as well as with his own money. Since Bass has no fear in going against conventional thinking, the world’s largest nickel hoard wasn’t a huge stretch for him.
I’ve often mused about how fun it would be to have a time machine and travel back to the early 1960s, and go on a pre-inflation shopping spree. In that era, most used cars were less than $800, and a new-in-the box Colt .45 Automatic sold for $60. In particular, it would be great to go back and get a huge pile of rolls of then-circulating US silver dimes, quarters, and half dollars at face value. (With silver presently around $30 per ounce, the US 90% silver (1964 and earlier) coinage is selling wholesale at 22 times face value–that is $22,000 for a $1,000 face value bag.) The disappearance of 90% silver coins from circulation in the US in the mid-1960s beautifully illustrated Gresham’s Law: “Bad Money Drives Out Good.” People quickly realized that the debased copper sandwich coins were bogus, so anyone with half a brain saved every pre-’65 (90% silver) coin that they could find. (This resulted in a coin shortage from 1965 to 1967, while the mint frantically played catch up, producing millions of cupronickel “clad” coins. This production was so hurried that they even skipped putting mint marks on coins from 1965 to 1967.) Alas, there are no time machines. But what if I were to tell you that there is a similar, albeit smaller-scale opportunity? Consider the lowly US five cent piece–the “nickel.” Unlike US dimes and quarters, which stopped being made of 90% silver after 1964, the composition of a nickel has essentially been unchanged since the end of World War II. It is still a 5 gram coin that is an alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel. (An aside: Some 1942 to 1945 five cent coins were made with 35% silver, because nickel was badly-needed for wartime industrial use. Those “War Nickels” have long since been culled from circulation, by collectors.) According to www.Coinflation.com, the 1946-2011 Nickel (with a 5 cent face value) had a base metal value of $0.0733 in February, 2011. That was 146.7% of its face value. Because of the global recession and the fact that both nickel and copper are primarily industrial metals, the melt value of a nickel declined to just $0.045671 (91.34% of face value). in April, 2013, and their actual minting and distribution costs are actually much higher. According to Coin Update, it cost the US Mint $0.1009 to produce and distribute each nickel, as of fiscal year 2013.But I predict that as inflation resumes–most likely beginning in 2013–the base metal value of nickels will rise substantially, regardless of the weakness in the industrial economy.
The Root of the Problem
It is inevitable that any country that issues a continually-inflated fiat paper currency will run into the problem of their coinage eventually having its base metal value exceed its face value. When this happens, it is one of those embarrassing “emperor’s new clothes” moments. Unless a government takes the drastic step of lopping off a zero or two from their currency, this coinage problem is inevitable. In essence, we were robbed by our own government when silver coins were replaced with copper sandwich coins in the 1960s. I predict that essentially the same thing will soon to happen with nickels. Helicopter Ben Bernanke willinflate his way out of the current liquidity crisis. through artificial lowering of interest rates, massive injections of liquidity, and monetization of the Federal debt. That can only spell one thing: inflation, and plenty of it. Mass inflation will mean much higher commodities prices (at least from the perspective of the US currency.) Starting in 2009, I began warning my readers that a nickel debasement was coming. But since then, I’ve pleasantly surprised to see that the government moved at a snail’s pace, in implementing the change. In February, 2010 it was announced that the Obama administration had endorsed a change in the metal composition of pennies and nickels. And then, in November 2010, President Obama signed “The Coin Modernization, Oversight, and Continuity Act of 2010“. Then, in late 2011 came news of the introduction of H.R. 3694 (the Saving Taxpayer Expenditures by Employing Less Imported Nickel ACT — aka the “STEEL Nickel Act”. It now appears likely that the STEEL Nickel Act the will be signed into law in 2012 and the U.S. mint will begin producing debased steel nickels in 2013.
In January, 2012 this was reported: Mint begins trial strikes in composition tests. The good news is that the trials strikes are part of a two year study. (The contract runs through June 30, 2013.) So we may have some extra time to stockpile nickels before the debasement. Once this change is implemented, you will then have to manually sort the “old” from the “new” debased nickels! But for now, there is still an open window of opportunity, during which time SurvivalBlog readers can salt away countless rolls, bags, and boxes of nickels. I am grateful for the delay in the nickel debasement, but this window of opportunity is likely to close in 2013. Act accordingly. Within just a few years, the base metal value of a nickel is likely to exceed two times (“2X”) its face value. (10 cents each.) The nickel will then begin to disappear from circulation. (Gresham’s Law is unavoidable.) Unlike the mid-1960s experience, the missing nickels will not cause a crisis, since pennies will suffice for making small change, and most vending machines now use dimes as their smallest purchase increment. Meanwhile, most bridge tolls and toll roads have inflated so that tolls are in 10 or 25 cent increments. The demise of the nickel will hardly cause a ripple in the news. Unless the Treasury decides to drop the issuance of nickels entirely, the US Mint will within the next three years be forced to introduce a “new” nickel with a debased composition. It will possibly be stainless steel.
Update: After a two-year study, testing 80 different alloys, the United States Mint’s findings on alternative metals were announced on December 14, 2012. In essence they’ve said: “We need more time.” Here is the key line from the report summary: “The Mint has made significant progress and, at this time, has concluded that additional R&D is necessary before it can recommend any changes to the current coin composition.” Here is a link to the full report. Based on the biennial R&D report, the U.S. Congress will probably either delay making changes to the penny and nickel, or they may just suspend further production. (Following Canada’s lead, with pennies.) I found the following in the contractor’s report:
“Stainless steels, despite the having an electrical conductivity that is about half that of cupronickel, were recommended for testing for the 5-cent coin. The ideal stainless steel for coinage would be non-ferromagnetic (so it would not be mistaken for a steel slug), have low flow stress (i.e., result in low striking loads), have excellent corrosion resistance and be comprised to the greatest extent practical of elements that are not as expensive as nickel. Nickel and molybdenum contents should be low to reduce costs. Austenitic stainless steels (3xx series) are preferred because they are non-ferromagnetic and thereby are more likely to be accepted by a majority of fielded coin-processing equipment.”
So I stand by my assertion that unless the denomination is dropped altogether, the cupronickel five cent piece will be replaced by a stainless steel token. It now appears that the 301, 302, 302HQ, or 304 stainless steel alloys are the most likely choices. Perhaps they’ll lean toward choosing 302HQ or 304, since they both include some nickel for Austenitizing. Hence, the bureaucrats could save some face and be able to claim that the new stainless steel slugs are still “nickels.” But they’ll still be just about worthless, compared to a real cupronickel nickel which contains more than five cents of base metal value. (See the details at the Coinflation web site.) The report cited a fully burden production cost (including base metal, tooling, labor and transportation) of 6.77 cents to produce each nickel out of stainless steel, but that is certainly an improvement over the current cost of 11.2 cents.
Why Not Pennies?
You may ask, why not accumulate 95% copper (pre-1982 mint date) pennies? They already seen a spike in their base metal value to 2.2 cents each. But unfortunately, pennies have two problems: confusion and bulk. They are confusing, because 95% copper pennies are now circulating side-by-side with 97.5% zinc pennies. They are also about four times as bulky (per dollar of face value) as nickels. With nickels you won’t have to spend time sorting out pre-1982 varieties. At present, visually date sorting pennies simply isn’t worth your time. Although Ryedale Coin makes an automated density-measuring penny sorting machine, it is still very time consuming, and unless you have a lot of pennies to sort, it would take a long time for the machine to pay for itself. As background: The pre-1982 pennies recently had a base metal value of about $0.0295 each.) Starting in mid-1982, the mint switched to 97.5% zinc pennies that are just flashed with copper. Those presently have a base metal value of only about $0.0067 each. Pennies are absurdly bulky and heavy to store. Nickels are also quite bulky, but are at least more manageable than pennies for a small investor’s storage. (Storing pennies would take a tremendous amount of space and constitute a huge weight per dollar invested.)
The biggest advantage of nickels over pennies is that there is no date/composition confusion. At least for now, a nickel is a nickel. Even the newly-minted “large portrait” nickels have the same 75/25 cupronickel composition. But that is likely to change within just a couple of years. The US Mint cannot go on minting nickels at a loss much longer. My advice: start filling military surplus ammo cans with $2 (40 coin) rolls of nickels. The standard U.S. military surplus .30 caliber size can is the perfect size for rolls of nickels. They will hold $188 of rolled nickels per can. Any larger containers would be difficult to move easily. (Avoid back strain!) Cardboard boxes are relatively fragile, and lack a carry handle. But ammo cans are very sturdy, have an integral handle, and they are relatively cheap and plentiful. They are available at military surplus stores and gun shows.
The current difference between a nickel’s base metal value and its face value is fairly small, but trust me, it will grow! Someday, when nickels are worth 4X to 8X their face value, your children will thank you for it. Consider it an investment in your children’s future. In December of 2006, the US congress passed a law making it illegal to bulk export or melt down pennies and nickels. (It became illegal to do so, per a change to Title 31, Subtitle IV, Chapter 51, Subchapter II, Section 5111, U.S. Code.) But once the old composition pennies and nickels have been driven out of circulation, that is likely to change. In any case, once the base metal value exceeds face value by about 3X, an investor’s market will develop, regardless of whether or not melting is re-legalized. Count on it.
What if Uncle Sam Decides to Drop a Zero?
As previously noted in SurvivalBlog, inflation of the US dollar has been chronic, cumulative, and insidious. So much so that turns of phrase from old movies like “penny candy” and “its your nickel” (to describe the cost of a call on a pay phone) now seem quaint and outdated. When inflation goes on long enough, the number of digits required to express a price grows too large. (As has been seen with the Italian lira, the Zimbabwean dollar, and countless other currencies. One whitewash solution to chronic inflation that several other nations have chosen isdropping one, two, or even three zeros from their currency, in an overnight revaluation, with a mandatory paper currency exchange. The history of the past century has shown that when doing so, most governments re-issue only new paper currency, but leave the old coinage in circulation, at the same face value. This is because the sheer logistics of a coinage swap would be daunting. Typically, this leaves the holders of coinage as the unexpected beneficiaries of a 10X, 100X.or even 1,000X gain of the purchasing power of their coins. Governments just assume that most citizens just have a couple of pocketfuls of coins at any given time. So if a currency swap were to happen while you are sitting on a big pile of nickels, then you would make a handsome profit. To “cash in”, you could merely spend your saved nickels in the new currency regime.
How To Build Your Pile of Nickels
How can you amass a big pile-o-nickels? Obviously just saving the few that you normally receive as pocket change is insufficient. Here are some possibilities:
1.) If you live in a state with nickel slot machine gambling (such as Nevada or New Jersey), or near an Indian tribal casino with nickel slots, go to a casino frequently and buy $50 in nickels at a time. Do your best to look like a gambler when doing so, by carrying a plastic change bucket with a few nickels in the bottom.
2.) Obtain nickels in rolls from your friendly local bank teller. Most “retail” banks are already accustomed to handing over rolls of coins to private depositors because of collector demand for statehood commemorative quarters and the new presidential dollar coins. Ask for $20 or $30 of nickels in rolls each time that you visit to do your normal banking deposits or withdrawals. It is best to ask for new “wrapped” (fresh Federal Reserve Bank issue) rolls. This way, you might have the chance of getting rolls with valuable minting errors–such as “double die” strikes. These are usually noticed and publicized a few months after the fact, and can be quite valuable. You will also be assured that you are getting full 40 coin rolls. (Getting shorted with 38 or 39 coin rolls is possible with hand-rolled coins.) If the tellers ask why you want so many, you can honestly tell them: “I’m working on a collection for my children.” (You need not tell them how large a collection it is!)
3.) If you live in or near an urban area and you operate a business, you can effectively “buy” rolled coinage at face value from your commercial bank. (They generally will not do any business with anyone unless they have an account.) It might be worth your while to on paper start a side business with “Vending Service” in its name, and have business cards and stationary printed up in that name. Have that “DBA” business entity name added to your commercial bank account. At a high-volume commercial bank you could conceivably buy hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of nickels on the pretense of stocking change for a vending business. Depending on your relationship with the bank, they may waive any fees if you ask for a few rolls of coins. Be advised, however, that if you ask for any significant quantity at one time, they will probably charge you a premium. (Down in the small print of your account contract, there is probably wording something like this: “Coin Issued – Per Roll: .03 Currency Issued – Per $ 100: .08” Before you cry “foul”, be aware that the Federal Reserve actually charges your bank a small premium when they obtain wrapped rolls of coins. (Most folks have held to the convenient fiction that a paper dollar was the same as a dollar in change. Obviously, it isn’t.) In effect, your commercial banker will just be passing along this cost to you. Unless they charge you a heavy fee, then don’t worry about it. Ten years from now, when a $2 roll of nickel is worth $16, you’ll be laughing about how you obtained $4,000 face value in nickels at just a small fraction over their face value.
4.) If you know someone that has a machine vending business, offer to buy all of their excess nickels once every month or two, by offering a small premium.
5.) If you operate a “mom and pop” retail business with a walk-in clientele, put up a small sign next to your cash register that reads: “WANTED: Rolls of nickels for my collection. I pay $2.25 per 40 coin ($2) roll, regardless of year!” Once the nickel shortage develops (as it inevitably will), you should raise you premium gradually, to keep a steady stream of coin rolls coming in.
Some SurvivalBlog readers and I have done some tests:
$300 face value (150 rolls @$2 face value per roll) fits easily fit in a standard U.S. Postal Service Medium Flat Rate Box (This is the USPS “FRB1″, with dimensions 11″ x 8-1/2″ x 5-1/2”). Full of Nickels, it weighs about 68 pounds. They can be mailed from coast to coast for less than $25. Doing so will take a bit of reinforcement. Given enough wraps of strapping tape, a corrugated box will securely transport $300 worth of Nickels. At ULINE you can get a corrugated to fit inside the corrugated Medium Flat Rate Box, to reinforce it. It is item #S-4517. It measures 10″x8″x5″. These boxes presently cost 54 cents each in lots of 25. The standard US .30 caliber ammo can works perfectly for storing rolls of Nickels at home. Each can will hold $188 of nickels in rolls. You can stack the nickel rolls vertically (on end, standing up) four to a row across the width of the ammo can. (Think of it like stacking one shotgun shell on top of another.) Each of the two layers takes 11 rows of 4, plus one odd row of 3. That makes 47 rolls per layer equaling 94 rolls total. This makes for $188 of coins per can. I’ve read that others have fit as much as $192 in rolled nickels (96 rolls) in a .30 caliber can, by carefully positioninghorizontal rows, but this takes a bit more time for precise positioning. The larger .50 caliber cans also work for storing nickels, but when full of coins they are too heavy to carry easily. If you buy more than a few hundred dollars worth of nickels, do not over-stress your house. Do not store them upstairs or in an attic. Storing the boxes or ammo cans on a concrete slab floor is ideal.
I’ve already had some ridicule, with e-mails accusing me of “hoarding.” So be it. Let me preemptively state that I realize that money tied up in coins will not benefit from the interest that a bank deposit would earn. But foregoing interest is not a major concern. Why? Because I think that it is a fairly safe bet that commodity price inflation will outstrip the prevailing interest rates for at least the next five years. In five years, the circulating nickel as we now know it, will be history, and it will be treated with nearly the same reverence that we now give to pre-’65 silver coinage. We saw what happened when clad copper dimes, quarters and half dollars were introduced in 1965. We should learn from history. Something comparable will very likely soon to happen with nickels. You, as a SurvivalBlog.com reader, are now armed with that knowledge. You can and should benefit from it,before Uncle Sugar performs his next sleight of hand trick and starts passing off silver-plated steel tokens as “nickels”.
December, 2012 Update: Hopefully the Mint’s dawdling will give us another year or two to stack up our boxes of nickels. If you read the contractor’s report, you’ll see that one of the goals of the planned debasement is that is be “seamless”, meaning: “Differences and abilities to recognize or process incumbent coins and coins produced from alternative material candidates cannot be distinguished through normal coin processing.” That is bureaucratic doublespeak for “Let’s make our new worthless tokens look like real coins, even to vending machines.” To the citizenry at large, the real consequence of the debasement is this: The melt value of a stainless steel nickel will be less than half a cent. We will be robbed again folks, just like our parents were, in 1964. Let’s not lose sight of the real underlying crime: general currency inflation. There would be no need to debase coins except for continuing, insidious inflation.
The goal of all government mints is to maintain seigniorage –which is making a profit on the coins that they produce. (Where their cost to produce each coin is less than its face value.) The U.S. Mint’s current champion of positive seigniorage is the much-maligned Sacagawea/Presidential “golden” dollar coin, which is a Manganese-Brass token with a base metal value of just 6.22 cents–just one cent more then the base metal value of a nickel. No wonder people instinctively hate them. (By the way, I consider putting a “gold” finish on those coins the most heinous bit of legerdemain in the history of the U.S. Mint.) Governments don’t put up with negative seigniorage for very long. Debasement of nickels and pennies is coming, but the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Let’s just be thankful that we’ll have a some more time to keep stacking up our nickels.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) has agreed to sell 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, the tower built by David Rockefeller, to Fosun International Ltd., the investment arm of China’s biggest closely held industrial group, for $725 million. Fosun, which invests in properties, pharmaceuticals and steel, is buying the 60-story, 2.2 million square-foot, lower Manhattan tower, according to a statement it filed to Hong Kong’s stock exchange. China’s developers and companies are expanding in overseas property markets as the government maintains curbs on housing at home to cool prices. Greenland Holding Group Co., a Shanghai-based, state-owned developer, this month agreed to buy a 70 percent stake in a residential and commercial real estate project in Brooklyn.
“There’s a lot of excess capital in China that needs a way out at the moment,” Simon Lo, Hong Kong-based executive director for Asia research and advisory at property broker Colliers International, said in a phone interview today. “Also, by investing in markets like New York, they believe they can gain from the recovery of the U.S. economy and real estate market.” Fosun (656), owned by Chinese billionaire Guo Guangchang, fell 0.3 percent to HK$6.79 at the midday trading break in Hong Kong. Shares in the Shanghai-based company have gained 37 percent this year, compared with the 2.6 percent increase in the benchmark Hang Seng Index. Over the past year, other Chinese developers and wealthy investors have been buying real estate in the U.S. China Vanke Co., the biggest homebuilder listed in mainland China, said in February it joined a residential real estate venture in San Francisco. The families of Zhang Xin, co-founder of Soho China Ltd. (410), the biggest developer in Beijing’s central business district, and Brazilian banking billionaire Moise Safra this year bought a 40 percent stake in New York’s General Motors Building.
The landmark 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft and built in the 1950s, was once the headquarters of Chase Manhattan Bank. Rockefeller, as head of the bank’s building committee, selected the site and oversaw its construction. JPMorgan intends to relocate about 4,000 employees, most of the people who work in the 60-story skyscraper, to other New York locations, Brian Marchiony, a spokesman, said in August. JPMorgan occupies about half of its space. Jane Zhang, a Shanghai-based spokeswoman for Fosun, declined to comment on how the company plans to use the building when contacted by Bloomberg News by phone.
New York City — In what is the most remarkable news of the day, which has so far passed very quietly under the radar, Fosun International, China’s largest private-owned conglomerate which invests in commodities, properties and pharmaceuticals also known as “Shanghai’s Hutchison Whampoa”, announced in a statement filed just as quietly with the Hong Kong stock exchange, that it had purchased JPM’s iconic former headquarters, the tower built by none other than David Rockefeller, at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza for a measly $725 million. Here is Bloomberg described the transaction: “Over the past year, other Chinese developers and wealthy investors have been buying real estate in the U.S.” China Vanke Co., the biggest homebuilder listed in mainland China, said in February it joined a residential real estate venture in San Francisco. The families of Zhang Xin, co-founder of Soho China Ltd. (410), the biggest developer in Beijing’s central business district, and Brazilian banking billionaire Moise Safra this year bought a 40 percent stake in New York’s General Motors Building.
To learn more, we first went to the motherlode: the Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose report on 1 CMP describes everyone one wants to know about this building and then much more, such as that: “One Chase Manhattan Plaza combines three main components: a 60-story tower, a 2½ acre plaza, and a 6-story base, of which 5 floors are beneath grade.” So the old Chase HQ, once the stomping grounds of one David Rockefeller, and soon to be the other half of JPMorgan Chase, has 5 sub-basements, just like the NY Fed. Reading on: “Excavations, said to be the largest in New York City history, reached a depth of 90 feet” Or, about the same depth as the bottom-most sub-basement under the NY Fed. But then we hit the jackpot: “Originally constructed with white marble terrazzo paving and enclosed by a solid parapet of white marble travertine that was personally selected by Bunshaft in Tivoli, Italy, the L-shaped plaza levels the sloping site and conceals six floors of operations that would have been difficult to fit into a single floor of the tower, including an auditorium seating 800 [and] the world’s largest bank vault.”
In other words, the world’s biggest bank vault, that belonging to the private Chase Manhattan empire, and then, to JPMorgan, was so safe, the creators even had a plan of action should it sustain a near-direct hit from a nuclear bomb, and suffer epic flooding (such as that from Hurricane Sandy). So, what the real news of today is not that JPM is selling its gold vault, we knew that two months ago, or that it is outright looking to exit the physical commodities business, that too was preannounced. What is extremely notable is that in one very quiet transaction, China just acquired the building that houses the world’s largest gold vault. Why? We don’t know. We do know that China’s gross gold imports from Hong Kong alone have amounted to over 2000 tons in the past two years. This excludes imports from other sources, and certainly internal gold mining and production. One guess: China has decided it has its fill of domestically held gold and is starting to acquire gold warehouses in the banking capitals of the world. For now the reason why is unclear but we are confident the answer will present itself shortly.
When two weeks ago we exposed the heretofore secret location of JPM’s London gold vault (located under the firm’s massive L-shaped office complex at 60 Victoria Embankment) we thought: what about New York? After all, while London is the legacy financial capital of the “old world“, it is in New York that the biggest private wealth of the past century is concentrated, and it is also in New York where the bulk of the hard assets backing the public money of the world’s sovereigns are located, some 80 feet below ground level in the fifth sub-basement of the New York Fed, resting on the bedrock of Manhattan. That the topic of the gold “held” by the New York Fed – historically considered the gold vault with the largest concentration of gold bars in the world – has become rather sensitive, in the aftermath of the Bundesbank’s request to repatriate it (surely, but very, very slowly), is an understatement. Yet in the aftermath of some of the revelations presented here, we believe quite a few other countries will follow in Germany’s footsteps for one very simple reason: suddenly the question of whether their gold is located at 33 Liberty, or just adjacent to it, in what we have learned is the de facto largest private gold vault in the world, located across the street 90 feet below 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, doesn’t appear to have a clear answer.
But first, some background. The locations of New York’s commercial vaults, like those of London, are closely guarded. While there is occasional anecdotal speculation of where one may find any given vault, a definitive answer is rarely if ever in the public domain. Luckily, the past few years, which saw a surge in the price of gold and silver, have provided a variety of useful clues, as one after another bank applied to have its legacy precious metal vault certified for commercial use with the CFTC. For those who aren’t easily discouraged, buried deep in the bowels of the CFTC’s website, is a veritable goldmine of data, in the form of supplemental applications from assorted CME members, who one after another, and very quietly, had the CME provide supplements to the CFTC vouching for their approval as “licensed depositories and weighmasters for gold, silver, platinum and palladium.” For those curious (and that should be all who are interested by the precious metals space) what constitutes an approvable vault, we present the fully filed supplement application by Brinks (recently best known for having two of its armored cars captured in a Google Streetview snapshot just outside the JPM office at 60 Victoria Embankment) filed with the CFTC: “The application submitted by Brink’s, Inc. and Brink’s Global Services USA, Inc. for licensing its facility at 580 5th Ave., New York, NY for storage of the respective NYMEX and COMEX Gold, Silver, Platinum, and Palladium contracts meets the requirements of the Exchanges.”
We know where at least one of the world’s largest precious metals depositories is located: deep underground the Diamond Tower located in the heart of Manhattan’s jewelry district. Another such supplement was filed by the Bank of Nova Scotia’s Scotia Mocatta. What many may not know is that it was Scotia Mocatta’s vault that was destroyed in the events of September 11, as SM’s vault was located deep beneath 4 WTC. From the application:
The Bank of Nova Scotia’s Scotia Mocatta Depositary (SMD) is an Exchange-licensed depository for Gold, Silver, Platinum and Palladium. SMD has submitted applications, requesting that a new facility, located at International Airport Center, 230-59 International Airport Center Boulevard, Building C, Suite 120, Jamaica, New York,be approved for the storage of gold and silver deliverable against the COMEX Gold and Silver Futures Contracts, and for the storage of platinum and palladium against the NYMEX Platinum and Palladium futures contracts.
History: The Bank of Nova Scotia, doing business as SMD, is an Exchange Licensed Depository for the storage of gold, silver, platinum, and palladium, and its current facility is located in Manhattan at 26 Broadway. SMD was previously known as Iron Mountain Depository (IMD), its name was changed when it was acquired by the Bank of Nova Scotia in 1997. The IMD/SMD facility has been a COMEX licensed delivery point since 1975. SMD has planned to develop a new facility since the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center, which destroyed SMD’s facility at 4 WTC. SM subsequently returned to its existing and former facility as an intermediate measure while the new facility was designed and built. In evaluating this application, SMD’s performance in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center must be noted. SMD’s Licensed Depository was located in a sub-basement of the WTC at the time of the attacks. When the material in this facility was trapped within the debris, SMD acted swiftly, offering to purchase any and all of the warranted material that was buried at the request of any holder of warrants to this material. Scotia further prepared to make replacement material stored in Canada available to offset any potential supply shortage that the destruction of its WTC facility might have caused.
Yet one name is missing. The same name which as we reported back in October 2010, reopened its undisclosed New York gold vault after it had been “mothballed in the 1990s.” The name of course is JPMorgan. Curiously (or perhaps not at all), when the CME on behalf of JPM submitted the certification filing alongside the comparable such supplements as filed by Brinks above, it requested a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) confidential treatment. As a reminder, to be eligible for FOIA exemption status the protected information must be of vital importance to the nation’s safety. This is precisely what JPM thought the details surrounding its New York vault are. To wit:
Pursuant to Sections 8 and 8(a) of the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”), as amended, and Commission Regulation 145.9(d), NYMEX and COMEX request confidential treatment of Appendix A, Appendix B, and this letter on the grounds that disclosure of Appendix A and/or Appendix B would reveal confidential commercial information of the submitters (NYMEX and COMEX) and of other persons. Pursuant to Commission Regulation 145.9(d)(5), NYMEX and COMEX request that confidential treatment be maintained for Appendix A and Appendix B until further notice from the Exchanges.We also request that the Commission notify the undersigned immediately after receiving any FOIA request for said Appendix A, Appendix B or any other court order, subpoena or summons for same. Finally, we request that we be notified in the event the Commission intends to disclose such Appendix A and/or Appendix B to Congress or to any other governmental agency or unit pursuant to Section 8 of the CEA. NYMEX and COMEX do not waive their notification rights under Section 8(f) of the CEA with respect to any subpoena or summons for such Appendix A or Appendix B. Please contact the undersigned at (212) 299-2207 should you have any questions concerning this letter. Sincerely, /s/ Felix Khalatnikov
Yet oddly enough, the FOIA request letter itself, while also being filed with a request for Confidential Treatment, never got it. As a result it was posted at this address. Ooops. But a far bigger oops, is that on the first page of said declassified confidential FOIA app, in black ink, we get the missing piece:
In addition, the Exchanges are providing the Commission with the application summary of requirements for the JP Morgan Chase Bank N.A. facility located at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, New York, NY.
And so, despite the extended attempts at secrecy, we finally hit the proverbial goldmine vault. So what do we know about 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza. Well, aside from the fact that the 60-story structure, built in the 1950s, was the headquarters of the once-legendary Chase Manhattan corporation, and which when it was built was the world’s sixth tallest building, not much. So we set off to learn more.
To learn more, we first went to the motherlode: the Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose report on 1 CMP describes everyone one wants to know about this building and then much more, such as that: “One Chase Manhattan Plaza combines three main components: a 60-story tower, a 2½ acre plaza, and a 6-story base, of which 5 floors are beneath grade.” So the old Chase HQ, once the stomping grounds of one David Rockefeller, and soon to be the other half of JPMorgan Chase, has 5 sub-basements, just like the NY Fed. Reading on: “Excavations, said to be the largest in New York City history, reached a depth of 90 feet.” Or, about the same depth as the bottom-most sub-basement under the NY Fed. But then we hit the jackpot:
Originally constructed with white marble terrazzo paving and enclosed by a solid parapet of white marble travertine that was personally selected by Bunshaft in Tivoli, Italy, the L-shaped plaza levels the sloping site and conceals six floors of operations that would have been difficult to fit into a single floor of the tower, including an auditorium seating 800 [and] the world’s largest bank vault.
And there you have it: the JPM vault, recommissioned to become a commercial vault, just happens to also be the “world’s largest bank vault.” Digging some more into the curious nature of this biggest bank vault in the world, we learn the following, courtesy of a freely available book written by one of the architects:
On the lowest level was the vault, which rested directly on the rock – the “largest bank vault in the world, longer than a football field.” It was anchored to the bedrock with steel rods. This was to prevent the watertight, concrete structure from floating to the surface like a huge bubble in the event that an atomic bomb falling in the bay would blow away the building and flood the area.
In other words, the world’s biggest bank vault, that belonging to the private Chase Manhattan empire, and then, to JPMorgan, was so safe, the creators even had a plan of action should it sustain a near-direct hit from a nuclear bomb, and suffer epic flooding (such as that from Hurricane Sandy). It is no surprise, then, that the street entrance to this world’s biggest vault located under 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza makes the entrance to any medieval impregnable fortress seem like child’s play in comparison.
Yet it is not what is on this side of the street, which just happens to be known as Liberty Street, that is what is the most interesting part of this whole story. It is what is on the other:
Or, shown another way…
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, as a result of our cursory examination, we have learned that the world’s largest private, and commercial, gold vault, that belonging once upon a time to Chase Manhattan, and now to JPMorgan Chase, is located, right across the street, and at the same level underground, resting just on top of the Manhattan bedrock, as the vault belonging to the New York Federal Reserve, which according to folklore is the official location of the biggest collection of sovereign, public gold in the world. At this point we would hate to be self-referential, and point out what one of our own commentators noted on the topic of the Fed’s vault a year ago, namely that: “Chase Plaza (now the Property of JPM) is linked to the facility via tunnel…I have seen it. The elevators on the Chase side are incredible. They could lift a tank.” … but we won’t, and instead we will let readers make up their own mind why the the thousands of tons of sovereign gold in the possession of the New York Fed, have to be literally inches across, if not directly connected, to the largest private gold vault in the world.
The sole reason why I became interested in gold is because of the book “Overleef De Kredietcrisis” (How To Survive The Credit Crisis), written by Willem Middelkoop – the Dutch equivalent of Jim Rickards – in 2009. This book opened my eyes and interest for economics and I didn’t stop reading and writing about it ever since. Middelkoop had written four books in Dutch when he decided to switch to English, his latest book has just been relesed: The Big Reset. This book is about the War on Gold and the plans behind the scenes to create a new gold-backed world reserve currency. I had the privilege to do a Q&A with Middelkoop about his latest book. The Q&A will be published on this website in two parts.
How did you started to invest in gold?
Because of the books by Indian economist Ravi Batra in the 1990’s I became aware of the anti-cyclical nature of gold. Through my internet research in 1999, when the internet bubble was getting pretty scary, I had learned about GATA and learned a great deal about fiat and hard money. After I took profits on my real estate investments in Amsterdam between 2001 and 2004 I started to invest in physical gold and silver and bought my first shares in precious metal companies in 2002. In the following yearns I experienced that investing in junior mining and exploration companies who worked on new discoveries delivered the best results. This first led to the publication of the Gold Discovery Letter and in 2008 to the start of the Gold Discovery Fund, which was renamed Commodity Discovery Fund in 2010 because some investors like the commodities more than gold. We have some 600 high net-worth Dutch investors and invest in (junior) mining companies. 50% is gold related, 25% silver related. We also have some Rare Earth and base metal investments. Because of the ongoing ‘World Championship Currency Debasement’ we expect much high prices for precious metals in the next few years.
Your new book is named The Big Reset, isn’t our current monetary system sustainable?
No, we now have arrived at the point where it is not the banks, but the countries themselves that are getting in serious financial trouble. The idea that we can ‘grow our way back’ out of debt is naive. The current solution to ‘park’ debts on to the balance sheets of central banks is just an interim solution. A global debt restructuring will be needed, as economists Rogoff en Reinhart recently explained in their working paper for the IMF. This will include a new global reserve system to replace the current failing dollar system, probably before 2020.
So you are not on your own with this call?
Right after the near death experience of the global financial system at the end of 2008 the IMF and others started to study the possibilities for a next phase of the financial system. In 2010 the IMF published a study titled ‘Reserve Accumulation and International Monetary Stability’ for a financial system without a dollar anchor. The United Nations called for ‘a new Global Reserve System’ based on the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR’s) a year later. The SDR was created in 1969, at the time the London Gold Pool couldn’t hold gold at $35 and the U.S. lost over 10,000 tons of gold because countries like France and the Netherlands returned excess dollar reserves to the U.S. treasury and demanded physical gold. This development led to the end of the gold backed dollar in August 1971, when President Nixon closed the gold window and the first dollar crisis started. It led to the run up of gold towards $880 in 1980. The UN idea is endorsed by China who has publicly stated several times that it is dissatisfied with the present dollar-orientated system. In 2009 China’s Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan advocated a new worldwide reserve currency system. Late 2013 the Chinese state press openly called to ‘de-Americanize’ the world’. In an official op-ed the idea for ‘the introduction of a new international reserve currency to replace the dominant U.S. dollars’ was mentioned again. According to the London based think thank Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) it will take many years before the renminbi will mount a credible challenge to the dollar. The euro is not suitable either.
How will this change unfold?
Our financial system can be changed in almost every way as long as the main world trading partners can agree on these changes. Two major problems in the world’s financial system have to be addressed, the demise of the U.S. dollar as the world reserve currency and the almost uncontrollable growth of the worldwide mountain of debts and central banks’ balance sheets. A reset planned well in advance can and probably will consist of different stages. So currently the U.S. together with the IMF seems to be planning a multiple reserve currency system as a successor of the current dollar system. But this system which still include and center around the dollar, but other important currencies will be added at its core. OMFIF has published an interesting study last year. They remarked: ‘This marks the onset of a multi-currency reserve system and a new era in world money. For most of the past 150 years, the world has had just two reserve currencies, with sterling in the lead until the First World War, and the dollar taking over as the prime asset during the past 100 years. The pound sterling has been in relative decline since the Second World War. The birth of the euro in 1999 has turned the European single currency into the world’s no. 2 reserve unit, but it has been now officially accepted that the dollar and the euro share their role with smaller currencies. The renminbi has attracted widespread attention as a possible future reverse currency. But it’s still be some years away from attaining that status, primarily because it is not fully convertible.’
Some American insiders have even been calling for a return to the gold, isn’t it?
In an open letter to the Financial Times in 2010 titled ‘Bring back the gold standard’, the very well connected and former President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick pointed out he wants to use gold as a reference point in order to reform the current failing financial system. Mr. Zoellick explained an updated gold standard could help retool the world economy at a time of serious tensions over currencies and U.S. monetary policy. He said the world needed a new regime to succeed the ‘Bretton Woods II’ system of floating currencies, which has been in place since the fixed-rate currency system linked to gold broke down in 1971. He said the new system ‘is likely to need to involve the dollar, the euro, the yen, the pound and a renminbi. The system should also consider employing gold as an international reference point of market expectations about inflation, deflation and future currency values. Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.’
According to the famous publisher Steve Forbes, who was also an advisor for some of the presidential candidates in 2012, ‘the debate should be focused on what the best gold system is, not on whether we need to go back on one.’ So it was at no surprise for me to see an interview with professor Robert Mundell in Forbes magazine, in which he argued for a return to the gold standard. Mundell can be seen as one of the architects of the euro, and has acted as an advisor to the Chinese government as well. Mundell said: ‘There could be a kind of Bretton Woods type of gold standard where the price of gold was fixed for central banks and they could use gold as an asset to trade central banks. The great advantage of that was that gold is nobody’s liability and it can’t be printed. So it has a strength and confidence that people trust. So If you had not just the U.S. dollar but the U.S. dollar and the euro tied together to each other and to gold, gold might be the intermediary and then with the other important currencies like the yen and Chinese Yuan and British pound all tied together as a kind of new SDR that could be one way the world could move forward on a better monetary system.’
And China supports these ideas for a currency reset?
As you know Chinese Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan advocated a new worldwide reserve currency system as early as 2009. He explained that the interests of the U.S. and those of other countries should be ‘aligned’, which isn’t the fact in the current dollar system. Zhou advised to develop the SDR’s into a ‘super-sovereign reserve currency disconnected from individual nations and able to remain stable in the long run’. According to some experts the IMF needs at least five years more years to prepare the international monetary system for a worldwide introduction of SDR’s to be used worldwide. Some doubt if we will have the luxury to wait that long. The fact China is stopped buying U.S. Treasuries in 2010 and have been loading up on gold ever since tells a great deal. Chinese high level officials have indicated China wants to grow their gold reserves ‘in the shortest time’ to at least 6,000 tons, in anticipation for the next phase of world financial system. A recent report by Bloomberg suggest The People’s Bank of China and private investors has been accumulating over 4,000 tons since 2008. The Chinese are afraid the U.S. could surprise the world with a gold revaluation. Wikileaks leaked a cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Beijing early 2010. The message, which was sent to Washington, quoted a Chinese news report about the consequences of such a dollar devaluation as it appeared in Shanghai’s Business News:
‘If we use all of our foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, then when someday the U.S. Federal Reserve suddenly announces that the original ten old U.S. dollars are now worth only one new U.S. dollar, and the new U.S. dollar is pegged to the gold – we will be dumbfounded.”
Can you explain the love for gold by the Chinese?
They know, even from their own history, gold has been used again and again to rebuild trust when a fiat money system has reached its endgame. As you might know, from your own studies, the main academic journal of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee published an article in 2012 that sheds a light on the Chinese monetary or should we say gold strategy. The article [exclusively translated by In Gold We Trust] was written by Sun Zhaoxue, president of both the China National Gold Corporation (CNG) and the China Gold Association (CGA). Sun stated:
‘Increasing gold reserves should become a central pillar in our country’s development strategy. The state will need to elevate gold to an equal strategic resource as oil and energy, We should ‘achieve the highest gold reserves in the shortest time. Individual investment demand is an important component of China’s gold reserve system; we should encourage individual investment demand for gold.’
According to my research the Chinese are now in the final stage to grow their gold reserves to 6,000 tons. They want to grow these reserves towards 10,000 tons before 2020. That amount will bring the Chinese on par with the U.S. and Europe on a gold/GPD ratio. This opens the door to a possible joint US-EU-China gold supported financial system like the IMF’s SDR-plan. Such a reset could also be backed by Russia since they have accumulated over 1,000 tons, most of it since the start of the credit crisis in 2008.
Do China (and Japan) have the same debt problems like the western countries?
According to John Mauldin, author of ‘The End Game’ and ‘Code Red’ China is ‘even more addicted to money printing than the US or Japan’. Despite national financial reserves of almost $4,000 billion, China has been confronted with its own debt crisis, after Chinese banking system’s assets grew by $14 trillion between 2008 and 2013. The old Chinese communist leadership still remembers how they succeeded to grab power because of the monetary problems between 1937–1949. Their main goal is to avoid social unrest like China experienced during a period of hyperinflation after World War II.
What do the Chinese know about the War on Gold?
Sun Zhaoxue explained in 2012: ‘After the disintegration of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, the gold standard which was in use for a century collapsed. Under the influence of the U.S. Dollar hegemony the stabilizing effect of gold was widely questioned, the ‘gold is useless’ discussion began to spread around the globe. Many people thought that gold is no longer the monetary base, that storing gold will only increase the cost of reserves. Therefore, some central banks began to sell gold reserves and gold prices continued to slump. Currently, there are more and more people recognizing that the ‘gold is useless’ story contains too many lies. Gold now suffers from a ‘smokescreen’ designed by the US, which stores 74% of global official gold reserves, to put down other currencies and maintain the US Dollar hegemony.’
He then also explained how the US is debasing the value of its currency in a move to get rid of too much debt: “The rise of the US dollar and British pound, and later the euro currency, from a single country currency to a global or regional currency was supported by their huge gold reserves. Especially noteworthy is that in the course of this international financial crisis, the US shows a huge financial deficit but it did not sell any of its gold reserves to reduce debt. Instead it turned on the printer, massively increasing the US Dollar supply, making the wealth of those countries and regions with foreign reserves mainly denominated in US Dollar quickly diminish, in effect automatically reducing their own debt. In stark contrast with the sharp depreciation of the US Dollar, the international gold price continued to rise breaking $1900 US Dollars per ounce in 2011, gold’s asset-preservation contrasts vividly with the devaluation of credit-based assets. Naturally the more devalued the US Dollar, the more the gold price rises, the more evident the function of US gold reserves as a hedge.’
Additional proof of the Chinese knowledge about the gold price suppression can be found in message leaked by Wikileaksfrom the American Embassy in Peking about a Chinese newspaper report: ‘The U.S. and Europe have always suppressed the rising price of gold. They intend to weaken gold’s function as an international reserve currency. They don’t want to see other countries turning to gold reserves instead of the U.S. dollar or Euro. Therefore, suppressing the price of gold is very beneficial for the U.S. in maintaining the U.S. dollar’s role as the international reserve currency. China’s increased gold reserves will thus act as a model and lead other countries towards reserving more gold. Large gold reserves are also beneficial in promoting the internationalization of the RMB.’
The office building of JPMorgan with its largest private gold vaults at Chase Manhattan Plaza, opposite to the New York Federal Reserve building, has been recently sold to the Chinese. This indicates the US and China seem to be working together in advance towards a global currency reset whereby the US, Europe and China will back the SDR’s with their gold reserves so the dollar can be replaced.
Synopsis of The Big Reset: Now five years after the near fatal collapse of world’s financial system we have to conclude central bankers and politicians have merely been buying time by trying to solve a credit crisis by creating even more debt. As a result worldwide central bank’s balance sheets expanded by $10 trillion. With this newly created money central banks have been buying up national bonds so long term interest rates and bond yields have collapsed. But ‘parking’ debt at national banks is no structural solution. The idea we can grow our way back out of this mountain of debt is a little naïve. In a recent working paper by the IMF titled ‘Financial and Sovereign Debt Crises: Some Lessons Learned and Those Forgotten’ the economist Reinhart and Rogoff point to this ‘denial problem’. According to them future economic growth will ‘not be sufficient to cope with the sheer magnitude of public and private debt overhangs. Rogoff and Reinhart conclude the size of the debt problems suggests that debt restructurings will be needed ‘far beyond anything discussed in public to this point.’ The endgame to the global financial crisis is likely to require restructuring of debt on a broad scale.
The Chinese yuan can overtake the dollar as the leading international reserve currency, a new poll of institutional investors indicates. The authors of the survey, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by State Street financial services, polled 200 senior executives at institutional investors with knowledge of their exposure to yuan assets. Half of the respondents were from the firms headquartered in mainland China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) and the other half were based elsewhere. The report accompanying the survey points out that by the end of 2013, the yuan has risen to become the second-most-used trade financing currency and ninth-most-used currency for payments globally.
A majority – 53 percent of respondents said that they believe the yuan will one day surpass the dollar as the top currency in international holdings of foreign-exchange reserves. In China 62 percent expressed this opinion, compared to 43 percent of respondents outside the country. Last May International Monetary Fund analysis showed that the dollar had slumped to a 15-year low, heightening concerns that it may lose that status as global reserve. Chinese officials are diligently working on sustaining their national currency, promoting it beyond the frontier. In October 2013, the government of China agreed a pilot program to create a UK based yuan hub that allows London investors to buy up to $13.1 billion (80 billion yuan) of stocks, bonds and money market instruments directly, avoiding Hong Kong transactions. The move gave the yuan a firmer footprint in Europe and helped to overcome the euro in December, becoming the second most widely used currency in global trade. Only 11 percent of respondents have said that they do not expect the yuan to become a major reserve currency, a split between 16 outside China and six onshore, according to the poll. Among the former, the most often cited reasons are that the yuan will never enjoy enough liquidity across all asset classes to offer a viable option as a reserve currency, and that people will not trust the yuan as a store of value, the survey says.
The very few pessimists from China-headquartered institutions, meanwhile, say that people would be“concerned about future policies of the Chinese government and opposition from other economic powers, such as the US, the EU and Japan.” But the consensus is that one day it will be a yuan world, according to the survey. “As China’s economic influence grows, the global importance of the renminbi (yuan) will become magnified. Indeed, while for decades it has been a ‘greenback world’, dominated by the US dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency, many think a ‘redback world’, in which the renminbi enjoys premier status, is increasingly a possibility,” the survey’s authors concluded.
A month ago we reported that according to much delayed TIC data, China had just dumped the second-largest amount of US Treasurys in history. The problem, of course, with this data is that it is stale and very backward looking. For a much better, and up to date, indicator of what foreigners are doing with US Treasurys in near real time, the bond watchers keep track of a less known data series, called “Treasury Securities Held in Custody for Foreign Official and International Accounts” which as the name implies shows what foreigners are doing with their Treasury securities held in custody by the Fed on a weekly basis. So here it goes: in the just reported latest data, for the week ended March 12, Treasurys held in custody by the Fed dropped to $2.855 trillion: a drop of $104.5 billion. This was the biggest drop of Treasurys held by the Fed on record, i.e., foreigners were really busy selling.
This brings the total Treasury holdings in custody at the Fed to levels not seen since December 2012, a period during which the Fed alone has monetized well over $1 trillion in US paper. So is this the proverbial beginning of foreign dumping of US paper? Could Russia simply have designated a different custodian of its holdings? No, because as of most recently it owned $139 billion in US paper, or well above the number “sold” and a custodial reallocation would mean all holdings are moved, not just a portion. For another view, here is what the bond experts at Stone McCarthy had to say: “We don’t have a ready explanation for the plunge in custody account holdings. One thing that is striking about the drop is that the last several days was not a period of heavy market buzz about “central bank selling” of Treasuries, at least to the best of our knowledge. China and Japan are by far the largest holders of Treasuries, with holdings of $1.269 trillion and $1.183 trillion in holdings at the end of December, respectively. China’s holdings are more skewed to central bank holdings. Selling of Treasuries would appear to be at odds with China’s recent effort to depreciate its currency, although on March 5 and 6 there was a brief correction in that trend.”
Something hilarious, and at the same time pathetic, happened earlier today: at precisely 9 am the US Treasury released its delayed Treasury International Capital data (which was supposed to be released yesterday but was delayed because it snowed) which disclosed all the latest foreign Treasury holdings for the month of January. Among the key numbers tracked and disclosed, was that China’s official holdings increased from $1.270 trillion to $1.284 trillion, that Japan holdings declined by a tiny $0.2 billion, that UK holdings increased by $7.8 billion to $171 billion, and that holdings of Caribbean Banking Centers, aka hedge funds, declined by $16.7 billion. Here is Reuters with the full data summary (save it before this article is pulled ).
So why is it hilarious and pathetic? Because just three short hours later, the Treasury – that organization that has billions of dollars at its budgetary disposal to collate, analyze and disseminate accurate and error-free data – admitted that all the previously reported data was in effect made up! Of course, it didn’t phrase it as such. Instead, what TIC did was release an entire set of January numbers shortly after it had released the “old” numbers, which differed by a small amount but differed across the board – in other words, not a small typo here and there: a wholesale data fudging exercise gone horribly wrong. For example:
Instead of a $14 billion increase, China’s revised holdings were only $3.5 billion higher.
Instead of unchanged, Japan’s holdings suddenly mysteriously increased by $19 billion in January.
Instead of plunging by $17 billion, the Caribbean Banking Centers were down by a tiny $1 billion.
