The Aborted Italian Gold Sales Plan


The reality was suddenly the government of Italy wanted to put their hand into the country’s coffers in an exercise that would never have solved the country’s debt problems.

Sales of gold by European Central Banks are primarily for the adjustment of national reserves in terms of structure or size. They are not intended under the rules of the European Union, intended to pay the bills of the governments of Europe, so when the subject came up, after a consistent record of the Bank of Italy’s refusal to even contemplate the sale of the country’s gold reserves, everyone was surprised. The reality was suddenly the government of Italy wanted to put their hand into the country’s coffers in an exercise that would never have solved the country’s debt problems.

The Italian parliament approved a reserve plan allowing the government to look into using the Bank of Italy's substantial gold reserves to cut the country's huge debt. Italy has some 62% of its foreign exchange reserves value in gold at about 2,452 tonnes. The resolution inserted into Italy’s next budget committed the government to:

“Undertake, also in its relations with the European Union, a survey of all instruments useful to producing a significant reduction of the national debt, through agreed ways of using thereserves of the central banks, in gold and currency, in excess of that required by the agreement with the E.C.B. for the defense of the Euro.” The wording suggested that Italy’s government would try to re-think at EU level the existing limitations on the use of the gold and currency reserves of Europe’s central banks. This was bound to ruffle the feathers of the European Central Bank!

The government plan aimed to cut Italy's debt to 103.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2008 from 105.1% of G.D.P. this year, about €27 billion ($36.9 billion), using the central bank's gold and foreign exchange reserves. If Italy were to sell 1740 tonnes of its gold it would have achieved this target. However it would have taken four years to do this under the ‘ceiling’ limitation of 500 tonnes [if the C.B.G.A. is extended again under the same terms] provided Italy was the only seller, during which time we have no doubt the Italian’s debt would have risen past the present level]. This achievement undoubtedly would have been swamped by the underlying problems in the Italian economy within a smaller period of time. Italy's debt is the world's third highest in absolute terms. This plan was unlikely to change that.

Was this plan reasonable? Not at all. Italy has had a very long record of poor management of its currency management in common with other European countries. One of the saving graces of the country with such a record is that it had the wisdom to hold large gold reserves in case the record continued, with gold always there to bail them out of the mess. The Italians could have undertaken sales of gold after Budget day 2008, once the Italian government had approved their next year’s budget. There was room though for gold sales, under the present agreement, for around 370 tonnes in the last two years of the agreement, which runs through until September 26th 2009, but no more. This would have made the exercise pointless.

It appears old fashioned now to think that national spending behavior should be limited to stop the bleeding, then repayment of debt undertaken, from new income. In high debt situations the sight of gold reserves to politicians in Europe [except in Germany] seems impossible to resist. Add to that a complete lack of understanding of gold as savings for a rainy day and you get another repeat of governments grabbing the piggy bank.

Wisely, the Bank of Italy kept silent. Because the plan crossed the lines of the Maastricht Treaty and impinged on European Central Bank territory, it was up to the European Central Bank to put the Italian government in its place. Italy’s approach was not solely an attack on gold reserves, but an attempt to adjust the policies of the Eurozone and interference in the activities of the European Central Bank.

The European Commission, was sharp in its response on the use of the Bank of Italy’s gold reserves to lower the country’s debt, saying, “It is up to the E.C.B. to decide about the foreign reserves [including gold reserves] of the € area member states, in full independence.”

Did we detect more than just a re-establishment of the order of financial seniority here? We would hope so in the days when the composition of reserves is becoming a sensitive issue, with the importance of gold in extreme times rising through the levels of priorities in the face of a weakening $ and shaky credit?

The matter is now put to rest, leaving a substantial shortfall in the ‘ceiling’ of gold sales for the entire Central Bank Gold Agreement [2,500 tonnes] and the balance of announced gold sales to date short of that by around 400 to 500 tonnes.

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