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Buried Treasure

by David Alston - 13:04 on 19 October 2012

In September I visited my daughter in New York and was entranced by three attractions - all of them free. Here's one of them.

New York 2012 - Buried treasure.

Eighty feet below the streets of Manhattan are the vaults of the New York Federal Reserve, part of the central bank of the USA, and here is stored more than 20% of the world’s ‘monetary gold’, twice as much as in the more famous vaults of Fort Knox. Almost all the gold belongs to the central banks of countries other than the USA, much of it shipped here for safe-keeping during the Second World War, and, since the Fed is secure (with its own police force of armed marksmen and women) and does not charge for storage, here it stays. The storms of history, rather then monetary policy, have left this bullion buried between Maiden Lane and Liberty Street.

The gold bars lie as undisturbed as they are inert, as if on a remote Treasure Island, except for an occasional movement between any two of the vaults’ 122 cages, when a transaction in gold is made between one central bank and another. Then, rather than simply making an entry in a accounting system, Federal Reserve staff – wearing metal shoes (because dropping a 28lb-block of metal can seriously damage your health) – enter the vaults, and weigh and move the gold, bar by bar, each being a transfer of about $700,000 between countries.

I image them as priests, in exotic vestments, slowly and reverently performing this ritual, whose purpose is symbolic and whose origins are lost in time. Worship at the Shrine of Mammon.

I know I’m wrong. The wise-cracking cop at the entrance, who sounded as if he could have had a career as a stand-up comedian, and our guide, who fired compressed nuggets of information on monetary policy, employment and inflation, were regular guys. But I still can’t help thinking that there is something strange about all this, something old, primitive, underground, and unconnected with the purposes of a modern central bank . . .


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