How Goldman Made $5 Billion By Manipulating Aluminum Inventories (and Copper is Up Next)

What sexual favors were exchanged so that the New York Times blunted the impact of an important, detailed investigative story on Goldman profiteering, this time in the aluminum market, by releasing it on a heat-addled summer Saturday?

On a high level, the story sets forth a simple and damning case. Not all that long ago, banks were prohibited from being in operating businesses. But the Federal Reserve and Congress have loosened those rules and big financial players have gone full bore backward integrating from commodities trading into owning major components of the delivery and inventorying systems. This doesn’t just give them a big information advantage by having better access to underlying buying and selling activity. It allows them to manipulate inventories, and thus, prices. And Goldman’s aluminum henanigans increased prices all across the market, not just for the customers who chose to use them for warehousing and delivery.

The article A Shuffle of Aluminum, but to Banks, Pure Gold by David Kocieniewski, tells us that the newly-permissive rules allowed Goldman to buy Metro International Trade Services, a concern in Detroit with 27 warehouses that handles a bit over 25% of the aluminum available for delivery. And here’s where the fun and games begin:
Each day, a fleet of trucks shuffles 1,500-pound bars of the metal among the warehouses. Two or three times a day, sometimes more, the drivers make the same circuits. They load in one warehouse. They unload in another. And then they do it again. 
This industrial dance has been choreographed by Goldman to exploit pricing regulations set up by an overseas commodities exchange, an investigation by The New York Times has found. The back–and-forth lengthens the storage time. And that adds many millions a year to the coffers of Goldman, which owns the warehouses and charges rent to store the metal. It also increases prices paid by manufacturers and consumers across the country…
Before Goldman bought Metro International three years ago, warehouse customers used to wait an average of six weeks for their purchases to be located, retrieved by forklift and delivered to factories. But now that Goldman owns the company, the wait has grown more than 20-fold — to more than 16 months, according to industry records. 
Longer waits might be written off as an aggravation, but they also make aluminum more expensive nearly everywhere in the country because of the arcane formula used to determine the cost of the metal on the spot market. The delays are so acute that Coca-Cola and many other manufacturers avoid buying aluminum stored here. Nonetheless, they still pay the higher price.
The Times’s sources estimate the price impact across the market at 6 cents per pound, which adds $12 to the price of a typical car. Goldman piously claims it obey all the rules, but obeying the rules is far from operating in a fair or pro-customer manner. Metro’s inventories ballooned from 50,000 tons in 2008 to 850,000 tons in 2010. By 2011, Coca Cola complained to the London Metals Exchange, which attempted to address the situation by increasing the amount that warehouses must ship daily from 1,500 tons to 3,000 tons. But all that appears to have taken place is that Goldman simply shuffles more inventory among the 27 Metro warehouses while thumbing its nose at the LME (its inventories have almost doubled again from the 2010 levels, standing at 1.5 million tons).

