GATA's Conspiracy Theory - Business Day

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VANTAGE POINT
by ILJA GRAULICH

THEY are the $289 Club; power brokers who held the gold price to exactly $289/oz on the last trading days of 1997, 1998 and 1999.

So says the Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee (Gata). (For the record, according to the London Bullion Market Association, the prices were $289, $287 and $290 respectively).

For some, Gata members are heroes, fighting for a genuine cause —freeing the gold price from alleged manipulation. For others, they are a bunch of lunatics — entertaining, but lunatics nevertheless.

Last Thursday's Gata meeting in Durban was billed as a watershed event in the life of the group. Gata was formed to investigate manipulation in the gold market and recently launched a court case against US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs and the Bank For International Settlements. No lightweights these.

Gata claims the defendants have been responsible for artificially depressing the gold price. Evidence in support of this claim was presented at the conference, which strangely enough was held in Durban.

The city is not exactly a gold mining or trading hub, but it is in the home province of Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, who has lent Gata a sympathetic ear, although he failed to attend last week's meeting.

Those who did attend were local and international gold bulls and some ministers of African mining countries, who have yet to see through the bizarre conspiracy theory that is placed before them.

Gata's main protagonists are four talkative Americans who have been around since before the gold standard was abolished.

Led by Bill Murphy, a graduate of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and former starting wide receiver for the Boston Patriots of the old American Football League, they presented their evidence persuasively.

A conspiracy was begun under President Bill Clinton, they say, led by a "faction" of the US government and bullion banks to manipulate the gold price.

Spikes in lease rate graphs, changes in derivatives holdings by the merchant banks and mysterious shifts in the gold price all sound very reasonable, and the evidence has won sympathy worldwide.

However, much as one might like to believe the story presented to the small gathering, questions need to be asked.

Why, if this evidence is so compelling, have so few joined Gata's crusade?

SA producers AngloGold, Gold Fields, Harmony and Durban Roodepoort Deep sent observers to keep an eye on things. But AngloGold in particular is unlikely to join up, with the company regularly receiving hate mailtrom Gata sympathisers, who accuse it of wrecking the gold market with its active hedging policy.

Gala argues that derivatives such as hedges are so closely linked to the gold price that if the price rose, the banks would incur huge losses. Meanwhile, while the price stays low, the banks and the international financial system are raking it in.

Gata literature is replete with selective quotations in support of this argument. For example, it quotes Greenspan as saying in 1998 that "central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise," Gata's argument rests on selective quotes such as these.

Murphy says that over the past three years, "at no point in time have we uncovered any information that contradicts our initial analysis". Why would they?

Gata supporters' case is based on convincing themselves that the gold price should be rising, were it not for a conspiracy. The group dismisses what is taught about supply and demand in Economics 101 —that if demand drops and supply rises, which it has due to central banks selling, the price of a commodity should drop.

Should the gold conspiracy theorists be proved right, they could be heroes. Gala claims that it is also fighting on behalf of African nations that are getting a raw deal due to the low price of gold.

Such claims are bound to win them a hearing. But to prey on the innocence of some and keep hope alive may hurt their cause in the end.