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Precious Metal Markets

Volume 663: debated on Monday 8 July 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

It is a pleasure and an honour to speak about this subject. In fact, my good friend the Minister may be a bit surprised that I wish to speak about it, because I think that he would, like me, agree with the biblical verse which states:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust”

can damage them. However, I think he would also agree that trust in all things is incredibly important, and it is on that aspect that I wish to concentrate tonight, rather than the treasure that precious metals represent.

I am raising this subject for a number of reasons, which I shall go into in a moment. First, however, I must declare an interest, in that I have invested an extremely limited amount in precious metals as part of my pension provision.

My first reason for raising the subject is the importance of gold and silver as a store of value internationally. There are those who say that gold in particular is a relic of the past with little relevance to the modern financial system, but many countries do not seem to agree. Russia is steadily building up its gold reserves, which, 20 years ago, were well below those of the UK; now they are seven times as high. China rapidly increased its gold reserves in 2015. Several European countries, notably Germany and France, hold more than 60% of their reserves in gold. The United States—the owner of the world’s main reserve currency, which would perhaps have the least reason to hold gold reserves—still believes in gold, which comprises some 73% of its official reserves. And what of the UK? With just 310 tonnes—pretty much the same quantity for more than 15 years—we hold 8.5% of our official reserves in gold. However, this debate is not about the merits of the UK’s policy on official reserves, although I will refer to that briefly at the end of my speech.

If gold plays such an important role in nations’ reserves, it is vital that the means of trading it and establishing its price on the exchanges be fair and transparent.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I sought his permission to make an intervention beforehand. Does he agree that there is a real need to safeguard investors and that the present procedures do not go far enough to protect them? They appear to be weighted on the side of the market, and this truly is not equitable or just.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that is what I want to talk about: trust in the markets—and I am asking questions, not giving answers, because I do not have them.

We should note that gold and silver both act as currency crosses, trading as components of the $5-trillion-a-day foreign exchange marketplace. That is an astonishing figure. Clearly gold and silver are a very small part of the crosses market, but nevertheless they form part of it, and I have to say personally that I get increasingly worried by the huge volumes of daily trades on international markets and the vast amounts of derivatives that are outstanding at any one time. The last report I saw from the United States, I think from the last quarter, showed that something like $200 trillion-worth of derivatives were open at that time.

My second reason for raising the subject is that considerable quantities of gold and silver—and indeed the other precious metals, palladium and platinum—are mined in low and middle-income countries. As with other commodities—such as coffee and cocoa, with which I worked for many years, and still do a little bit—the price has a major impact on the economies of the producers; it has an impact on those who work in the mining industry and on the taxation revenues of the countries.

The third reason is that London is at the heart of the global trade in precious metals and has been since the late 17th century. At a time when institutions and businesses are under intense scrutiny, it is vital that we in this country uphold the highest standards, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister entirely agrees with that.

Just last year, a former vice-president of a major US bank pleaded guilty in the US to spoofing precious metals markets

“hundreds of times with the knowledge and consent of his immediate supervisors.”

Sentencing has been delayed; the implication is that the person is assisting the US Department of Justice’s investigation into others, possibly both within and outside the bank. Spoofing is a technical term, defined in the USA’s Dodd-Frank Act 2010 as

“the illegal practice of bidding or offering with intent to cancel before execution”,

or, in other words, to deceive the market. In another case, in January 2018, Deutsche Bank, UBS and HSBC paid $46.6 million in the US to settle Commodity Futures Trading Commission charges relating to spoofing in the precious metals markets.

I was first alerted to this subject by a constituent who had bought limited quantities of silver as an investment from Deutsche Bank while he was resident in Germany. Over the period in which he purchased the silver, the price peaked at $48 an ounce in 2011, and declined to below $20 by the end of 2014. It is always very difficult to determine the precise causes of a market’s movement; this was at a time of global uncertainty, financial stress in Europe and North America, and increasing demand for physical silver in electronics and other industrial purposes. My constituent stated in courts in both Germany and Birmingham in the UK that the bank had been manipulating the precious metals market. His cases were dismissed; nevertheless, shortly afterwards, in 2016, Deutsche Bank and others confirmed that market manipulation had indeed been taking place, and they paid penalties in the USA.

My constituent’s contention, with which I have considerable sympathy, is that it is the small retail investor who pays the price for such illegal behaviour of traders and the banks for which they work. The regulators, and hence the Governments, receive the fines, but investors find it almost impossible to prove a loss directly, because a number of factors affect market prices, not simply the illegal activity.

My intention in calling for this debate is not to seek any conclusions at this stage, or to go into the details of precious metals trading—still less of the complexities of derivatives contracts that piggyback on the metals—but rather to ask the Minister and the Government some questions and to call for action. My reasoning is that our country depends, more than any other major economy, on the stability of and trust in our financial services sector. The sector provides much well-paid employment, not just in London. Here I should express my regret at the job losses announced today in Deutsche Bank. At least 2 million people are employed in financial services throughout the UK, not just in London, and the sector contributes up to 10% of Government revenue. It also includes our heavy responsibility for and stewardship of the precious metals that we store and trade on behalf of most of the countries in the world.

I wish to ask the Minister a number of questions. First, have the Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority or the Bank of England made an assessment of the result of the recent J.P. Morgan case involving the rigging of precious metals markets and its potential impact on the UK? After all, we are talking about financial institutions with a global reach. Secondly, do the UK authorities believe that any similar activity could take place, or has already taken place, in the UK, or by a bank domiciled here? Thirdly, if there is evidence that the manipulation of bullion markets by banks over a period has resulted in lower prices than would otherwise have been the case—that is clearly something to be proven—what recourse do producers and retail investors have against banks for that manipulation?

Fourthly, it is estimated that the quantity of so-called paper gold—that is, delivery contracts for gold—is approximately 100 times the quantity of available physical gold. That is not peculiar to the precious metals market; it happens with other commodities as well, but it is nevertheless a noteworthy situation. I accept that it is unlikely that most such contracts will end up requiring the delivery of physical gold, but what assessment have the authorities made of the risk that if delivery is required, those requirements might not be met? We have to take into account the steady increase in demand for gold—and, indeed, all precious metals—by states as well as by industry.

I suggest that, in addition to answering these questions, the Government commission an independent inquiry or review into the bullion market, particularly in the UK. Gold and silver are not simply commodities like coffee, cocoa, sugar or copper, vital as those are; they are a bulwark of the global financial system, the importance of which is possibly increasing. The UK is a relatively minor holder of gold as part of our reserves, but gold constitutes the majority of the reserves of many other countries. We have a significant role in the stewardship of the reserves of others, both physically and in their valuation. The trust that others place in our country and our institutions in this area matters enormously. An independent inquiry or review at this time would underline the fact that we value that trust greatly, and that we will strengthen controls wherever necessary. Indeed, I believe that some controls have already been strengthened in the recent past. Such a review or inquiry would also flag up risky or illegal activity and ensure that those responsible were brought to book, including by being required to compensate those who have suffered from it.

As I said at the beginning, my aim in this debate is to see whether there has been any activity in these markets in the United Kingdom that we should be taking a closer look at on behalf of investors, particularly the small retail investors who put some of their savings into these commodities; but it is also about the trust in our system in the United Kingdom. There is a huge amount of trust in the UK and its institutions. I believe that that trust is almost always well placed, but it can only continue to be well placed if we constantly scrutinise the system and check instances where we have an indication that things have not always gone well, or perhaps are not going well now, and take action quickly.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for raising a set of complex but important issues with the rigour and grasp of detail in his analysis that has characterised virtually every speech that I have heard him make in his nine years in the House. I listened carefully to what he said and I am grateful for our earlier conversation, which helped me in preparing what I hope is an appropriate response to the points that he has raised. Although I cannot comment on individual cases, I would also like to express my sympathies for the constituent whose experience he referred to.

The precious metals market is an important part of our economy, as my hon. Friend said, and London is one of the most important gold trading centres in the world. They and markets like them have a real impact on individuals, households and businesses, which includes his constituent. Those markets underpin borrowing costs, exchange rates and the cost of food and raw materials, and they help firms and households to manage financial risks and investments. A well-functioning derivative market fulfils a vital role in that process.

One point that I should have mentioned but did not is that precious metals, probably with the exception of gold, have many other uses—silver in antimicrobial products and platinum and palladium in exhaust pipes and reducing emissions—so they are extremely important, both as a store of value and in having real practical uses.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and draws attention to the ever-expanding functional use of these metals in ever more sophisticated ways.

Precious metals allow businesses around the world to hedge their risks by reducing uncertainty about future prices. For example, a mining company can agree a price today for the gold that it will extract in the next year, safeguarding itself against potential future price movements and providing certainty over its income. Attempted market manipulation, such as the type that occurred in the US, undermines integrity, reduces public confidence and impairs the effectiveness of the financial markets. We take this extremely seriously, and it is therefore vital that we do everything in our power to detect and prevent such abuse.

Additionally, gold plays an important role in nations’ reserve policy. The Treasury’s role is to ensure that its choice for the strategic composition for the benchmark asset allocation of the reserves, including gold, meets the policy objectives of the exchange equalisation account.

My hon. Friend raised several important questions, which I will attempt to answer. I want to refer first to the significant volumes of derivatives and his question about the potential risk for financial systems. Derivatives are an important risk management tool and are used to hedge positions in underlying assets against adverse movements. They allow financial institutions to identify, isolate and manage separately the market risks in financial instruments and commodities. It is internationally recognised in forums such as the G20 that derivatives need sound risk management. Global financial regulators work to ensure that the derivatives market has robust oversight, monitoring, reporting and controls. In the EU, the legislative framework, which includes the market abuse regulation and the markets in financial instruments directive, does this.

The market abuse regulation, or MAR, provides the Financial Conduct Authority, as the relevant national competent authority, with the powers it needs to detect and prevent financial market abuses, such as insider dealing, unlawful disclosure of inside information and market manipulation. The regulation has been regularly revised and updated, most recently three years ago in 2016. MAR covers all financial instruments traded on regulated markets, multilateral trading facilities and organised trading facilities in the EU. It also covers financial instruments not traded on such markets, where the instrument’s price or value is dependent on the price of a financial instrument traded on a regulated market, multilateral trading facility or organised trading facility. Included in this scope are exchange-traded commodity derivatives. This means that gold futures, for example, are in scope of MAR.

MAR imposes stringent requirements on UK trading venues and firms, which have a duty to detect and report market manipulation. Trading venues and firms are required to establish and maintain effective arrangements, systems and procedures to prevent and detect all types of market manipulation.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

These arrangements must allow for the analysis of each and every transaction executed, and order placed, modified, cancelled or rejected. UK trading venues are also obliged to report to the FCA, immediately upon detection, all orders and transactions, including any cancellations or modifications, that could constitute market manipulation, attempted market manipulation or any other type of market abuse.

Is my hon. Friend able to confirm whether there has been any indication, not necessarily just in precious metal markets, of this nefarious practice of spoofing within markets in the UK?

I am just coming on to that, and I will make reference to some of the observations that have been made.

We are confident under MAR that where market abuse behaviour relates to exchange-traded commodity derivatives, as in the J.P. Morgan case, we have robust transparency systems and controls in place. Furthermore, in terms of enforcement, there have been examples in similar markets where traders have been caught attempting a similar type of market manipulation. For example, in 2013 a trader was fined almost £600,000 by the FCA for the manipulation of exchange-traded oil and gas futures.

The recent J.P. Morgan manipulation case in the US involved activity on a US-regulated exchange. The FCA’s regulatory scope obviously does not extend to oversight and enforcement in the US market. The FCA’s remit covers instruments traded on UK markets. The US authorities, therefore, have a remit over this behaviour, and it is in their competence to act against it on behalf of consumers.

On the manipulation of bullion markets, it is important to distinguish between the underlying market for commodities and the market manipulation of exchange-traded commodity derivatives. With regard to the former, precious metals are global commodities, where price is determined by the forces of demand and supply.

It should be noted that the Government have already taken action to ensure that specific commodity benchmarks for price setting are in scope of the market abuse regime. The London Bullion Market Association gold price and silver price—the global benchmark prices for unallocated gold and silver delivered in London—are within scope of the UK’s domestic benchmarks regime, which is the world’s first framework for regulating benchmarks. This means the administrators of those benchmarks, and those firms submitting to them, became subject to FCA authorisation and regulation. Manipulating the benchmarks is a criminal offence. The benchmarks are also regulated under the EU benchmarks regulation, which will supersede the UK regime when it comes fully into force in 2020.

My hon. Friend raised the potential risk of “paper gold” contracts, which are designed to reflect the market price of gold. Investors may use the contracts for hedging or speculative purposes, and without any overall intention to receive or deliver the physical asset. For example, a customer may have a claim on a bullion bank account provider for an amount of gold without physically possessing it.

This type of activity, relating to unallocated gold, does not guarantee an equal exchange for metal. Therefore, the risk that delivery is not met as part of the contracts should not undermine the overall market, given that this delivery is not guaranteed and the risk is priced into the instrument.

The Government commissioned the “Fair and Effective Markets” review in 2014 to restore trust in fixed income, currency and commodities markets. This review made several recommendations for the commodities markets, including the benchmark reforms I spoke of earlier. The review also established the FICC Markets Standards Board—the FMSB—an industry body to improve standards in wholesale fixed income, currency and commodities markets. The FMSB has already produced several industry-led standards and statements of good practices that have seen widespread adoption. The FMSB also supported work by the London Bullion Market Association to develop and issue the global precious metals code in May 2017. The code applies to the LBMA’s members’ dealings in the bullion market. It sets out the standards and best practice expected from market participants in the global wholesale precious metals market. It covers a wide range of topics, such as conduct, information to clients and the avoidance of market abuse. The code applies to LBMA members, who must publicly attest their compliance with it.

To conclude, I am confident that the robust regulatory framework in place in our country provides the FCA with the right tools in its regulatory perimeter to detect and respond to these attempts and ensure that the market works in a way that is fair and effective for all who wish to participate. I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important issues in the manner that he has. I trust that this response gives him considerable confidence in the sophistication of the regulatory regime that we have in place. There is never room for complacency in these matters. I acknowledge the concerns he has raised and I will take them on board as we look to the future.

Thank you. The Minister does speak in a most learned fashion on these important matters, responding in kind to the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), both of whom have benefited from tutorials from those who are in a position to proffer advice, from a Department renowned for its intellectual cream.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.