May 26, 2017

U.S. Scrutiny for Commodities Market

The hearing, convened by the Senate Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection subcommittee, came as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and others face growing scrutiny over their role in the commodities markets and the extent to which their activities can inflate prices paid by manufacturers and consumers. The Federal Reserve is reviewing the potential risks posed by the operations, which have generated many billions of dollars in profits for the banks.

The hearing followed an article in The New York Times on Sunday that explored the operations of warehouses controlled in part by Goldman Sachs. The bank’s tactics, along with those of other financial players, have inflated the price of aluminum and ultimately cost consumers billions of dollars, an investigation by The Times found. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is now gathering information on the warehouse operations.

Several witnesses at Tuesday’s hearings warned that letting the country’s largest financial institutions own commodities units that store and ship vast quantities of metals, oil and the other basic building blocks of the economy could pose grave risks to the financial system. The ability of those bank subsidiaries to gather nonpublic information on commodities stores and shipping also could give the banks an unfair advantage in the markets and cost consumers billions of dollars, the witnesses said.

Representatives from the financial industry did not testify on Tuesday, but Goldman Sachs for the first time addressed its role in the aluminum market. In a statement posted on its Web site, Goldman said that its ownership of aluminum warehouses did not affect prices of the metal, in part because only 5 percent of the aluminum that is used in manufacturing passes through the warehouses owned by Goldman and others. Goldman controls 27 warehouses in the Detroit area that are used to store aluminum for customers.

In addition, Goldman said, delivered aluminum prices are nearly 40 percent lower than they were in 2006. During the financial crisis, warehoused inventories of aluminum more than tripled, the company said, because of weakened consumer demand.

The Times investigation found that Goldman’s warehouse subsidiary moved large amounts of aluminum among its warehouses daily, a process that lengthened the storage time and increased the premium that was added to the basic price of aluminum. The London Metal Exchange, which sets the rules under which the metals warehouses operate, said in a separate statement that it was working with the industry to amend the delivery obligations of warehouse companies with long waiting periods.

Even with the waiting periods, “there is no reported shortage of aluminum in the market,” the exchange said. “Consumers can continue to buy directly from producers as they always have done.”

Saule T. Omarova, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied the issue, told the subcommittee that there was one other company that was an early leader in combining the practice of moving physical commodities with the financing of market activity — Enron.

The comparison was seized upon by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. “The notion that two of largest financial companies are adopting a business method pioneered by Enron,” she said, “suggests that this movie will not end well.” Major beverage companies have complained about the maneuvers. Tim Weiner, a MillerCoors executive, told the panel on Tuesday that while consumers might not think they have much at stake from tons of aluminum bars stored in a warehouse near Detroit, the actions of Goldman and others have raised prices, cost jobs and hindered innovation.

That is in part because waiting times for customers who want to retrieve their metals purchases have grown to more than 16 months since Goldman Sachs took over the warehouses three years ago. Before Goldman arrived, the average wait was six weeks.

Imagine going to a liquor store to buy a case of beer, and taking it up to the cash register to pay, Mr. Weiner said. Then instead of taking the case of beer to your car, the clerk told you to visit the store’s warehouse, where you can retrieve the beer in 16 months.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/24/business/senate-panel-examines-potential-risks-in-big-banks-involvement-in-commodities.html?partner=rss&emc=rss