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An interesting read from GATA

  1. Chuck

    12,278 Posts.
    2

    9:50p ET Wednesday, June 5, 2002


    Dear Friend of GATA and Gold:


    Thanks to Sean Corrigan of Capital Insight in Britain
    for sending along this 1983 Harper's magazine
    article by Edward Jay Epstein about the Bank for
    International Settlements. While the essay is almost
    20 years old, it has just as much relevance today,
    when the world's big economic decisions continue
    to be made by an unelected few behind closed
    doors. Note particularly how the rigging of the gold
    price by the BIS is acknowledged in this essay.
    Has anything changed, and can anyone square
    any of this with simple democracy?


    CHRIS POWELL, Secretary/Treasurer
    Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee Inc.


    * * *



    Ruling the World of Money


    By Edward Jay Epstein
    Harper's Magazine, 1983


    Ten times a year -- once a month except in
    August and October -- a small group of well
    dressed men arrives in Basel, Switzerland.
    Carrying overnight bags and attache cases,
    they discreetly check into the Euler Hotel,
    across from the railroad station. They have
    come to this sleepy city from places as
    disparate as Tokyo, London, and Washington,
    D.C., for the regular meeting of the most
    exclusive, secretive, and powerful
    supranational club in the world.


    Each of the dozen or so visiting members has
    his own office at the club, with secure
    telephone lines to his home country. The
    members are fully serviced by a permanent
    staff of about 300, including chauffeurs,
    chefs, guards, messengers, translators,
    stenographers, secretaries, and researchers.
    Also at their disposal are a brilliant
    research unit and an ultramodern computer, as
    well as a secluded country club with tennis
    courts and a swimming pool, a few kilometres
    outside of Basel.


    The membership of this club is restricted to
    a handful of powerful men who determine daily
    the interest rate, the availability of
    credit, and the money supply of the banks in
    their own countries. They include the
    governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the
    Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the Swiss
    National Bank, and the German Bundesbank. The
    club controls a bank with a $40 billion kitty
    in cash, government securities, and gold that
    constitutes about one tenth of the world's
    available foreign exchange. The profits
    earned just from renting out its hoard of
    gold (second only to that of Fort Knox in
    value) are more than sufficient to pay for
    the expenses of the entire organization. And
    the unabashed purpose of its elite monthly
    meetings is to coordinate and, if possible,
    to control all monetary activities in the
    industrialized world. The place where this
    club meets in Basel is a unique financial
    institution called the Bank for International
    Settlements -- or more simply, and
    appropriately, the BIS (pronounced "biz" in
    German).


    The BIS was originally established in May
    1930 by bankers and diplomats of Europe and
    the United States to collect and disburse
    Germany's World War I reparation payments
    (hence its name). It was truly an
    extraordinary arrangement. Although the BIS
    was organized as a commercial bank with
    publicly held shares, its immunity from
    government interference - and taxes in both
    peace and war was guaranteed by an
    international treaty signed in The Hague in
    1930. Although all its depositors are central
    banks, the BIS has made a profit on every
    transaction. And because it has been highly
    profitable, it has required no subsidy or aid
    from any government.


    Since it also provided, in Basel, a safe and
    convenient repository for the gold holdings
    of the European central banks, it quickly
    evolved into the bank for central banks. As
    the world depression deepened in the Thirties
    and financial panics flared up in Austria,
    Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Germany, the
    governors in charge of the key central banks
    feared that the entire global financial
    system would collapse unless they could
    closely coordinate their rescue efforts. The
    obvious meeting spot for this desperately
    needed coordination was the BIS, where they
    regularly went anyway to arrange gold swaps
    and war-damage settlements.


    Even though an isolationist Congress
    officially refused to allow the U.S. Federal
    Reserve to participate in the BIS, or to
    accept shares in it (which were instead held
    in trust by the First National City Bank),
    the chairman of the Fed quietly slipped over
    to Basel for important meetings. World
    monetary policy was evidently too important
    to leave to national politicians. During
    World War II, when the nations, if not their
    central banks, were belligerents, the BIS
    continued operating in Basel, though the
    monthly meetings were temporarily suspended.
    In 1944, following Czech accusations that the
    BIS was laundering gold that the Nazis had
    stolen from occupied Europe, the American
    government backed a resolution at the Bretton
    Woods Conference calling for the liquidation
    of the BIS.


    The naive idea was that the settlement and
    monetary-clearing functions it provided could
    be taken over by the new International
    Monetary Fund. What could not be replaced,
    however, was what existed behind the mask of
    an international clearing house: a
    supranational organization for setting and
    implementing global monetary strategy, which
    could not be accomplished by a democratic,
    United Nations-like international agency. The
    central bankers, not about to let their club
    be taken from them, quietly snuffed out the
    American resolution.


    After World War II, the BIS reemerged as the
    main clearing house for European currencies
    and, behind the scenes, the favored meeting
    place of central bankers. When the dollar
    came under attack in the 1960s, massive swaps
    of money and gold were arranged at the BIS
    for the defence of the American currency. It
    was undeniably ironic that, as the president
    of the BIS observed, "the United States,
    which had wanted to kill the BIS, suddenly
    finds it indispensable." In any case, the Fed
    has become a leading member of the club, with
    either Chairman Paul Volcker or Governor
    Henry Wallich attending every "Basel
    weekend."


    "It was in the wood-paneled rooms above the
    shop and the hotel that decisions were
    reached to devalue or defend currencies, to
    fix the price of gold, to regulate offshore
    banking, and to raise or lower short-term
    interest rates."


    Originally, the central bankers sought
    complete anonymity for their activities.
    Their headquarters were in an abandoned six-
    storey hotel, the Grand et Savoy Hotel
    Universe, with an annex above the adjacent
    Frey's Chocolate Shop. There purposely was no
    sign over the door identifying the BIS so
    visiting central bankers and gold dealers
    used Frey's, which is across the street from
    the railroad station, as a convenient
    landmark. It was in the wood-paneled rooms
    above the shop and the hotel that decisions
    were reached to devalue or defend currencies,
    to fix the price of gold, to regulate
    offshore banking, and to raise or lower
    short-term interest rates. And though they
    shaped "a new world economic order" through
    these deliberations (as Guido Carli, then the
    governor of the Italian central bank, put
    it), the public, even in Basel, remained
    almost totally unaware of the club and its
    activities.


    In May 1977, however, the BIS gave up its
    anonymity, against the better judgement of
    some of its members, in exchange for more
    efficient headquarters. The new building, an
    eighteen-story-high circular skyscraper that
    rises over the medieval city like some
    misplaced nuclear reactor, quickly became
    known as the "Tower of Basel" and began
    attracting attention from tourists. "That was
    the last thing we wanted, " Dr. Fritz
    Leutwiler, current president of both the BIS
    and the Swiss National Bank, explained to me
    while watching currency changes flash across
    the Reuters screen in his office. "If it had
    been up to me, it never would have been
    built."


    Despite its irksome visibility, the new
    headquarters does have the advantages of
    luxurious space and Swiss efficiency. The
    building is completely air-conditioned and
    self-contained, with its own nuclear-bomb
    shelter in the sub-basement, a triply
    redundant fire-extinguishing system (so
    outside firemen never have to be called in),
    a private hospital, and some twenty miles of
    subterranean archives. "We try to provide a
    complete clubhouse for central bankers ... a
    home away from home," said Gunther
    Schleiminger, the super-competent general
    manager, as he arranged a rare tour of the
    headquarters for me.


    The top floor, with a panoramic view of three
    countries -- Germany, France, and Switzerland
    -- is a deluxe restaurant, used only to serve
    the members a buffet dinner when they arrive
    on Sunday evenings to begin the "Basel
    weekends." Aside from those ten occasions,
    this floor remains ghostly empty.


    On the floor below, Schleiminger and his
    small staff sit in spacious offices,
    administering the day-to-day details of the
    BIS and monitoring activities on lower floors
    as if they were running an out-of-season
    hotel.


    The next three floors down are suites of
    offices reserved for the central bankers. All
    are decorated in three colors -- beige,
    brown, and tan -- and each has a similar
    modernistic lithograph over the desk. Each
    office also has coded speed-dial telephones
    that at a push of a button directly connect
    the club members to their offices in their
    central banks back home. The completely
    deserted corridors and empty offices -- with
    nameplates on the doors and freshly sharpened
    pencils in cups and neat stacks of incoming
    papers on the desks -- are again reminiscent
    of a ghost town. When the members arrive for
    their forthcoming meeting in November, there
    will be a remarkable transformation,
    according to Schleiminger, with multilingual
    receptionists and secretaries at every desk,
    and constant meetings and briefings.


    On the lower floors are the BIS computer,
    which is directly linked to the computers of
    the member central banks, and provides
    instantaneous access to data about the global
    monetary situation, and the actual bank,
    where eighteen traders, mainly from England
    and Switzerland, continually roll over short-
    term loans on the Eurodollar markets and
    guard against foreign-exchange losses (by
    simultaneously selling the currency in which
    the loan is due). On yet another floor, gold
    traders are constantly on the telephone
    arranging loans of the bank's gold to
    international arbitragers, thus allowing
    central banks to make interest on gold
    deposits.


    Occasionally there is an extraordinary
    situation, such as the decision to sell gold
    for the Soviet Union, which requires a
    decision from the "governors," as the BIS
    staff calls the central bankers. But most of
    the banking is routine, computerized, and
    riskless. Indeed, the BIS is prohibited by
    its statutes from making anything but short-
    term loans -- most are for 30 days or less --
    that are government-guaranteed or backed with
    gold deposited at the BIS. The profits the
    BIS receives for essentially turning over the
    billions of dollars deposited by the central
    banks amounted to $162 million last year.


    As skilled as the BIS may be at all this, the
    central banks themselves have highly
    competent staff capable of investing their
    deposits. The German Bundesbank, for example,
    has a superb international trading department
    and 15,000 employees -- at least 20 times as
    many as the BIS staff. Why then do the
    Bundesbank and the other central banks
    transfer some $40 billion of deposits to the
    BIS and thereby permit it to make such a
    profit?


    One answer is, of course, secrecy. By
    commingling part of their reserves in what
    amounts to a gigantic mutual fund of short-
    term investments, the central banks create a
    convenient screen behind which they can hide
    their own deposits and withdrawals in
    financial centers around the world. For
    example, if the BIS places funds in Hungary,
    the individual central banks do not have to
    answer to their governments for investing in
    a communist country. And the central banks
    are apparently willing to pay a high fee to
    use the cloak of the BIS.


    There is, however, a far more important
    reason why the central banks regularly
    transfer deposits to the BIS: they want to
    provide it with a large profit to support the
    other services it provides. Despite its name,
    the BIS is far more.than a bank. From the
    outside, it seems to be a small, technical
    organization. Just 86 of its 298 employees
    are ranked as professional staff. But the BIS
    is not a monolithic institution: artfully
    concealed within the shell of an
    international bank, like a series of Chinese
    boxes one inside another, are the real groups
    and services the central bankers need -- and
    pay to support.


    The first box inside the bank is the board of
    directors, drawn from the eight European
    central banks (England, Switzerland, Germany,
    Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the
    Netherlands), which meets on the Tuesday
    morning of each "Basel weekend." The board
    also meets twice a year in Basel with the
    central banks of Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary,
    and other Eastern-bloc nations. It provides a
    formal apparatus for dealing with European
    governments and international bureaucracies
    like the IMF or the European Economic
    Community (the Common Market).


    The board defines the rules and territories
    of the central banks with the goal of
    preventing governments from meddling in their
    purview. For example, a few years ago, when
    the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
    Development in Paris appointed a low-level
    committee to study the adequacy of bank
    reserves, the central bankers regarded it as
    poaching on their monetary turf and turned to
    the BIS board for assistance. The board then
    arranged for a high-level committee, under
    the head of Banking Supervision at the Bank
    of England, to preempt the issue. The OECD
    got the message and abandoned its effort.


    To deal with the world at large, there is
    another Chinese box called the Group of Ten,
    or simply the "G-10." It actually has eleven
    full-time members, representing the eight
    European central banks, the U.S. Fed, the
    Bank of Canada, and the Bank of Japan. it
    also has one unofficial member: the governor
    of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority. This
    powerful group, which controls most of the
    transferable money in the world, meets for
    long sessions on the Monday afternoon of the
    "Basel weekend." It is here that broader
    policy issues, such as interest rates, money-
    supply growth, economic stimulation (or
    suppression) , and currency rates are
    discussed -- if not always resolved.


    Directly under the G-10, and catering to all
    its special needs, is a small unit called the
    "Monetary and Economic Development
    Department," which is, in effect, its private
    think tank. The head of this unit, the
    Belgian economist Alexandre Lamfalussy, sits
    in on all the G-10 meetings, then assigns the
    appropriate research and analysis to the half
    dozen economists on his staff. This unit also
    produces the occasional blue-bound "economic
    papers" that provide central bankers from
    Singapore to Rio de Janeiro, even though they
    are not BIS members, with a convenient party
    line.


    For example, a recent paper called "Rules
    versus Discretion: An Essay on Monetary
    Policy in an Inflationary Environment,"
    politely defused the Milton Friedmanesque
    dogma and suggested a more pragmatic form of
    monetarism. And last May, just before the
    Williamsburg summit conference, the unit
    released a blue book on currency intervention
    by central banks that laid down the
    boundaries and circumstances for such
    actions. When there are internal
    disagreements, these blue books can express
    positions sharply contrary to those held by
    some BIS members, but generally they reflect
    a consensus of the G-10.


    Over a bratwurst-and-beer lunch on the top
    floor of the Bundesbank, which is located in
    a huge concrete building (called "the
    bunker") outside of Frankfurt, Karl Otto
    Pohl, its president and a ranking governor of
    the BIS, complained to me about the
    repetitiousness of the meetings during the
    "Basel weekend." "First there is the meeting
    on the Gold Pool, then, after lunch, the same
    faces show up at the G-10, and the next day
    there is the board [which excludes the U.S.,
    Japan, and Canada], and the European
    Community meeting [which excludes Sweden and
    Switzerland from the previous group]." He
    concluded: "They are long and strenuous - and
    they are not where the real business gets
    done." This occurs, as Pohl explained over
    our leisurely lunch, at still another level
    of the BIS: "a sort of inner club," as he put
    it.


    The inner club is made up of the half dozen
    or so powerful central bankers who find
    themselves more or less in the same monetary
    boat: along with Pohl are Volcker and Wallich
    from the Fed, Leutwiler from the Swiss
    National Bank, Lamberto Dini of the Bank of
    Italy, Haruo Mayekawa of the Bank of Japan,
    and the retired governor of the Bank of
    England, Lord Gordon Richardson (who had
    presided over the G -10 meetings for the past
    ten years). They are all comfortable speaking
    English; indeed, Pohl recounted how he has
    found himself using English with Leutwiler,
    though both are of course native German-
    speakers. And they all speak the same
    language when it comes to governments, having
    shared similar experiences.


    Pohl and Volcker were both undersecretaries
    of their respective treasuries; they worked
    closely with each other, and with Lord
    Richardson, in the futile attempts to defend
    the dollar and the pound in the 1960s. Dini
    was at the IMF in Washington, dealing with
    many of the same problems. Pöhl had worked
    closely with Leutwiler in neighboring
    Switzerland for two decades. "Some of us are
    very old friends," Pohl said. Far more
    important, these men all share the same set
    of well-articulated values about money.


