The Federal Reserve is currently “reviewing” a landmark 2003 decision that first allowed regulated banks to trade in physical commodity markets.
Why exactly shouldn’t banks be able to trade physical commodities? To see one argument, take a look at a big report from David Kocieniewski in today’s New York Times.
According to Kocieniewski, a Goldman Sachs-owned company has been involved in an elaborate plan to move around aluminium in a way that has inflated market prices. The report states that every time an American consumer buys a product containing aluminium, they pay a price that has been affected by this manoeuvre. Sources told the New York Times that in total the plan has cost American consumers more than $5 billion over the last three years,
Kocieniewski’s investigation centres on Metro International Trade Services, an aluminium storage company that Goldman Sachs bought three years ago. According to the Times, since Goldman bought the company the average wait time at the storage facility has gone up more than 20-fold. As the wait times are longer, the companies revenues for storing the aluminium are higher. This cost is reflected in the market price of aluminium.
aluminium storage facilities are not allowed to mindlessly sit on aluminium — industry standards require them to move 3,000 tons of the metal every day. However, according to the Times, Metro International gets around this law by moving the metal between its own warehouses every day. One analyst estimated that around 90 per cent of the metal moved each day went to another Goldman-owned warehouse.
The body that governs the industry has shown little interest in reforming the practice, Kocieniwski writes. This may be because the body — the London Metals Exchange — collects 1 per cent of the rent from aluminium storage facilities. Limiting the amount of rent received would cost it millions.
This all makes for a somewhat absurd working environment. Workers told the Times that they’d routinely see the same drivers making three or four round trips a day. Some warehouses reportedly sat empty 12 or more hours a day, the Times reports, despite the huge backlog.
If the practice is as the Times describes it, it is very hard to see what value is given to society by the activity. A loose coalition of companies that use aluminium — including Boeing and Coca-Cola — have begun to put pressure on Goldman. However, the issue may go beyond aluminium — JP Morgan, Blackrock and Goldman have all been given approval by the S.E.C to buy a large amount of copper available on the market and stockpile it, Kocieniwski reports.
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