Russian 'spies,' goldbugs and the struggling dollarJune 29, 2010: 9:38 AM ET
Was the alleged Russian spying, in part, a commodities or currency play?
by Heidi N. Moore, contributor
When federal officials arrested 11 alleged Russian spies yesterday, it seemed natural that the accused agents would be interested in the CIA leadership, the Obama administration and Afghanistan. But who knew that they were goldbugs?
James G. Rickards, senior director for market intelligence at Omnis, pointed us to the fact that the FBI complaint mentions that the global gold market was one of the key sources of interest of the Russian Federation and its intelligence agency, SVR.
"On a number of occasions, the SVR specifically indicated that information collected and conveyed by the New Jersey conspirators was especially valuable. Thus, for example, during the summer and fall of 2009, Cynthia Murphy, the defendant, using contacts she had met in New York, conveyed a number of reports to [Moscow] Center about prospects for the global gold market."
According to the complaint, the SVR responded in November 2009 that the information on the gold market was very useful and had been forwarded to Russia's Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Economic Development.
If Russia wanted information on the gold market, it would hardly be alone. In 2009, of course, gold jumped 24% in value, closing the year at $1,095 an ounce -- a price that seems quaint now that gold is over $1249 an ounce, but was still the biggest story in the financial markets of 2009.
Murphy's alleged tips about the gold market must have been quite powerful. It's impossible to tell how they influenced Russian economic policy or thinking, but we can look at some of Russia's moves at the time and notice some striking trends that show that Russia dramatically reversed its stance on gold in late 2009.
Before October 2009, Russia had been planning to sell nearly 25 tons of gold into the market. In November 2009, however, one month after Murphy's alleged report to the SVR about gold, Russia started stocking up on the precious metal. In November 2009, Russia's central bank bought more than $1 billion of gold from the foreign exchange market in order to better control the price of the ruble, central bank deputy chairman Alexey Ulyukayev told Reuters at the time. Russia also said at the time that it might buy gold from the state repository, Gokhran.
Critics at the time noted that Russia's move into gold could be interpreted as a manifestation of disappointment with the U.S. dollar and U.S. economic policy under Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke; partly, this was because, as Russia was buying gold it also stopped buying U.S. agency mortgage bonds, the Fannie and Freddie bonds that packed over half of the Fed's balance sheet.
Of course, it's difficult to impute this shift solely to Russia (or Murphy's market tips). Yes, as of this year, the Russian central bank was still buying gold, loading up on 26.6 tons in the most recent quarter, bringing its holdings to over 668 tons. But Russia is hardly an outlier. The central banks of several countries have been loading up on the precious metal, including China, Venezuela and India, which on its own bought 200 tons in November 2009.
The problem with all the gold buying, of course, is that it often reads as a global central bank reproach to several currencies, but particularly toward our troubled U.S. dollar. As the World Gold Council wrote in a February report on gold, currencies and the money supply, "gold exhibits a strong negative correlation to the dollar."
This is where central bank currency moves could get sinister. Rickards wrote a paper, "Economics and Financial Attacks," and created an imaginary Pentagon war game describing a crisis situation in which Russia used its gold reserves to create a new global currency and destroy the value of the American dollar. In the May 2009 paper, Rickards suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies would do well to track the gold reserves of other countries -- just in case.
--Heidi Moore is Sweeping the Street for the next two weeks while Colin Barr is on Vacation.