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Every weekday morning at 10:30, a bullion dealer in the precious-metals trading room of HSBC Bank in London picks up the phone and punches in to a special line. The dedicated line connects him to four other bankers—the members of a powerful and self-policing group called the London Gold Fixing. They set one of the best-known asset prices on earth: the price of gold.

“There are loads of different places in the world to buy gold,” said Jeremy Charles, a trim, tough-looking native Londoner who started out at 19 as a tea boy in the gold rooms of the N. M. Rothschild bank. “But at 10:30 you find things sort of stop, while the whole market watches London.”

Charles would know. From taking care of the tea-things at Rothschild’s, he went on to run HSBC’s global bullion operations. He became chairman of the London Bullion Market Association, the group that oversees the world’s biggest gold market. He saw that market expand in 10 years from a sedate trade, tucked into the tangle of lanes behind the Bank of England, into a hairy, trillion-dollar casino. The only thing that hasn’t changed is its secrecy. Of the five banks that run the fixing (the others are Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Societe Generale, and ScotiaMocatta, the gold-trading arm of Canada’s Bank of Nova Scotia), HSBC was the only one that would even let me in the door.
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