LONDON (Reuters) - Too much gold and just nowhere to put it? A high security solution to bullion storage issues is at hand at a secret location somewhere inside London's orbital motorway - the first British bank-owned gold vault to open in over five years.
Barclays (BARC.L) new vault anticipates demand from pension funds, central banks and sovereign wealth funds who have been scooping up the precious metal that has doubled in value since late 2008.
Precious metals storage has shaken off its dusty image, emerging as a lucrative business. Gold is preparing for a twelfth consecutive annual price rise against the backdrop of a flagging global economy and the debt crisis that has engulfed Europe.
London is the heart of the over-the-counter precious metals market, where millions of dollars in trade are cleared and settled daily, the benchmark prices for gold, silver, platinum and palladium are set and where thousands of ounces of metal are stored.
Barclays, which quotes metals prices and clears over-the-counter trades, says the decision stemmed largely from its customers' desire to have all aspects of their investment in precious metals handled by one firm.
"Of the six (London) clearing members, only two have their own vault and we are the first bank to go out and build their own vault in over five years, which feeds back to it really being in response to client demand," Jonathan Spall, product manager for metals at Barclays, said in an interview.
"For many years, vaulting wasn't particularly interesting. It has changed dramatically along with why people want to do it. Ten years ago, people were not that bothered about gold or what it was or where it was held, but now they are very bothered."
The prospect of the U.S. Federal Reserve pumping more money into the economy through purchases of bonds to encourage job creation has been instrumental in unleashing fresh demand for gold and other precious metals.
The Fed, which announced its latest bond-buying program two weeks ago first employed this tactic, known as quantitative easing, in late 2008 following the collapse of U.S. bank Lehman Brothers.
Investment in bullion through exchange-traded funds has hit record highs and central banks around the world have added an average of 400 metric tonnes (440.92 tons) of the metal to their reserves every year in that time, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.
Security specialists such as Brinks Co. (BCO.N) have been the traditional safe-guards of metal owned by investors and investment banks, but financial institutions have branched out to include vaulting as part of their services.
This has coincided also with the proliferation of ETFs, funds which issue shares backed by physical metal, for which banks such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM.N) and HSBC (HSBA.L) frequently act as custodians.
In keeping with the opacity that shrouds the vaulting industry, Barclays did not specify how large their new facility is. The Bank of England, the world's fifteenth largest custodian of gold reserves, houses some 310 tonnes in its underground vault below the streets of the City of London.
New vaults have proliferated, especially in Singapore, which lies between India and China, the world's two largest consumers of gold. Barclays says its decision to build its vault in London stems partly from the liquidity available in that market.
So far in 2012, gold has risen by 12.5 percent to trade around $1,760 an ounce, Silver has gained nearly 25 percent, platinum has risen by 18 percent and palladium has lost 3.5 percent.
It is uncertain whether the gold price will return to the record $1,920.30 an ounce hit last September, especially if the U.S. economy revives enough to boost the dollar and prompt the Fed to end its bond-buying.
But enough investors are still drawn to the luster of precious metals to mean Barclays feels it is unlikely that the vault will gather many cobwebs.
"It's been remarkable enough since QE3 (was announced) that we've had people come on. I was on the phone to a sovereign wealth fund who haven't been involved with precious metals at all. So you are seeing new faces and new names come in like that, so there is no particular let-up," Spall said.
In terms of prospective customers, he said: "We are not just talking about sovereign wealth funds or central banks or investors or hedge funds. We are also talking about other banks with a presence in the market who we would regard as clients in that respect."
For all that London offers a deep, active market and for all Barclays' clients have a one-stop shop for their precious metals needs, a vault is only as good as its security and secrecy is a vital ingredient, Barclays says.
Clients are rarely invited to visit a facility and indulge in what the storage industry calls "vault voyeurism".
"Security is key. This is a new, state-of-the-art facility and this is one of the things clients look at: security and cost," Spall said.
Reporting by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Veronica Brown and William Hardy