Rothschild, the bank built on gold, quits market

William Kay
Thursday 15 April 2004 00:00 BST

After 261 years, N.M. Rothschild & Sons, the most prestigious bank in the City of London still owned by its founding family, shocked the financial world yesterday when it pulled out of trading in gold and other commodities.

The chairman, David de Rothschild, said: "Our income from commodities trading in London, including gold, has fallen as a percentage of our total income in each of the past five years. Following a strategic review of our activities we have concluded that this is no longer a core area of activity and have, therefore, decided to withdraw from the market.

"We remain committed to growing further our activities in specialist commercial banking, private banking and trust services, and objective relationship-based investment banking advice."

As part of the decision, Rothschild will no longer take part in the twice-daily London Gold Fixing, which it currently chairs and which has been held in its offices since 1919.

Rothschild's roots lie in gold. Its origins date back to 1743 when a German goldsmith, Amshall Moses Bower, opened a counting house in Frankfurt. He placed a Roman eagle on a red shield over the door. Rothschild is German for "red shield", and Bower's son adopted the name.

By the end of the 18th century Rothschild was lending to governments and helped to finance the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century. Nathan Rothschild paid for an attack on France by the Duke of Wellington by smuggling gold through France. Through its command of gold Rothschild effectively became paymaster to the British Army.

In 1825 Rothschild rescued the Bank of England after a run on gold, causing an economic crisis and the collapse of 145 banks. Rothschild shipped £10m of gold into the Bank and became its official gold broker. Rothschild manufactured gold bars for more than 100 years, until 1967. It also owned and operated the Royal Mint. By the end of the 19th century Rothschild had twice bailed out the US government when its gold reserves fell to what were regarded as dangerously low levels.

After the First World War, the victorious governments were anxious to stabilise the price of gold, and asked Rothschild to organise what became the London Gold Fixing. Despite the development of 24-hour trading, at 10.30am and 3pm, every day for the past 85 years, representatives of the five leading London gold dealers have met at Rothschild's offices in St Swithin's Lane to fix the price.

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