BERLIN – Germany's central bank has failed to properly oversee the country's massive gold reserves, which have been stored abroad since the Cold War in case of a Soviet invasion, independent auditors say.
The central bank must renegotiate its contracts to gain the right to inspect its gold bars, which are worth tens of billions of dollars and are stored in the United States, Britain and France, the Federal Auditors' Office said in a report to lawmakers obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.
The report says the gold bars "have never been physically checked by the Bundesbank itself or other independent auditors regarding their authenticity or weight." Instead, it relies on a "written confirmations by the storage sites."
Most of Germany's gold reserves — some 3,400 tons worth an estimated $190 billion at current rates — have been kept in the vaults of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of France and the Bank of England since the postwar days, when Berlin worried about a possible land war with the Soviet bloc.
The auditors maintain that the central bank must be able to at least inspect samples of its gold bars in regular intervals to verify their book value.
The report acknowledges that such inspections might be logistically complicated, but it stresses that "this cannot discharge from the necessity to carry out an inventory."
The central bank said in a reaction to the report that was also sent to lawmakers Monday that it sees no reason for a physical inspection of the bars. "There is no doubt about the integrity of the foreign storage sites in this regard," it stated.
The debate on most of the gold reserves being held by foreign authorities has caused some inevitable conspiracy theories questioning their very existence, but several German politicians have also voiced unease.
Philipp Missfelder, a leading lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party, has asked the Bundesbank for the right to view the gold bars in Paris and London, but the central bank has denied the request, citing the lack of visitor rooms in those facilities, German daily Bild reported.
Given the growing political unease about the issue and the pressure from auditors, the central bank decided last month to repatriate some 50 tons of gold in each of the three coming years from New York to its headquarters in Frankfurt for "thorough examinations" regarding weight and quality, the report revealed.
An initiative backed by some German economists, industry leaders and a few lawmakers dubbed "bring home our gold" launched in May has attracted some 10,000 supporters online so far.
But Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and others maintain that there is no reason to worry.
"I currently have no doubt about the stock and the storage of the gold reserves," said Priska Hinz, the opposition Greens top lawmaker on the budget committee. "I do not doubt the reliability of the foreign central banks," she told the AP.
Several passages of the auditors' report were blackened out in the copy shared with lawmakers, citing the Bundesbank's concerns that they could compromise secrets involving the central banks storing the gold.
The report said that the gold pile in London has fallen "below 500 tons" due to recent sales and repatriations, but it did not specify how much gold was held in the U.S. and in France. German media have widely reported that some 1,500 tons — almost half of the total reserves — are stored in New York.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz