In March, Dutch nationalized banking giant ABN Amro send its trading clients a letter explaining that they have changed the conditions for precious metals trading. In their letter , the bank explains that they will no longer deliver physical precious metals (gold, silver, platinum and palladium), that they administer prices slightly differently, and that they have found a new custodian. ABN Amro suggests that clients do not have to do anything, stating “we will administer and manage your precious metals holdings in the new manner”.
Of course clients do not have to do anything, but given the new conditions , this is hardly advisable or prudent. Investors with precious metals holdings with ABN Amro are potentially facing fatal risks.
For the proper legal context one must understand that ABN Amro uses a separate brokerage vehicle “Stichting beleggersgiro ABN Amro” through which clients can trade amongst others bonds, stocks, currencies, and precious metals. Under the new conditions — and they state this very explicitly — the “Stichting..” promises that they “will attempt to at least hold 70% of invested funds in precious metals” in the vaults of UBS, in Zürich. Why ABN Amro did not mention UBS is a mere aside, but under the new conditions ABN Amro discloses that they “do not guarantee this to be the case”. So it can be more or less 70% and whether it is actually 60% or 72%, it does not matter; the point is, ABN Amro does not give any guarantee of what is in a UBS vault at all.
Yet there is more. Clients who chose to have exposure to precious metals do not acquire anything themselves. Formally, they only hold a claim on ABN Amro’s brokerage vehicle that owns the metals with UBS. However, UBS can also choose to have gold allocated with a third party, a third party unknown to ABN Amro and its clients. So it is not necessarily the case that clients of ABN Amro have an indirect claim on precious metals in an UBS-vault, but to gold in the vault of some unknown third party “somewhere else”. And then there’s the article that stipulates, “the bank and its “Stichting” cannot be held liable for any third party bankruptcies or that of UBS”. ABN Amro goes even as far as to describe what happens if UBS or an unknown third party goes bankrupt: you stand in line hoping to receive an equal share of what is then to be liquidated, “if there is anything left at all”.
Also troubling, if UBS deems market conditions “extreme”, it has the right to ignore orders given by clients of ABN Amro, and UBS is reserved the right to stop their service at any point in time albeit they have to communicate such a decision 30 days prior before ending their bullion services. So if UBS decides to stop their bullion vaulting “service”, ABN Amro clients can only sell off whatever it is they had bought, and of course, they must hope they have the opportunity to do so without UBS autonomously declaring market conditions as too extreme.
So what is ABN Amro actually offering?
It is an intriguing question to ask: what do precious metals investors at ABN Amro really buy? Obviously, it is not an equivalent of physical ownership. It is a “paper only” account and even that is not a proper description because an account is never a one-way street. Despite ABN Amro denominates this account in terms of weight that is valued in euro, clients can never withdraw precious metals, so this denomination is entirely meaningless. Also, it cannot be considered a quasi ETF-certificate because at most, it is an “un-unallocated” claim: the invested funds may be anywhere and likewise the gold. And since physical delivery has been postponed all together, it cannot be regarded as a quasi futures contract or an option on that either.
Given these new conditions, this precious metals investment has become some sort of twisted commodity swap whereby investors swap their money to invest in any upside price potential of precious metals and whereby they take on all sorts of financial counterparty risks without hedging anything at all. Investors always face a price risk, but if one “buys” precious metals with ABN Amro, then one also faces a forced sell-off risk, a (discounted) cash-settlement risk, and last but not least, an outright default risk. And here’s the gist of it: nobody can be held liable if these risks materialize. In other words, investors bet their money on a horse that might or might not exist and for which they can know upfront, this horse will never cross the finish line.
Personally, I am disappointed in ABN Amro and most prominently in its board. Under leadership of former minister of Finance Gerrit Zalm, ABN Amro is supposed to act as a custodian of Dutch taxpayers who coughed up €17 billion in the nationalization scheme to save ABN Amro from a disorderly collapse from the Fortis holding in 2008. Taxpayers who vested another €13 billion to absorb hidden losses. That’s €30 billion for a bank that nowadays proclaims to have “embedded” a client-centered approach.
Imagine you invested in precious metals with ABN Amro, for example because you deemed them trustworthy and because you wanted to store your precious metals safely. And then ABN Amro tells you they have changed the conditions introducing the very risks you wanted to avoid and tells you, “You do not have to do anything.” If you ask me, ABN Amro has relegated its precious metals clients from “not so savvy” to mere “muppets”.
Some might argue that since ABN Amro fully disclosed their zero accountability, all is fine or say it is OK because Dutch taxpayers are now off the hook for any mishaps in the precious metals markets. But ABN Amro still has to be sold off one day. So if it is not about protecting the interests of small (financial illiterate) investors, or let alone the bigger picture of the precious metals markets (all that paper metal remains a persistent financial taboo), then it still remains a question of jeopardizing ABN Amro’s reputation. In my humble opinion, there are thus 30 billion reasons to take issue with this.
If you are a client at ABN Amro with precious metals, I wouldn’t wait for something to happen. Make no mistake about this: you are potentially left empty handed. And in case people at ABN Amro read this, here’s a question: When something as utterly simple as sticking a lump of metal in a vault, something you apparently cannot guarantee anno 2013 — a banking establishment for crying out loud — then why offer this financial precious metal mumbo jumbo at all? Is your reputation of a trustworthy counterparty not worth anything at all? Is this ABN Amro’s new interpretation of embedding a client-centered approach? Here’s a simple idea: stop offering “fool’s gold” and go back to basics, because if not now, then when? After it is all too late?
As for members of Dutch parliament and Dutch regulators: anyone paying attention? It wouldn’t be the first time you only acted until after it was too late.