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Gold lawsuit sparks concerns of market manipulation, collusion

FORTUNE — If you belong to an organization accused of gold market manipulation, it’s probably not advantageous if your cohort goes by the nickname “the gold fix.”

But that is the somewhat unfortunate moniker for the London Gold Market Fixing Ltd., a body of five banks — Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS), Barclays (BCS), Deutsche Bank (DB), HSBC (HSBC), and Société Générale — that meets twice daily to set the spot price for the world’s most famous precious metal.

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The group has come under scrutiny in recent months, with the latest blow being a federal lawsuit filed this week in New York, in which investor Kevin Maher is accusing the banks of manipulating the price of gold, causing him to lose money on his gold futures investments. The suit relies on the as-yet-unpublished work of Rosa Abrantes-Metz, the economist and whistleblower whose work helped uncover the LIBOR-manipulation scandal.

Abrantes-Metz’s research reportedly identifies strange trading patterns around the times that the banks meet to determine gold prices. According to her research, “The structure of the benchmark is certainly conducive to collusion and manipulation, and the empirical data are consistent with price artificiality … It is likely that co-operation between participants may be occurring.”

The lawsuit follows reports that Germany’s financial regulator, Bafin, has been investigating manipulation in the gold markets. According to BloombergElke Koenig, the president of the German regulator said in January that manipulation in the gold markets could be worse than the LIBOR-rigging scandal of 2012, which has cost banks roughly $6 billion in fines.

So what exactly is the gold fix, and why do we have it? Like a lot of institutions in global finance, this is one that justifies itself through tradition as much as necessity. The gold fix dates back to 1919, when the five leading gold dealers would meet in London every morning to settle on a price for physical gold sales. Over time, the gold fix added an afternoon meeting to accomodate traders in the U.S., and members eventually began to conduct the meeting via teleconference. The Maher complaint explains the mechanics:

  • First, the lead participant begins the fixing by proposing a price near the current spot price.
  • Second, firms declare how many bars of gold they want to buy/sell at the current market/spot price. This is based on current and contemporaneous client orders (those entered during the call) as well as proprietary need of each member.
  • Third, the price is then increased or decreased until the buy/sell amounts are within 50 bars, at which point that price becomes the spot price for gold.

The process is said to take anywhere between a few minutes to an hour. And though no wrongdoing has been proven, you can see how a setup with so few banks could be susceptible to collusion and price manipulation.

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So far, the only sign of an official response to these allegations has come from Germany, as it was reported in December that German regulators have seized documents from gold fix member Deutsche Bank, which subsequently hired a consultant to help it “undertake an assessment” of the bank’s role in the gold fix. The bank is also reportedly looking to sell its seat on the gold fix, possibly to a state-owned Chinese bank.

Though no wrongdoing has yet been proven, it’s increasingly looking like the gold fix process will have to be reformed in some way, even just to increase transparency and assure gold market participants of fair play. Gold enthusiasts, meanwhile, are using the scandal to justify the metal’s rough 2013. Eric Sprott, CEO of the precious metal investment firm Sprott Asset Management, argued in a recent note to clients that demand for physical gold in 2013 was quite strong despite significant price declines in futures markets, concluding that it is “obvious” that at least some of the 2013 price declines were the result of “manipulation.”