    The prime value, which also seems to
    demarcate the inner club from the rest of the
    BIS members, is the firm belief that central
    banks should act independently of their home
    governments. This is an easy position for
    Leutwiler to hold, since the Swiss National
    Bank is privately owned (the only central
    bank that is not government owned) and
    completely autonomous. ("I don't think many
    people know the name of the president of
    Switzerland - even in Switzerland," Pohl
    joked, "but everyone in Europe has heard of
    Leutwiler.")


    Almost as independent is the Bundesbank; as
    its president, Pohl is not required to
    consult with government officials or to
    answer the questions of Parliament -- even
    about such critical issues as raising
    interest rates. He even refuses to fly to
    Basel in a government plane, preferring
    instead to drive in his Mercedes limousine.


    The Fed is only a shade less independent than
    the Bundesbank: Volcker is expected to make
    periodic visits to Congress and at least to
    take calls from the White House -- but he
    need not follow their counsel. While in
    theory the Bank of Italy is under government
    control, in practice it is an elite
    institution that acts autonomously and often
    resists the government. (In 1979, its then
    governor, Paolo Baffi, was threatened with
    arrest, but the inner club, using unofficial
    channels, rallied to his support.)


    Although the exact relationship between the
    Bank of Japan and the Japanese government
    purposely remains inscrutable, even to the
    BIS governors, its chairman, Mayekawa, at
    least espouses the principle of autonomy.
    Finally, though the Bank of England is under
    the thumb of the British government, Lord
    Richardson was accepted by the inner club
    because of his personal adherence to this
    defining principle. But his successor, Robin
    Leigh-Pemberton, lacking the years of
    business and personal contact, probably won't
    be admitted to the inner circle.


    In any case, the line is drawn at the Bank of
    England. The Bank of France is seen as a
    puppet of the French government; to a lesser
    degree, the remaining European banks are also
    perceived by the inner club as extensions of
    their respective governments, and thus remain
    on the outside.


    A second and closely related belief of the
    inner club is that politicians should not be
    trusted to decide the fate of the
    international monetary system. When Leutwiler
    became president of the BIS in 1982, he
    insisted that no government official be
    allowed to visit during a "Basel weekend." He
    recalled that in 1968, U.S. Treasury
    undersecretary Fred Deming had been in Basel
    and stopped in at the bank. "When word got
    around that an American Treasury official was
    at the BIS," Leutwiler said, "bullion
    traders, speculating that the U.S. was about
    to sell its gold, began a panic in the
    market." Except for the annual meeting in
    June (called "the Jamboree" by the staff),
    when the ground floor of the BIS headquarters
    is open to official visitors, Leutwiler has
    tried to enforce his rule strictly. "To be
    frank," he told me, "I have no use for
    politicians. They lack the judgement of
    central bankers." This effectively sums up
    the common antipathy of the inner club toward
    "government muddling," as Pohl puts it.


    The inner-club members also share a strong
    preference for pragmatism and flexibility
    over any ideology, whether that of Lord
    Keynes or Milton Friedman. For this reason,
    there was considerable apprehension last
    spring that Paul Volcker would be replaced by
    a supply-side ideologue like Beryl Sprinkel,
    and considerable relief when he was
    reappointed for another term. Rather than
    resorting to rhetoric and invoking
    principles, the inner club seeks any remedy
    that will relieve a crisis. For example,
    earlier this year, when Brazil failed to pay
    back on time a BIS loan that was guaranteed
    by the central banks, the inner club quietly
    decided to extend the deadline instead of
    collecting the money from guarantors. "We are
    constantly engaged in a balancing act --
    without a safety net," Leutwiler explained.


    The final and by far the most important
    belief of the inner club is the conviction
    that when the bell tolls for any single
    central bank it tolls for them all. When
    Mexico faced bankruptcy last year, for
    instance, the issue for the inner club was
    not the welfare of that country but, as Dini
    put it, "the stability of the entire banking
    system." For months Mexico had been borrowing
    overnight funds from the interbank market in
    New York -- as every bank recognized by the
    Fed is permitted to do -- to pay the interest
    on its $80 billion external debt. Each night
    it had to borrow more money to repay the
    interest on the previous nights transactions,
    and, according to Dini, by August Mexico had
    borrowed nearly one quarter of all the "Fed
    Funds," as these overnight loans between
    banks are called.