And instead of the previously reported increase of just under $1 billion, the all important Russia was revised to have sold $7 billion, bringing its new total to just $132 billion ahead of the alleged previously reported dump of Fed custody holdings in mid-March.
That this glaring confirmation that all TIC data is made up on the fly, without any real backing, and merely goalseeked is disturbing enough. For what it’s worth, thelatest TIC data is here . Feel free to peruse it before it is revised again. However, what was perhaps more disturbing than even that was the revelation that as of January, the US has a brand new third largest holder of US Treasurys, one which in the past two months has added over $100 billion in US Treasury paper, bringing its total from $201 billion in November, to $257 billion in December, to a whopping $310 billion at January 31. The country? Belgium
The same Belgium which at the end of 2013 had a GDP of just over €100 billion, or a little over one-third what its alleged UST holdings are. And somehow the Treasury expects us to believe that tiny Belgium – the center of the doomed Eurozone which is all too busy running debt ponzi scheme of its own –bought in two months nearly as much US Treasurys as its entire GDP? Apparently yes. However we are not that naive. So our question is: just who is Belgium being used as a front for? Recall that for years, the “UK” line item on TIC data was simply offshore accounts transaction on behalf of China. Of course, since China hasn’t added any net US paper holdings in the past year, the UK, and China, are both irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. But not Belgium. Because with Russia (or someone else) rumored to have sold or otherwise reallocated $100 billion in US Treasurys in March away from the Fed , we wouldn’t be surprised if the Belgium total holdings somehow soared to over $400 billion when the March data is revealed some time in May. Courtesy of the excel goalseeking function of course. Needless to say, this all ignores the initially confirmed fact that all the data presented above is made up gibberish, goalseeked by a bored intern at the Treasury, and whose work got zero error-proofing before its released to the entire world earlier today. So… just what is going on with this most critical of data sets – official foreign holdings of US paper, and how long before an Edward Snowden emerges from the depths of the US Treasury building and reveals that behind all the data manipulation and unaudited figures was none other than the Fed, whose holdings, far greater than represented, are all that matter, and everything else is merely one grand, theatrical plug?
A graphic for “China’s Red Nobility,” from a 2012 investigative series on corruption among the country’s leading families.
Four months ago, TheNew York Times ran a big story contending that Bloomberg editors had quashed an investigative report about corruption among leaders in China. The Times story was clearly based on informed comment from people inside Bloomberg who were unhappy about the result. It said that higher-ups at Bloomberg were worried that the story would hurt the company’s sales of financial terminals—the mainstay of its business—inside China, since the main purchasers would be directly or indirectly subject to government control. Like the NYT and some other Western news organizations, Bloomberg was already “on probation” with the Chinese government, because of some very brave and probing official-corruption stories the previous year—including the one on “Red Nobility” that is the source of the graphic above. As a reminder, here are the main story steps since then:
The FT did a similar report (here, but paywalled), also clearly based on inside-Bloomberg sources and also saying that Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, had ordered the story killed, for fear of ramifications inside China.
Bloomberg denied the reports, in categorical but not specific terms. I.e., variations on: Of course we didn’t bow to political pressure, and the story was just not ready yet.
Amanda Bennett, a long-time editor and reporter with experience in China (she was co-author of Sidney Rittenberg’s book, The Man Who Stayed Behind), promptly resigned as head of Bloomberg’s investigative unit. She did not explicitly address the controversy but made her feelings clear in her resignation statement. It said: “I am totally proud of the work of the Bloomberg Projects and Investigations team over the past five years…. I’m also most proud of the groundbreaking June 2012 story that the team led, that for the first time exposed the wealth of the relatives of China’s top leaders. I’m proud of the courage it took from top to bottom in Bloomberg to make that happen.”
Michael Forsythe, the Bloomberg reporter who had worked for decades in China and was involved in these corruption-investigation stories, was quickly suspended by Bloomberg. He later joined the NYT staff.
Bloomberg continued to deny the allegation of knuckling-under but refused to address any specifics. The story that reportedly was underway has not yet appeared. Soon after the flap broke, I received several calls from people inside Bloomberg, all of them insisting that I say nothing that could identify them, or even about the fact that we had talked. One was from a person who warned me that it would be a big mistake to put too much faith in what this person said were competitively motivated attacks by Bloomberg rivals. The other calls were from Bloomberg reporters or staffers, who said that the NYT and FT reports were essentially accurate. I wrote to the man who reportedly gave the spiking order, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, and did not hear back.
Then, last week, the chairman of Bloomberg L.P., Peter Grauer, seemed to confirm the original accounts by saying that it had been a mistake for Bloomberg ever to deviate from its business-oriented coverage.
All this is prelude to the latest news, which is Ben Richardson’s resignation as a Bloomberg editor. Jim Romenesko had the story yesterday, followed by this from Edward Wong of the NYT, who also had the story about Michael Forsythe back in November. After I saw the item on Romenesko, I wrote to Richardson asking if he would say more about the situation. This may be the time also to share something I received from a person inside Bloomberg at the time the news first broke, which is a useful complement to what Ben Richardson says. This Bloomberg employee said:
There is a bigger contradiction for the company than most people perceive. Outsiders think the worst explanation for this controversy is that it’s concerned about selling terminals within China. It’s bigger than that. Really it’s about continuing sales all around the world, if Bloomberg can’t promise having the fastest inside info from China.
Everyone knows that it’s a company that exists on the terminals. But now that they have saturated the US market, all of the growth will come from areas with these deep contradictions between the company’s financial-business interests and its journalistic aspirations.
I’ve already reported on irregular physical gold settlements which occurred in London, England back in the first week of October, 2009. Specifically, these settlements involved the intermediation of at least one Central Bank [The Bank of England] to resolve allocated settlements on behalf of J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank – who DID NOT have the gold bullion that they had sold short and were contracted to deliver. At the same time I reported on two other unusual occurrences:
1] – irregularities in the publication of the gold ETF – GLD’s bar list from Sept. 25 – Oct.14 where the length of the bar list went from 1,381 pages to under 200 pages and then back up to 800 or so pages.
2] – reports of 400 oz. “good delivery” bricks of gold found gutted and filled with tungsten within the confines of LBMA approved vaults in Hong Kong.
If anyone were contemplating creating “fake” gold bars, tungsten [at roughly $10 per pound] would be the metal of choice since it has the exact same density as gold making a fake bar salted with tungsten indistinguishable from a solid gold bar by simply weighing it. Unfortunately, there are now more sordid details to report. When the news of tungsten “salted” gold bars in Hong Kong first surfaced, many people who I am acquainted with automatically assumed that these bars were manufactured in China – because China is generally viewed as “the knock-off capital of the world”. Here’s what I now understand really happened: The amount of “salted tungsten” gold bars in question was allegedly between 5,600 and 5,700 – 400 oz – good delivery bars [roughly 60 metric tonnes]. This was apparently all highly orchestrated by an extremely well financed criminal operation. Within mere hours of this scam being identified – Chinese officials had many of the perpetrators in custody. And here’s what the Chinese allegedly uncovered: Roughly 15 years ago – during the Clinton Administration [think Robert Rubin, Sir Alan Greenspan and Lawrence Summers] – between 1.3 and 1.5 million 400 oz tungsten blanks were allegedly manufactured by a very high-end, sophisticated refiner in the USA [more than 16 Thousand metric tonnes]. Subsequently, 640,000 of these tungsten blanks received their gold plating and WERE shipped to Ft. Knox and remain there to this day. I know folks who have copies of the original shipping docs with dates and exact weights of “tungsten” bars shipped to Ft. Knox.
The balance of this 1.3 million – 1.5 million 400 oz tungsten cache was also plated and then allegedly “sold” into the international market. Apparently, the global market is literally “stuffed full of 400 oz salted bars”. Makes one wonder if the Indians were smart enough to assay their 200 tonne haul from the IMF?
A Slow Motion Train Wreck, Years in the Making
An obscure news item originally published in the N.Y. Post [written by Jennifer Anderson] in late Jan. 04 has always ‘stuck in my craw’:
DA investigating NYMEX executive – Manhattan, New York, district attorney’s office, Stuart Smith – Melting Pot – Brief Article – Feb. 2, 2004
A top executive at the New York Mercantile Exchange is being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney. Sources close to the exchange said that Stuart Smith, senior vice president of operations at the exchange, was served with a search warrant by the district attorney’s office last week. Details of the investigation have not been disclosed, but a NYMEX spokeswoman said it was unrelated to any of the exchange’s markets. She declined to comment further other than to say that charges had not been brought. A spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney’s office also declined comment. The offices of the Senior Vice President of Operations – NYMEX – is exactly where you would go to find the records [serial number and smelter of origin] for EVERY GOLD BAR ever PHYSICALLY settled on the exchange. They are required to keep these records. These precise records would show the lineage of all the physical gold settled on the exchange and hence “prove” that the amount of gold in question could not have possibly come from the U.S. mining operations – because the amounts in question coming from U.S. smelters would undoubtedly be vastly bigger than domestic mine production. We never have found out what happened to poor ole Stuart Smith – after his offices were “raided” – he took administrative leave from the NYMEX and he has never been heard from since. Amazingly [or perhaps not], there never was any follow up on in the media on the original story as well as ZERO developments ever stemming from D.A. Morgenthau’s office who executed the search warrant. Are we to believe that NYMEX offices were raided, the Sr. V.P. of operations then takes leave – all for nothing? These revelations should provide a “new filter” through which Rothschild exiting the gold market back in 2004 begins to make a little more sense: “LONDON, April 14, 2004 (Reuters) – NM Rothschild & Sons Ltd., the London-based unit of investment bank Rothschild [ROT.UL], will withdraw from trading commodities, including gold, in London as it reviews its operations, it said on Wednesday.”
