Breaking News: Regulators to Classify Gold as Zero-Risk Asset

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In what might be the most underreported financial story of the year, US banking regulators recently circulated a memorandum for comment, including proposed adjustments to current regulatory capital risk-weightings for various assets. For the first time, unencumbered gold bullion is to be classified as zero risk, in line with dollar cash, US Treasuries and other explicitly government-guaranteed assets. If implemented, this will be an important step in the re-monetisation of gold and, other factors equal, should be strongly supportive of the gold price, both outright and relative to that for government bonds, the primary beneficiaries of the most recent flight to safety. Stay tuned.

Did Anyone Notice?

In an Amphora Report last month, The Canary in the Gold Mine, I made the case that a key reason why gold has not been acting like a safe-haven asset in recent months is because banks are so capital impaired that they are scrambling to reduce their holdings of risky assets in favour of so-called ‘zero-risk-weighted’ assets, against which they needn’t set aside any regulatory capital. As it stands, gold has a 50% risk-weighting. But some government bonds, including US Treasuries, German Bunds and British gilts, are zero-risk-weighted.

However, in the report, I speculated that perhaps that would change in future, and that:

“…if it happens, it will be an important step toward the re-monetisation of gold. Gold would be able to compete on a level playing field with government bonds. While the playing field could be levelled in this way, there would be a gross mismatch on the pitch. On the one hand, you have unbacked government bonds, issued by overindebted governments, yielding less than zero in inflation-adjusted terms. On the other, you have gold, the historical preserver of purchasing power par excellence.”[1] 

Well, on 4th June the Federal Reserve, OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) and FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) collectively circulated a memo asking for comment on their proposed changes to the regulatory capital risk-weighting framework. Section 11, ‘Other Assets’, specifies that a “zero risk weight” is to be applied to “gold bullion held in the banking organization’s own vaults, or held in another depository institution’s vaults on an allocated basis…”.[2]

Whoa. There you have it. As it stands now it would appear that, in the near future, banks will not have their regulatory capital ratios penalised for holding gold instead of government bonds as a safe-haven, zero-risk asset.

While the fundamental backdrop for gold is highly favourable and has been for some years, as the supply of money, credit and government bonds has grown dramatically, this technical aspect of the gold market is also clearly bullish. Indeed, as I wrote in The Canary in the Gold Mine, if gold is re-classified as a zero-risk-weighted asset, “the price is likely to soar to a new, all-time high.” I stand by that statement. In about six months we will know whether I am right, or whether I have misread this one.

Given the potential importance for gold, I’m surprised that this announcement has not been widely reported in the financial press, alternative or even mainstream. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, at this point, the re-classification of gold has only been proposed, not implemented. The change is not due to take effect until 1st January 2013.

With interest rates near zero, however, the opportunity cost of sitting on a non-interest-bearing gold position for six months is close to zero. Yes, gold may appear to be in a downtrend and, yes, it might have been unusually volatile of late, but unless the regulators backtrack, I see this as clearly bullish for gold, enabling much catch-up to Treasuries.

It remains to say something about why, perhaps, US regulators are poised to change bank regulatory risk weightings in favour of gold in this way. I do have some ideas about that. However, those will have to wait for a future Amphora Report.

Resources

THE CANARY IN THE GOLD MINE, Amphora Report, vol. 3: May 2012. The link to this report is here.

The summary of the proposal, including a link to the complete version, including the explicit reference to gold, is here.

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