What Is Bullion?
Bullion is gold and silver that is officially recognized as being at least 99.5% and 99.9% pure and is in the form of bars or ingots. Bullion is often kept as a reserve asset by governments and central banks.1
To create bullion, gold first must be discovered by mining companies and removed from the earth in the form of gold ore, a combination of gold and mineralized rock. The gold is then extracted from the ore with the use of chemicals or extreme heat. The resulting pure bullion is also called “parted bullion.” Bullion that contains more than one type of metal, is called “unparted bullion.”
Bullion can sometimes be considered legal tender, most often held in reserves by central banks or used by institutional investors to hedge against inflationary effects on their portfolios. Approximately 20% of mined gold is held by central banks worldwide. This gold is held as bullions in reserves, which the bank uses to settle international debt or stimulate the economy through gold lending. The central bank lends gold from their bullion reserves to bullion banks at a rate of approximately 1% to help raise money.
Bullion banks are involved in one activity or another in the precious metals markets. Some of these activities include clearing, risk management, hedging, trading, vaulting, and acting as intermediaries between lenders and borrowers. Nearly all bullion banks are members of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), an over-the-counter (OTC) market that offers little to no transparency in its dealings.2 OTC markets are dealer networks for financial products, commodities, and securities that don’t trade on a centralized exchange.
How Banks Lend and Sell Bullion
When a central bank lends gold to bullion banks for a specified period, say three months, it receives the cash equivalent of the gold lent to the bullion bank. The central bank lends this money on the market at a lease rate known as the Gold Forward Offered Rates (GOFO), which is published daily by the LBMA. The higher the lease rate, the more incentive a central bank has to lend gold from its reserves. The bullion banks who borrow the gold can sell the gold or lend it to mining companies.
If the bullion bank sells the gold on the spot market, it will receive cash for the transaction. The spot market is where bullion and other commodities re traded at the prevailing market rate. An increase in the supply of gold in the market reduces its price. The bullion bank hopes that by the time it’s scheduled to repurchase the gold from the spot market, the price of bullion will be lower so that the bank can buy it back at a lower price than it had originally sold it. At the end of the loan period, the bank buys back the gold and returns it to the central bank.
Bullion banks that lend gold to mining companies would usually do so to finance a project being run by the company. A mining firm would also borrow gold if it entered into a forward hedge contract in which gold, that has not yet been mined or extracted from the earth, is pre-sold to buyers. If some or all of its buyers expect a physical delivery of the gold bullion, the mining firm would opt to borrow the gold from the bank, which would subsequently be delivered to the buyers on the other end of the forward agreement. The gold lent to mining companies is usually repaid from the companies’ future mining output.