On the heels interest rate and currency market rigging scandals, new charges that the benchmark used to set the price of gold used by miners, jewelers and central banks, known as the London gold fix, may have been manipulated by major banks for the past decade. 

Gold

Researcher who uncovered Libor scandal calls for gold manipulation investigation

Researchers Albert Metz, managing director at Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO) Investors Service, and Rosa Abrantes-Metz, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, are calling for an investigation of collusive behavior.  The primary issue stems from unusual trading patterns near the close of trading in London around 3 p.m. when the fix price is set on a conference call between the biggest gold dealers.

“The structure of the benchmark is certainly conducive to collusion and manipulation, and the empirical data are consistent with price artificiality,” the researchers say in the report, which hasn’t yet been submitted for publication but was reviewed by Bloomberg.  “It is likely that co-operation between participants may be occurring.” Abrantes-Metz’ 2008 white paper, “Libor Manipulation?” helped uncover the manipulation of the London interbank offered rate and she advises the European Union and the International Organization of Securities Commissions on financial benchmarks.

The five banks targeted in the paper include Barclays PLC (NYSE:BCS) (LON:BARC), Deutsche Bank AG (NYSE:DB) (ETR:DBK), The Bank of Nova Scotia (NYSE:BNS) (TSE:BNS), HSBC Holdings plc (ADR) (NYSE:HSBC) (LON:HSBA) and Societe Generale SA (ADR) (OTCMKTS:SCGLY) (EPA:GLE).  Trouble is no stranger to some of these banks.  For instance, HSBC had previously settled charges of money laundering for drug cartels and terrorists, Barclays had settled charges in market manipulation and Deutsche Bank had agreed to pay $1.9 billion to settle fraud charges related to the sale of mortgage-backed securities.

To draw their conclusions, the researchers examined intraday trading over a twelve year period, ending in 2013, looking for sudden, unexplained moves that may indicate illegal behavior. From 2004, they observed frequent spikes lower in spot gold prices during an afternoon gold fix call among those who set the rate.

Even with evidence, getting regulators to act sometimes difficult

“This is a first attempt to uncover potentially manipulative behavior and the results are concerning,” Abrantes-Metz was quoted as saying. “It’s down to regulators to establish why there are such striking patterns but banks have the means, motive and opportunity to manipulate the fixing. The results are consistent with the possibility of collusion.”

While providing strong evidence of market manipulation is one hurdle to cross, commodity market manipulation cases are not often brought by regulators.  CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton, for instance, dug up e-mails, letters and had eyewitness testimony from traders and whistleblowers regarding silver manipulation, but the case was not perused, much to Chilton’s disappointment.  The potential exists for additional criminal evidence to emerge in the case.