    The Fed was caught in a dilemma: if it
    suddenly stepped in and forbade Mexico from
    further using the interbank market, Mexico
    would be unable to repay its enormous debt
    the next day, and 25 percent of the entire
    banking system's ready funds might be frozen.
    But if the Fed permitted Mexico to continue
    borrowing in New York, in a matter of months
    it would suck in most of the interbank funds,
    forcing the Fed to expand drastically the
    supply of money.


    It was clearly an emergency for the inner
    club. After speaking to Miguel Mancera,
    director of the Banco de Mexico, Volcker
    immediately called Leutwiler, who was
    vacationing in the Swiss mountain village of
    Grison. Leutwiler realized that the entire
    system was confronted by a financial time
    bomb: even though the IMF was prepared to
    extend $4.5 billion to Mexico to relieve the
    pressure on its long-term debt, it would
    require months of paperwork to get approval
    for the loan. And Mexico needed an immediate
    fix of $1.85 billion to get out of the
    interbank market, which Mancera had agreed to
    do. But in less than 48 hours, Leutwiler had
    called the members of the inner club and
    arranged the temporary bridging loan.


    While this $1.85 billion appeared -- at least
    in the financial press -- to have come from
    the BIS, virtually all the funds came from
    the central banks in the inner club. Half
    came directly from the United States -- $600
    million from the Treasury's exchange-
    equalization fund and $325 million from the
    Fed's coffers; the remaining $925 million
    mainly from the deposits of the Bundesbank,
    Swiss National Bank, Bank of England, Bank of
    Italy, and Bank of Japan, deposits that were
    specifically guaranteed by these central
    banks, though advanced pro forma by the BIS
    (with a token amount advanced by the BIS
    itself against the collateral of Mexican
    gold).


    The BIS undertook virtually no risk in this
    rescue operation; it merely provided a
    convenient cloak for the inner club.
    Otherwise, its members, especially Volcker,
    would have had to take the political heat
    individually for what appeared to be the
    rescue of an underdeveloped country. In fact,
    they were -- true to their paramount values
    -- rescuing the banking system itself.


    On August 31 of this year, Mexico repaid the
    BIS loan. But the bailout was only a
    temporary, if not pyrrhic, victory. With the
    multibillion-dollar debts of a score of other
    countries -- including Argentina, Chile,
    Venezuela, Brazil, Zaire, the Philippines,
    Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and even Israel
    -- hanging like so many swords of Damocles
    over its sacred monetary system, the inner
    club has "no choice," as Leutwiler has
    concluded, but to remain a crisis manager.
    This new role has created considerable
    concern among the outer circle, and even in
    the Bank of England, since the members who
    don't entirely share the mentality of the
    inner club want the BIS to remain primarily a
    European institution.


    "Let the Fed worry about Brazil and the rest
    of Latin America -- that is not the job of
    the BIS," a blunt representative of the Bank
    of England, definitely not part of the inner
    club, told me. Others at the BIS have argued
    that it does not have the experience or
    facilities to become "a mini-IMF -- putting
    out fires around the world," as one staffer
    described it.


    To mollify such dissent on the periphery,
    inner-club members publicly pay lip service
    to the ideal of preserving the character of
    the BIS and not turning it into a lender of
    last resort for the world at large.
    Privately, however, they will undoubtedly
    continue their maneuvers to protect the
    banking system at whatever point in the world
    it seems most vulnerable. After all, it is
    ultimately the central banks' money at risk,
    not the BIS's. And the inner club will also
    keep using the BIS as its public mask -- and
    pay the requisite price for the disguise.


    The next meeting of the inner club is Monday,
    November 7.


    ------------------------------------------------


    Edward Jay Epstein is the author of "The Rise
    and Fall of Diamonds," "Legend: The Secret
    World of Lee Harvey Oswald," and "News From
    Nowhere." He also has written a book on
    international deception.


    -END-





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