Interestingly, GATA’s Bill Murphy speculated about this back in 2004;
– “Why is Rothschild leaving the gold business at this time my colleagues and I conjectured today? Just a guess on my part, but suspect:”
– *SOMETHING IS AMISS. THEY KNOW A BIG GOLD SCANDAL IS COMING AND THEY WANT NO PART OF IT. …”
– “ROTHSCHILD WANTS OUT BEFORE THE PROVERBIAL “S” HITS THE FAN.” BILL MURPHY, LEMETROPOLE, 4-18-2004
Coincidentally [or perhaps, not?], GLD Began Trading 11/12/2004
In light of what has occurred – regarding the Gold ETF, GLD – after reviewing their prospectus yet again, it becomes pretty clear that GLD was established to purposefully deflect investment dollars away from legitimate gold pursuits and to create a stealth, cesspool / catch-all, slush-fund and a likely destination for many of these “salted tungsten bars” where they would never see the light of day – hidden behind the following legalese “shield” from the law:
Gold bars allocated to the Trust in connection with the creation of a Basket may not meet the LondonGood Delivery Standards and, if a Basket is issued against such gold, the Trust may suffer a loss. Neither the Trustee nor the Custodian independently confirms the fineness of the gold bars allocated to the Trust in connection with the creation of a Basket. The gold bars allocated to the Trust by the Custodian may be different from the reported fineness or weight required by the LBMA’s standards for gold bars delivered in settlement of a gold trade, or the London Good Delivery Standards, the standards required by the Trust. If the Trustee nevertheless issues a Basket against such gold, and if the Custodian fails to satisfy its obligation to credit the Trust the amount of any deficiency, the Trust may suffer a loss.
The Fed Has Already Been Caught Lying
Liberty Coin’s Patrick Heller recently wrote, Earlier this year, the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee (GATA), filed a second Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Federal Reserve System for documents from 1990 to date having to do with gold swaps, gold swapped, or proposed gold swaps. On Aug. 5, The Federal Reserve responded to this FOIA request by adding two more documents to those disclosed to GATA in April 2008 from the earlier FOIA request. These documents totaled 173 pages, many parts of which were redacted (covered up to omit sections of text). The Fed’s response also noted that there were 137 pages of documents not disclosed that were alleged to be exempt from disclosure.
GATA appealed this determination on Aug. 20. The appeal asked for more information to substantiate the legitimacy of the claimed exemptions from disclosure and an explanation on why some documents, such as one posted on the Federal Reserve Web site that discusses gold swaps, were not included in the Aug. 5 document release. In a Sept. 17, 2009, letter on Federal Reserve System letterhead, Federal Reserve governor Kevin M. Warsh completely denied GATA’s appeal. The entire text of this letter can be examined at http://www.gata.org/files/GATAFedResponse-09-17-2009.pdf. The first paragraph on the third page is the most revealing. Warsh wrote, “In connection with your appeal, I have confirmed that the information withheld under exemption 4 consists of confidential commercial or financial information relating to the operations of the Federal Reserve Banks that was obtained within the meaning of exemption 4. This includes information relating to swap arrangements with foreign banks on behalf of the Federal Reserve System and is not the type of information that is customarily disclosed to the public. This information was properly withheld from you.”
This paragraph will likely be one of the most important news stories of the year. Though not stated in plain English, this paragraph is an admission that the Fed has in the past and may now be engaged in trading gold swaps. Warsh’s letter contradicts previous Fed statements to GATA denying that it ever engaged in gold swaps during the time period between Jan. 1, 1990 and the present. [Perhaps most importantly], this was GATA’s second FOIA request to the Federal Reserve on the issue of gold swaps. The 173 pages of documents received for the 2009 FOIA request all pre-dated the 2007 FOIA request, which means they should have been released in the response to the earlier FOIA request. This establishes a likelihood that the Federal Reserve has failed to adequately search or disclose relevant documents. Further, the Fed response admitted that it had copies of relevant records that originally appeared on the Treasury Department Web site, but failed to include them in its response.
Now that Federal Reserve governor Warsh has admitted that the Fed has lied in the past about the Fed’s involvement with gold. It should now be very clear to everyone why the Fed is lying and the true nature of what they are hiding / withholding. An important footnote to consider is the inter-twined-ness of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury [can anyone really tell them apart?] as well as this duopoly’s two principal agents – J.P. Morgan-Chase and Goldman Sachs. When one truly grasps the nature of these highly conflicted relationships it gives a fuller meaning to words recently uttered by Goldman head, Lloyd Blankfein, who claimed, “I’m doing god’s work”. Does this really mean that Mr. Blankfein believes that the Federal Reserve is god? You can judge for yourself. While the Fed prints money like no one else could – except god almighty himself [or Gideon Gono, perhaps?] – I really doubt that was the intent back in 1864, when the U.S. adopted “In God We Trust” as their official motto.
The original story was not about passing fake gold jewelry or fake gold bars to fool uniformed, public buyers (which is always a possibility). Moreover, the original report was about 400-ounce bars and not 500-gram bars. Last, the original tale alleged that the US produced and stored some 640,000 bars of this stuff at Fort Knox and transferring another 800,000 bars or so to central banks and others around the world. This original story was really far out; though I admit that Clinton was a gross liar; and he and the US government were both fully capable of such dishonesty. I wouldn’t put anything past either of them.
Back on Oct 1, 2008, goldseek.com published the Goldsmiths XVII with a story citing the work of Edward Durrell and Peter Beter that questioned the presence of the alleged US gold supply at Fort Knox back in the 1970s. After this story came out on Oct 1, 2008, there was a surge of other articles (some from the same source of the later tungsten story) that the alleged gold in Fort Knox was not there, in fact. Frankly, I took it that the tungsten gold story was simply one more along the same line trying to prove that Fort Knox didn’t have the gold it was supposed to have (as I had broached earlier on Oct 1, 2008). The original story about the US using and storing gold plated tungsten bars at Fort Knox and passing them off to central banks around the world has no merit whatsoever. Alternatively, could dishonest people try to pass gold-plated tungsten bars (or other mineral fillers) as being real to unsuspecting lay buyers? The answer here is whether a cat has got a tail or not. Yes, dishonest crooks could try to pass gold-plated tungsten, steal, brass, iron and you name it bars to unsuspecting buyers. I allowed this in my article on the subject at www.analysis-news.com. I also told the movie story of the Maltese Falcon and how a lead copy of it was covered in black paint to try to make people think that under the paint one would find the gold falcon. Well, like Sidney Greenstreet immediately did (when he scraped off some of the paint to find out what was under the paint); I too would make some effort to verify any gold bar or gold jewelry I buy. It might not be so bad to be swindled with a small fake gold ring, but I would hate to be swindled with a large, 400-once, fake bar worth $400,000 on the market.
The question in this original tungsten story is not whether there has been or could be fake, gold-plated tungsten bars floating around in the world, in the hands of private persons; but correctly the story was actually about the US government producing some 1.3 to 1.5 million of these to store some 640,000 of them at Fort Knox and to distribute the remaining 800,000 or so of them to central banks around the world. This original story never had and still has no worthwhile merit. My take is that it was wrong and being passed out for reasons other than to inform and educate the public. It boggles my mind how people can now latch onto a story that a refinery found a 500-gram, fake, gold-plated, tungsten bar and claim that that find in some way proves the validity of the original story about the US government and its alleged 640,000, 400-ounce, fake bars in Fort Knox and the remaining 800,000 or so 400-ounce bars being transferred to central banks around the world. It blows my mind on how in the world can people connect the two stories and say that they link or are the same.
The Bottom Line
Despite the bad information and confusion associated with the tungsten story, there are at least four other fall-outs over it which deserve mention—one positive and three negative. The good positive fact is that the huge publicity over this apparently false, original story provoked much follow-up in the gold media to cause buyers to at least acknowledge that they could be swindled by so-called gold sellers. This is a good thing, despite the conflict/inconsistency between the original story and the follow-up stories. Yes, gold fans like me need to take some positive steps to be sure that when I buy gold that I am buying the correct quantity and quality of gold. But there are also at least three really bad negative features. The first big negative feature crops up from the advice of the Coin Update News with words to buy and hold gold coins, etc physically in one’s possession and checking them out when purchased. This sounds good; but it contrasts sharply by all would be purchasers of ETF gold and even investors in the Central Fund of Canada. Per the generated fear, the ETF and Central Fund of Canada could be stuck with large quantities of fake, gold-plated, tungsten bars. While there are negative features for both of these entities, I would suggest that they shouldn’t necessarily be tainted with the tungsten story.
In a second negative feature, this Coin position also contrasts shapely with what I have been saying for my own account for years. My take is to get my gold purchases out of this country completely. If I can buy it and inspect it here and then get it out—fine. But in many cases, I may find it difficult if not impossible to buy it here and get it out. Often I will find it more practical to buy it overseas and leave it there. But obviously, wherever I might buy some gold, I would insist that I obtain a valid authentication or insurance agreement protecting against it being a fraud. This is common sense and I believed in it long before the tungsten story surfaced. For my part, I will gladly take some risks in buying gold from a good dependable source overseas in comparison with sitting on my duffs and facing the prospect of the state confiscating my gold in the US. And I don’t believe for a minute that buying gold and storing it in nearby Canada is a good proposition for me. I must hasten to say that when the Cabal strikes with confiscation, the arms of Big Brother will reach out to seize it in Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand as well as in the US. There is still one more bad feature about the original gold-plated tungsten tale. I must suggest that it supports and plays directly into the hands of the Cabal manipulating the price of gold worldwide. There is no question about it whatsoever; many persons thinking about buying gold will now back off for fear that their purchases might be fakes.
Not surprisingly, our take on the topic is that it is almost entirely pure BS, and below you will find how we arrived at that conclusion.
First, here is how this rumor burst on the gold scene, with Rob Kirby proclaiming: “…reports of 400 oz. “good delivery” bricks of gold found gutted and filled with tungsten within the confines of LBMA approved vaults in Hong Kong.
Why Tungsten? If anyone were contemplating creating “fake” gold bars, tungsten [at roughly $10 per pound] would be the metal of choice since it has the exact same density as gold making a fake bar salted with tungsten indistinguishable from a solid gold bar by simply weighing it. Unfortunately, there are now more sordid details to report. When the news of tungsten “salted” gold bars in Hong Kong first surfaced, many people who I am acquainted with automatically assumed that these bars were manufactured in China – because China is generally viewed as “the knock-off capital of the world”. Here’s what I now understand really happened: The amount of “salted tungsten” gold bars in question was allegedly between 5,600 and 5,700 – 400 oz – good delivery bars [roughly 60 metric tonnes].
This was apparently all highly orchestrated by an extremely well financed criminal operation. Within mere hours of this scam being identified – Chinese officials had many of the perpetrators in custody. And here’s what the Chinese allegedly uncovered: Roughly 15 years ago – during the Clinton Administration [think Robert Rubin, Sir Alan Greenspan and Lawrence Summers] – between 1.3 and 1.5 million 400 oz tungsten blanks were allegedly manufactured by a very high-end, sophisticated refiner in the USA [more than 16 Thousand metric tonnes]. Subsequently, 640,000 of these tungsten blanks received their gold plating and WERE shipped to Ft. Knox and remain there to this day. I know folks who have copies of the original shipping docs with dates and exact weights of “tungsten” bars shipped to Ft. Knox.
Now let’s examine reality, shall we? First, let’s note the excellent if incomplete work that has already been done on this subject. For example, Doug Hornig, Senior Editor of Casey’s Gold & Resource Report, has concluded: “That tungsten was cited as the culprit is no surprise, because it’s the metal of choice if you want to imitate a big chunk of gold. Put some gold plating on tungsten and it will fool all the cheap, non-invasive tests, such as specific gravity, surface conductivity, scratch, and touch stone. For a conclusive result, you have to drill into the bar, take a core sample, and submit it to more sophisticated verification techniques – fire assay, optical emissions spectroscopy, or X-ray fluorescence – and that involves a lot of time, trouble, and expense.
The market, of course, long ago realized it wold be a hassle to fully assay every large gold bar every time it changed hands. That would create bottlenecks all over the place. Thus, to facilitate liquidity and protect large traders, the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) came up with the good-delivery bar system, otherwise known as the “good delivery circuit.” The system begins with a group of accredited refiners, all of whom have been certified by equally accedited assayers. The refiners manufacture the 400-oz. bars, applying their stamps and serial number before sending them out. Requirements for making and remaining on the LBMA’s good-delivery list are stringent, and those on it zealously guard their status. It’s of great importance to them because most of the vaults to which they ship product – the next step in the circuit – won’t accept anything but good-delivery bars.
This thing isn’t foolproof, nothing is, but it ensures a pretty decent paper trail, a formal, recorded history of who held the bars, when, and in which approved facility – all the way from refiner to end user, whether that be an individual, a central bank, or an ETF. No buyer wants something from a non-accredited seller, and no one else in the chain wants to get fingered for supplying phony gold. That would get them kicked out of a very lucrative loop, and sued into the bargain. What about gold bars that come from a non-accredited source or are otherwise circulating outside the good-delivery circuit? That could mean you. You’re not part of the circuit to begin with. And yes, if you bought something that wasn’t good-delivery certified, the possibility that you have acquired some fake gold exists.
If you’re concerned about the source, you might want to have your gold assayed in order to alleviate your worries. This will become an issue when you choose to sell. In that instance, a dealer will almost certainly require an assay as part of the bargain, even if you have the chain of custody paperwork and it all checks out. And you can’t blame him. There’s no way he can be certain of what you did to it while it was in your possession. The only exception might be if you have a long-standing, mutually trusting relationship with him, originally bought it from him, and are selling it back to him. But even that’s no guarantee. What you most emphatically want to avoid is the worst-case scenario: arranging a sale, then having your gold flunk an assay, laying you open to charges of fraud.
If you sell to another private owner, rather than a dealer, he will surely ask for an assay, and you shouldn’t be offended if he does. Nor should you hesitate for an instant to demand one if you buy from a private party. Although this is not a recommended way to acquire gold bars, it may be possible that something comes along that you can’t refuse. Just be very careful. If someone has a gold bar for sale but is in too much of a hurry to wait for an assay, walk away.
Your takeaway from all the hoo-hah about tungsten bars should be that whenever a sensational rumor like this hits the Internet, and it doesn’t immediately graduate to Bloomberg, you always have to ask why. Financial reporters read blogs, too. You can be sure they’ve seen the rumor and asked the obvious questions: What’s the source? Who are the people who reported the appearance of the tungsten bars named? For that matter, why aren’t they raising holy hell if they’ve been ripped off? Where are the lawsuits? No serious journalist who can’t turn up the answers is going to give the story credence. If it were true, the appearance of several thousand tungsten bars, for each of which someone has been suckered into paying a hundred grand or more, this would be big, big news. It wouldn’t stay confined to a few websites for long. This isn’t to say that someone good isn’t digging deeply into this story right now. Nor that they won’t be able to prove it out. It is to say that, more than likely, the rumor is false.
In summary, there’s no reason to believe that there is a real issue with counterfeit bullion coins at the moment. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor does it mean that evolving technology might not make them more profitable in the future than they are now. If you’re at all worried, simply deal with someone you trust. Establish a relationship with a gold dealer who has built a strong reputation, preferably over a matter of decades. Buy from them even if you stumble across some mail order supplier who is charging less of a premium. Another excellent piece of analysis comes from Adrian Ash of BullionVault:
Non-investment use accounts for well over three-quarters of demand each year, and a big chunk of that is met in the form of Good Delivery bars. Yet there are no reports from jewelers, chip fabricators, dental suppliers or any other end users of the bullshit currently trying to pass as “insider news” on the web. Bottom line? Good Delivery does what it says on the tin. The wholesale market is liquid and cost-efficient precisely because it’s warranted by the chain of integrity. The question of full re-assay is redundant. And on top of that, we guarantee every gram of BullionVault gold.
So, here is what Metal Augmentor would like to add to this discussion. First, we would note there are relatively cheap devices for non-destructive verification of gold coin purity and authenticity, for example the Fisch detector, which is a simple (if precisely engineered) device to measure the dimension and weight of popular bullion coins. Even this is probably overkill because the odds of you buying gold-clad tungsten coins is extremely low given that the only practical method of manufacture involves an easy-to-detect thin electroplate of gold on a pure tungsten core (see below). The electroplate of gold would obviously need to be a precise alloy such as gold-silver-copper for American Ealges, gold-silver for Kruggerands, etc. in order to produce an exact color and hue match, but this would work only with bullion coins that are (supposed to be) pure gold since for gold-alloy bullion coins a pure tungsten core would actually mean the counterfeit coin is too heavy. In other words, the counterfeiter’s job is much more difficult then it first appears.
Combined with the fact that most modern bullion coins issued by national mints such as the Royal Canadian Mint or U.S Mint are expertly struck with very expensive and sometimes one-of-a-kind minting equipment — if you look using a jeweler’s loop at the “field” or unadorned surface of mint-struck bullion coins compared to privately-struck rounds, you will clearly see the difference — that would be incapable of properly striking an extremely hard metal like tungsten (or depleted uranium), counterfeiting modern bullion coins becomes a very expensive and perhaps nearly impossible proposition for the enterprising crook-to-be.
Second, for larger items of bullion including kilo and up gold bars, there are “secret” proprietary tests out there that are non-destructive and do not require drilling the bar for assay. These methods generally involve measuring specific gravity by weighing the gold bar in water combined with a simple thermal conductivity test (gold absorbs and releases heat at a different rate compared to tungsten) or a very thin needle probe that is inserted into the bar in several places to check for the much harder tungsten, depleted uranium or gold-tungsten-uranium-iridium alloy core. At least one “do it yourself” gold bug has figured out how to do this:
Your fake gold is cute. So is my hydrolic press with a properly tempered steal needle with which I intend to put a hole in all of the gold bars that I receive. The holes will not devalue the gold. The non holes in the titanium will certainly degrade it’s value. Isn’t it amazing what you can buy at the local tool company. The gold bars can be punched many times before they need recasting.
Third, here is probably where the whole “tungsten gold bar” rumor/scam probably originated from. These are “soft gold tungsten alloy” bars sold as thermal or electrical conductors for advanced electronic or military applications. You will also note that the alloy is almost entirely gold (83.3% or 20 karat), which is why it is relatively “soft” (compared to pure tungsten, which has a Mohs hardness of 7.5, besting any other metal except chromium).Others have claimed it might have been from here instead. I assure you, however, that the products being churned out by China Tungsten Online (Xiamen) Manu. & Sales Corp. are rather easily distinguishable from the real thing. Simply put, tungsten electroplated with gold is never going to look or feel just right if used to “simulate” bullion. The electroplate is quite thin so there will be no characteristic bumps, dents or scratches on the surface as there would be with .995+ fine gold bullion bars that have seen even the barest minimum of handling, and the classic “bite test” will fail spectacularly with the tester very likely suffering a broken tooth on account of tungsten’s hardness. If the gold-plated tungsten is meant to “simulate” gold jewelry, it might look visually convincing (18K gold is relatively hard and 14K is even harder) but a very simple “file and acid” test as employed by every pawn shop and jewelry store on the planet is going to detect the item as a fake. If you don’t believe me, we urge you to contact China Tungsten directly:
Besides, if you don’t know how to identify true gold or gold-plated tungsten alloy products, you can consult us directly by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call us by 86 592 5129696.
In conclusion, there is very little risk that you might end up with tungsten-filled coins or gold bars, but if you are buying in large quantity then it will be worthwhile to employ some of the non-destructive tests noted herein.