Back in March, otherwise very under-the-radar Swiss commodities trading giant Gunvor and the fifth largest oil trader in the world, made headlines in the press when one of its then-Russian owners, billionaire Gennady Timchenko (estimated net worth of $8.5 billion), sold his entire 44% stake in the company to his partner in the firm, Torbjorn Tonqvist, just a day before the US revealed its first round of sanctions against individuals affiliated with the Putin regime. Timchenko was among them. As a result of the sale, however, Gunvor avoided falling on the US sanctions list and a Treasury official said that “Gunvor Group Ltd. isn’t subject to automatic blocking from dealing with U.S. persons under Russian sanctions because co-founder Gennady Timchenko owns less than 50 percent of the company.”
Since then the Geneva-based company rarely appeared in the media which is how the nondescript company liked it. Until last week, that is, when Bloomberg reported that the company was giving up trading physical precious metals, read gold, less than a year after the commodity house started a business dedicated to buying and selling gold. Gunvor is, or rather was, one of the few large commodity firms that handles precious metals. The move into gold was part of an expansion into non-oil businesses that now include iron ore, industrial metals and natural gas. Gold trading was done by a handful of people in Singapore and Geneva.
Gunvor’s move away from physical commodities trading in itself is not surprising: recall that first it was Germany banking titan Deutsche Bank which announced it would no longer trade physical precious metals last month.
According to Bloomberg at least two traders are leaving the company in Geneva and Singapore: Francois Beuzelin, hired in 2012 as head of metals in Geneva, and Cedric Chanu, who started in Singapore in January as a precious-metals trader. Chanu declined to comment by phone and Beuzelin didn’t answer calls to his office nor an e-mail sent via his LinkedIn account.
But the biggest surprise in this story was the reason why Gunvor chose to discontinues its gold trading. Per Bloomberg, “executives decided to abandon the precious metals trading business partly because of difficulties in finding steady supplies of gold where the origin could be well documented, one of the people said.”
And while we would certainly love to learn more about this problem of “undocumented” physical gold, just like that we have the most definitive confirmation yet that the story surrounding China’s rehypothecated commodities scandal in the port of Qingdao which as previously reported included copper and aluminum and which mysteriously disappeared just as abruptly as it first appeared, not only also involved the precious yellow metal but never really went away, and instead what appears to have happened is that “robosigned” physical gold – or gold whose ownership traders are unable to validate – has now flooded into the global trading infrastructure.
Because if the world’s fifth largest trader of commodities has chosen to outright not trade gold, and thus not generate value for its shareholders over risks and fears that another, or two, or three, or a countless number of other prior “owners” may come knocking one day and demanding delivery of gold whose origin could not be documented by its trading intermediaries, and whose ownership link Gunvor is unable to trace, then just what on earth is really going on with the world’s physical gold inventory (here’s looking at you, Chinese gold-backed Commodity Funding Deals), and just what is the catalyst that will unleash what is essentially the infamous US mortgage robosigning scandal onto the gold arena, at which point owners of gold realize the gold they thought they owned, even if held safely in a deposit box deep in a gold vault in a safe offshore location, in reality “belongs” to someone else?
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