Where Is Germany’s Gold?
from Bloomberg Business Peter Boehringer hates the word “conspiracy.” It implies something crazy, and if you spend even a little time with the 45-year-old German, it becomes clear he’s driven by a desire for order. On a recent morning in Munich, he’s dressed in a cobalt blue shirt that matches his blue tie and blue eyes. His black hair is cropped close above his receded hairline. In his gray Volkswagen minivan, the cup holder contains two identical water bottles, each filled to the same level. At the end of a daylong interview, for which Boehringer has arranged an hour-by-hour itinerary, he sends a follow-up e-mail with a numbered summation of points he’s made. No. 2 says that the crusade he’s been waging for the last three years is simply about transparency. “Questions,” he writes, “by definition cannot be ‘conspiracy theories.’ ” Boehringer is a gold bug, a member of the impassioned tribe of investors and academics who distrust central banks and paper money, unless the governments that print it will exchange the cash for gold or silver from their vaults. He has an asset management firm that invests his own money and that of clients in gold, silver, and mining stocks, and he’s a founder of the nonprofit German Precious Metal Society, which educates the public about “the craziness of unbacked monetary systems,” he says. In short, Boehringer is worried that the global economy is built on a fiction of currencies that aren’t backed by precious metals. Which is why he set out to make sure the gold that Germany and other nations say they have actually exists. Almost half of Germany’s gold resides at 33 Liberty St., the headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 80 feet below street level in a vault that sits on Manhattan’s bedrock. In 2012, Boehringer started a campaign on his blog to bring it home. He argued the gold should be shipped to the German central bank in Frankfurt. The hoard, amassed during Germany’s postwar boom, had never been subject to a published bar-by-bar physical review by its owners. That lack of accounting had become an insatiable itch for Boehringer. As the volunteer chairman of a private storage company for silver and gold investors based in Gerstetten, Germany, Boehringer personally counts the holdings each year by lugging metal valued at some €140 million ($161 million) from one end of the vault to the other, just to make sure it’s all there. His blog became a hub for precious-metal fans. As gold prices peaked in 2011, the Taxpayers Association of Europe asked him to draft a letter to the Deutsche Bundesbank seeking to know precisely where the central bank’s gold was. He eagerly agreed to help the group, which advocates for lower taxes and serves as an umbrella for 29 national associations across the continent. After receiving a response that wasn’t detailed enough to satisfy him, Boehringer pressed on, starting the “Repatriate Our Gold” campaign in February 2012. He conceded it had low odds of success. Gold bugs largely inhabit the fringes of finance, and some of their apocalyptic arguments for investing had begun to show cracks as gold prices slid. Opponents including bankers and journalists branded Boehringer a conspiracy theorist for even suggesting something was amiss at the core of global finance. Then the seemingly impossible happened: He started to win. Because it doesn’t react with air or water, gold always glitters, even in shipwrecks lost for centuries. It’s so dense—19.3 times heavier than water—that when you lift an ingot, the disconnect between what your eyes see and your hands feel produces an odd sensation, as if you’re on a planet with a stronger gravitational pull. A standard central bank gold bar is a bit smaller than two soda cans stuck together end-to-end but weighs about 27 pounds, the combined heft of four newborn babies. Less than 175,000 metric tons (386 million pounds) of gold have been mined in all human history, according to the World Gold Council. Melt it all down—King Tutankhamun’s death mask, the bars in Fort Knox, your wedding ring—and it would form a cube 21 meters on each side, reaching just one eighth the height of the Washington Monument. A 1-kilogram gold bar is the size of a flip phone and could buy a BMW. Gold also has a deeper appeal. When stocks and bonds are plummeting on paper, gold is reassuringly physical. Speaking in October at the Council on Foreign Relations, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said gold is so universally treated like money itself, it’s as if it’s “inbred into human beings.” The fact that gold can be touched means, of course, that it can also disappear. Boehringer cites an anecdote from almost a century ago to argue that Germany has failed to zealously protect its gold holdings. In the 1920s the president of the German central bank, Hjalmar Schacht, paid a visit to the New York Fed and its founding president, Benjamin Strong. In an episode recounted in his 1955 autobiography, Schacht wrote, “Strong was proud to be able to show us the vaults which were situated in the deepest cellar of the building and remarked: ‘Now, Herr Schacht, you shall see where the Reichsbank gold is kept.’ ” The two bankers waited as New York Fed staff sought the German stash. “At length we were told: ‘Mr. Strong, we can’t find the Reichsbank gold.’ ” Schacht comforted the flabbergasted Fed banker: “Never mind; I believe you when you say the gold is there. Even if it weren’t you are good for its replacement.” The men left without the German seeing his bars, instead accepting their existence as a matter of trust. Assuming the German gold actually was somewhere at 33 Liberty St. at the time, it’s probably now long gone. The period between the World Wars was plagued by runaway inflation in which Germans legendarily shopped with wheelbarrows of cash and burned bundles of reichsmarks for warmth. (Among the inflation causes, Germany had stopped backing its currency with gold during World War I.) Adolf Hitler exploited the economic meltdown to seize power and then drained Germany’s gold holdings, including assets he stole from Jews, to pay for World War II. After the war, global trade revolved around the U.S. dollar, which was backed by gold. Under the arrangement, any nation could cash in its greenbacks for ingots at any time. As West Germany’s economy took off, the nation ran a trade surplus during the 1950s and ’60s. German companies exchanged their dollars for deutsche marks, filling the new Deutsche Bundesbank with U.S. currency. The central bank, in turn, switched the dollars for gold at the New York Fed, swelling its stores under Liberty Street. That ended in 1971 when President Richard Nixon suspended gold conversions, making the dollar a “fiat currency,” backed by nothing but the public’s confidence in the U.S. During the Cold War, it made sense to keep the gold in Manhattan rather than Frankfurt, 75 miles from the Iron Curtain, just in case the Soviets invaded. Yet even after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the gold remained in New York. Or so the Germans have been told. Continue Reading>>>