The article goes into considerable detail as to how Goldman and its speculator allies manipulate prices (remember that holding inventories off the market results in higher prices, this is supply-demand 101):
Industry analysts and company insiders say that the vast majority of the aluminum being moved around Metro’s warehouses is owned not by manufacturers or wholesalers, but by banks, hedge funds and traders. They buy caches of aluminum in financing deals. Once those deals end and their metal makes it through the queue, the owners can choose to renew them, a process known as rewarranting. 
To encourage aluminum speculators to renew their leases, Metro offers some clients incentives of up to $230 a ton, and usually moves their metal from one warehouse to another, according to industry analysts and current and former company employees.
To metal owners, the incentives mean cash upfront and the chance to make more profit if the premiums increase…metal analysts, like Mr. Vazquez at Harbor Aluminum Intelligence, estimate that 90 percent or more of the metal moved at Metro each day goes to another warehouse to play the same game. That figure was confirmed by current and former employees familiar with Metro’s books, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of company policy… 
Despite the persistent backlogs, many Metro warehouses operate only one shift and usually sit idle 12 or more hours a day. In a town like Detroit, where factories routinely operate round the clock when necessary, warehouse workers say that low-key pace is uncommon. 
When they do work, forklift drivers say, there is much more urgency moving aluminum into, and among, the warehouses than shipping it out. Mr. Clay, the forklift driver, who worked at the Mount Clemens warehouse until February, said that while aluminum was delivered in huge loads by rail car, it left in a relative trickle by truck. 
“They’d keep loading up the warehouses and every now and then, when one was totally full they’d shut it down and send the drivers over here to try and fill another one up,” said Mr. Clay, 23. 
Because much of the aluminum is simply moved from one Metro facility to another, warehouse workers said they routinely saw the same truck drivers making three or more round trips each day.
There is plenty more damning material in this excellent and important piece, which I strongly urge you to read in full. This is simply another form of looting. And the Times highlights, as we warned, that JP Morgan is running the same trick in copper, and Goldman will join the party:
In 2010, JPMorgan quietly embarked on a huge buying spree in the copper market. Within weeks — by the time it had been identified as the mystery buyer — the bank had amassed $1.5 billion in copper, more than half of the available amount held in all of the warehouses on the exchange. Copper prices spiked in response. 
At the same time, JPMorgan began seeking approval of a plan that would ultimately allow it, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, a large money management firm, to buy 80 percent of the copper available on the market on behalf of investors and hold it in warehouses. The firms assert that these stockpiles, which would be used to back new copper exchange-traded funds, will not affect copper prices. But manufacturers and copper wholesalers warned that the arrangement would squeeze the market and send prices soaring. They asked the S.E.C. to reject the proposal. 
After an intensive lobbying campaign by the banks, Mary L. Schapiro, the S.E.C.’s chairwoman, approved the new copper funds last December, during her final days in office. S.E.C. officials said they believed the funds would track the price of copper, not propel it, and concurred with the firms’ contention — disputed by some economists — that reducing the amount of copper on the market would not drive up prices. 
Others now fear that Goldman and JPMorgan, which also controls metals warehouses, will repeat the tactics that have run up prices in the aluminum market. Such an outcome, they caution, would ripple through the economy. Consumers would end up paying more for goods as varied as home plumbing equipment, autos, cellphones and flat-screen televisions.
There is a long-shot hope:
All of this could come to an end if the Federal Reserve Board declines to extend the exemptions that allowed Goldman and Morgan Stanley to make major investments in nonfinancial businesses — although there are indications in Washington that the Fed will let the arrangement stand.
The Fed chairmanship is up as of January. The nomination and approval process provides an opportunity for Fed policies to be subjected to scrutiny and debate. Contact your Senators, as well as Elizabeth Warren, and tell them the Fed needs to stop allowing Wall Street to manipulate the prices of critical commodities by getting into the shipping and storage game. And circulate it to friends and colleagues who will would understand the cost and damage done by inflating metals and other commodity prices. The more noise, the better.

Update: And before you think the call for action at the end is quixotic, the lead article at Bloomberg is Fed Reviews Rule on Big Banks’ Commodity Trades After Complaints by Bob Ivry. Some key bits:
When the Federal Reserve gave JPMorgan (JPM) Chase & Co. approval in 2005 for hands-on involvement in commodity markets, it prohibited the bank from expanding into the storage business because of the risk. 
While the Fed has never explained why it let that happen, the central bank announced July 19 that it’s reviewing a 2003 precedent that let deposit-taking banks trade physical commodities. Reversing that policy would mark the Fed’s biggest ejection of banks from a market since Congress lifted the Depression-era law against them running securities firms in 1999… 
On June 27, four Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter asking Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, among other things, how Fed examiners would account for possible bank runs caused by a bank-owned tanker spilling oil, and how the Fed would resolve a systemically important financial institution’s commodities activities if it were to collapse.
The Senate has hearings on this topic scheduled for July 23, so this media attention is timely.

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