Exclusive: Venezuela removed 8 tons of central bank gold last week – legislator

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro touches a gold bar as he speaks during a meeting with the ministers responsible for the economic sector at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – At least 8 tons of gold were removed from the Venezuelan central bank’s vaults last week, an opposition legislator and three government sources told Reuters, in the latest sign of President Nicolas Maduro’s desperation to raise hard currency amid tightening sanctions.

The gold was removed in government vehicles between Wednesday and Friday last week when there were no regular security guards present at the bank, Legislator Angel Alvarado and the three government sources said.

“They plan to sell it abroad illegally,” Alvarado said in an interview.

The central bank did not respond to requests for comment.

Alvarado and the government sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say where the central bank was sending the gold. They said the operation took place while central bank head Calixto Ortega was abroad on a trip.

In 2018, 23 tons of mined gold were transported from Venezuela to Istanbul by plane, according to sources and Turkish government data.

The central bank bought part of this gold from primitive gold-mining camps in the south of Venezuela and exported it to Turkey and other countries to finance the purchase of basic food supplies, given widespread shortages, according to more than 30 people with knowledge of the trade.

Some 20 tons of monetary gold were also removed from the central bank’s vaults in 2018, according to the bank’s data, leaving 140 tonnes remaining, the lowest level in 75 years.

Abu Dhabi investment firm Noor Capital said on Feb. 1 that it bought 3 tons of gold on Jan. 21 from the Venezuelan central bank and would not buy more until Venezuela’s situation stabilized. Noor Capital said its purchase was in accordance with “international standards and laws in place” as of that date.

Maduro’s government has been seeking to repatriate some 31 tons of gold in the Bank of England’s vaults on fears it could be caught up in international sanctions on the country.

“As you would expect, the Bank does not comment on individual customer relationships,” the Bank of England wrote in response to a request for comment. “In all its operations, the Bank observes the highest standards of risk management and abides by all relevant legislation.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Wednesday, during a United Nations meeting in Geneva, that the Bank of England had blocked the government’s assets.

Maduro’s government has resorted to selling off gold after falling oil production, the country’s wider economic collapse and mounting sanctions hit public income and made it hard for the country to access credit.

The United States, which is backing an attempt by opposition leader Juan Guaido to force Maduro to step down and call new elections, has warned bankers and traders not to deal in Venezuelan gold.

(Reporting by Corina Pons and Mayela Armas; additional reporting by William Schomberg in London, Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Christian Plumb, Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)

Smells like heaven: Israeli farm recreates Magi’s gifts to Jesus

A visitor walks in the cave, where Virgin Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus, inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem December 12, 2017.

By Rinat Harash

ALMOG, West Bank (Reuters) – The aromatic plants bestowed on the infant Jesus are being cultivated by an Israeli entrepreneur who aims to transform the gifts of the Christmas story into therapeutic balms and incense.

Manger aside, the baby Jesus may have been swaddled in pleasant and pricey fragrances, thanks to the presents that the Bible says were given to him by the Wise Men of the East.

The frankincense (pungent and sweet) and myrrh (sharp and piney) recounted in the Gospel of St Matthew are being grown by Guy Erlich, a businessman who hopes to revive the rare plants’ use for commercial ends.

And what about gold, the third gift brought by the Magi according to the New Testament story?

Some Christians believe this refers to the precious amber resin of the Balsam of Gilead, an aromatic mix resembling citrus and cinnamon that Erlich also cultivates on his farm in the Judean desert.

“I see myself as a modern Magus,” he told Reuters.

“I decided to focus on plants that no one else in the world grows. Since those plants, those medical plants of the Bible were in medical use for so many years, there must be something about them and it is our duty to look for it.”

Dried and crushed resins of all three plants smolder in a nearby censer, filling the air with heavenly smells of fruity freshness.

Guy Erlich, an Israeli entrepreneur, taps a frankincense plant at a plantation in Kibbutz Almog, Judean desert, in the West Bank, November 30, 2017.

Guy Erlich, an Israeli entrepreneur, taps a frankincense plant at a plantation in Kibbutz Almog, Judean desert, in the West Bank, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Such smoke was used for religious rites and fumigation in ancient times. The plants have also been known to produce balms, poultices and perfumes. The Balsam of Gilead resin, Erlich says, was used as the oil with which biblical kings were anointed.

Archaeologists doubt the claim that it could be identified as the Magi’s gold, and attribute the origins of this theory to Christian evangelical circles.

But Christianity scholar Yisca Harani explains it may be plausible in at least a literary way, if there was a translation inaccuracy of the word “gold”.

“Maybe it was this very precious Balm of Gilead. Maybe it was another statement from Biblical times saying these are the perfumes that are typical of the prophecies of God, these are the gifts of the land.”

Prof. Shimshon Ben Yehoshua, from the Volcani Agricultural Research Centre and the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, says Erlich’s plants are most likely the same as those from ancient times.

“For the frankincense and myrrh which I believe are similar to the ones that were growing in the past in Israel, those are many species but I believe that the species he (Guy Erlich) grew has the desirable qualities,” he told Reuters.

In addition to Christians interested in sampling the scents, Erlich says he has been fielding inquiries from pious Jews who thrill at the prospect of recreating the incenses that were burnt in their Roman-era temple in Jerusalem.

“My plants are sacred to all religions,” he said. “Now they can be a uniting factor. They can be a common ground. They can connect people.”

