Golden Shell Games

That’s right, gold. You know, the ultimate money. Or Gold: The Once and Future Money, as our friend Nathan Lewis titled his 2007 book, for which we were privileged to write the foreword.

Hey, Wall Street can take a $250 million sewer project in Alabama and turn it into an insurmountable debt 20 times as big. So it can find a way to pervert the Midas metal, too. And the evidence is piling up: You don’t have to be partial to conspiracy theories about the “manipulation” of gold to conclude something just doesn’t look right.

That means you need to be very careful about how you hold any gold outside your physical possession – especially in a retirement account.

Of course, it’s always important to ask oneself, how much is there to these conspiracy theories, really? Well, ever since the publication of his book, Lewis has been scrutinizing them. And this year, they’ve reached a fever pitch.

  • Did you hear about the 400-ounce gold bars filled with tungsten? (Tungsten’s weight is nearly identical to gold, so the deception is simple if the bar isn’t properly assayed)
  • Or the one about the London metals trader turned whistle-blower who alleged JP Morgan Chase is suppressing the silver price? And how he was injured in a mysterious hit-and-run? (His injuries were minor)
  • Or how the head of the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee testified about gold manipulation before the Commodity Futures Tradition Commission and the camera conveniently malfunctioned?

You could go very far down the rabbit hole trying to separate fact from fiction with these kind of stories. And you’d be wasting your time.

Marc Faber, editor of The Gloom Boom & Doom Report stated it well in April, so well we quoted it in The 5 Min. Forecast: “If you have manipulation to keep the price down, it eventually goes ballistic. So all the people that are bitching about the manipulation of silver and gold should be happy that it is manipulated, because it still gives them an opportunity to buy it at a depressed price.”

Exactly. Manipulation stories are a source of entertainment, outrage or both. They underscore the perils of the Wall Street Fandango. But their truth or falsehood makes little difference if you hold gold in your physical possession. Or in an allocated account (the gold has your name on it) in an independent, insured depository. Or if you use a reputable electronic gold purveyor. (We like and

But it makes a lot of difference if you hold “paper gold” in the form of an exchange-traded fund. Many people buy vehicles like GLD and IAU with the comforting illusion that what they’re buying is “good as gold.” And it’s an incredibly convenient way to get metals exposure in a retirement account.

Which brings us to the revelations of Janet Tavakoli.

Tavakoli is not a gold bug. She’s an expert in structured finance and credit derivatives who runs her own consulting firm in Chicago. Recently, she published a client report that took the format of “advice” she would give to Wall Street sharpies trying to corner the gold market. Not that they’d ever try that, of course.

Pump up the gold story. Get your friends to tell retail investors to buy some gold every month. Get your buddies in the financial business to offer exchange-traded gold funds (ETFs) that claim to buy physical gold. This will sound safe to retail investors, but in fact, the ETFs are very risky. This will serve your purpose when you are ready to start a panic. These particular ETFs will allow the “gold” to be commingled with the custodian’s gold, and the custodian can lease out the gold.

Moreover, the “gold” custodian can give it to a subcustodian that the manager doesn’t know. The subcustodian can give it to yet another subcustodian unknown to the original custodian. The manager will never audit the gold, and the gold is not “allocated” to a particular investor. Since this is an “exchange traded” gold fund, investors will probably assume the gold is regulated by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), but it isn’t. By the time investors wake up to the probability that there is very little actual gold backing their investment, your plan will be ready to execute.

The “plan” involves buying huge futures contracts and expecting physical delivery. If this sounds familiar, it’s pretty much what the Hunt brothers did when they tried to corner the silver market in 1980. Silver shot up to $50, however briefly. It’s never seen that territory again.

But the consequences this time around would be far more serious. It could collapse banks holding huge short positions in the futures market, accustomed to settling contracts cash only. More to our point, it would crater the ETFs: Their complex network of custodians and subcustodians would be laid bare. ETF investors would realize they have a claim on the same chunk of gold as, say, Goldman Sachs. But Goldman would have the actual metal. The ETF investor would have to settle for pennies on the dollar.

Far-fetched? Maybe. Just remember that ETFs are ultimately, like a complicated mortgage derivative, subject to counterparty risk. If the day comes when trust evaporates from the system, value will evaporate from the ETFs. If you want to play gold’s short-term ups and downs, the ETFs are an ideal instrument. Otherwise, stay away.

Addison Wiggin
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning