Jeremy Lefroy – 2019 Speech on Precious Metal Markets

Below is the text of the speech made by Jeremy Lefroy, the Conservative MP for Stafford, in the House of Commons on 8 July 2019.

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.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

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.

Jeremy Lefroy

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.