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Zarrab trial in U.S. is a ‘clear plot against Turkey’, government says

Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab (2nd R) sits with lawyers Erich Ferrari (L), Marc Agnifilo, and Benjamin Brafman (R) as he appears in Manhattan federal court in New York, U.S., April 24, 2017.

ANKARA (Reuters) – A U.S. court case against a wealthy Turkish gold trader is a “clear plot against Turkey” that lacks any legal basis, Ankara’s government spokesman said on Monday, ratcheting up rhetoric ahead of a trial that has strained diplomatic relations.

Bekir Bozdag also told a news conference that the U.S. case was aimed at harming economic relations between Turkey, Iran and Russia. He said U.S. authorities were putting pressure on defendants, including the gold trader Reza Zarrab, to make accusations against Turkey.

“The Zarrab case is a clear plot against Turkey, a political case and lacking any legal basis,” Bozdag told a news conference following a cabinet meeting.

“The Zarrab case aims to damage Turkey’s ties with Iran, Russia and other countries. Those who are carrying out the Zarrab case through defendants are very clearly using pressure… They are forcing them to (make) accusations that are against Turkey.”

Zarrab, together with alleged co-conspirators, has been charged with handling hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015, in a scheme to avoid U.S. sanctions on Iran. He has pleaded not guilty and is due to go on trial in New York on Nov. 27.

Ankara says the case is based on fabricated documents. Turkish authorities opened an investigation into the U.S. prosecutors who brought charges against Zarrab, state media said on Saturday, citing the allegations that it was based on fabricated documents.

Under a previous Turkish investigation that became public in 2013, Turkish prosecutors accused Zarrab and high-ranking Turkish officials of involvement in facilitating Iranian money transfers via gold smuggling, leaked documents at the time showed.

President Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, cast that investigation as a coup attempt orchestrated by his political enemies. Several Turkish prosecutors were removed from the case, police investigators were reassigned, and the investigation was later dropped.

Erdogan, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, has said U.S. prosecutors have shown “ulterior motives” by including references to him and his wife in court papers relating to the trial in New York.

 

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun, Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Dominic Evans)

 

Gold surges to 1-year high on financial uncertainty

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – Gold vaulted more than 5 percent on Thursday to a one-year high, on track for its biggest daily jump in more than seven years as financial uncertainty, a lower dollar and tumbling stock prices around the world prompted investors to seek refuge in bullion.

Volume of the most-active U.S. gold futures contract surged to the highest since late-2014 as investors poured into the market. Traders cited fears of financial instability and slumping bank shares on both sides of the Atlantic.

Investors grew more worried about banks’ profitability in a low-growth and low-interest rate environment. U.S. Treasury yields tumbled in another safe-haven play that also bolstered demand for gold.

“The safe-haven seekers are moving back. We recommend clients add gold to their portfolios as insurance, if things turn out really bad, there will be much more upside,” said Julius Baer analyst Carsten Menke.

“Look at the massive inflows into ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) this year. They put the price recovery on a much more solid footing than any of the other recoveries we’ve seen over the past couple of years.”

Spot gold was up 5 percent at $1,257.26 an ounce at 2:40 p.m. EST, after surging 5.3 percent to $1,260.60, the highest since February 2015. It was on track for its biggest daily rise since January 2009.

“Due to the grave concerns, especially now due to the European bank system, there’s a flight to safety into gold,” said Jeffrey Sica, chief investment officer of Sica Wealth Management in Morristown, New Jersey.

“Gold has been in reverse correlation to stock markets so we anticipate further stock declines with further increased investment in gold.”

U.S. gold futures for April delivery settled up 4.5 percent at $1,247.80 per ounce, with unusually heavy options activity in March and April calls at $1,250 and $1,300.

“It’s just a lot of short squeezing going on as well as a bunch of new investors jumping in. It’s a herd mentality,” said one New York trader, pointing to the record net short position that was held by hedge funds and money managers in late-December.

The rally extended after U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, during her biannual testimony to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, said she will not take the consideration of negative rates off the table.

Spot gold has risen nearly 18 percent in 2016 so far, following three years of losses.

Gold’s downward trajectory started in May 2013 when former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first mentioned tapering or reducing monthly bond purchases and markets started to think about eventual higher U.S. rates.

The Fed eventually raised rates in December for the first time in nearly a decade, but expectations about the pace of U.S. rate rises and the magnitude have been scaled back. This has been reinforced by Yellen saying tighter credit markets, volatile financial markets, and uncertainty over Chinese economic growth had raised risks to the U.S. economy.

Holdings of the largest gold-backed exchange-traded-fund (ETF), New York’s SPDR Gold Trust, have jumped more than 9 percent to surpass 22.57 million ounces.

The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury yield fell to lows last seen in 2012, when the Fed was printing money as investors piled into assets used to hedge against economic and financial uncertainty.

“Investors are returning to gold as a core diversifier and safe haven investment,” James Butterfill, head of research at ETF Securities, said in a note. “Given the increasingly challenging investment and economic environment, we expect this trend to continue.”

Silver rose 4.4 percent to $15.95 an ounce, a 3-1/2-month high.

Spot platinum climbed 3.8 percent to a three-month high at $967.17, while palladium rose 2.1 percent to $530.46, a one-month high.

(Additional reporting by Pratima Desai in London and A.Ananthalakshmi in Singapore; Editing by David Goodman, Susan Thomas and David Gregorio)