As if on cue, around the country individuals and companies have started filing lawsuits against JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs for allegedly delaying deliveries of aluminium stored in their metals warehouses, thus manipulating the price of the commodity.
Lawsuits have been filed in Michigan, Florida and Louisiana. On top of that, The Commodities Futures Trading Commission has subpoenaed JPM, Goldman, and commodities trading firm Glencore for documents related to their warehouse businesses, Bloomberg reports.
The thing is — usually, when an issue is this obscure and hard to understand, it’s easily swept under the rug.
And so it could have been with a story that appeared in the New York Times last month, accusing Goldman Sachs of using its Detroit metals warehouses to hoard aluminium, driving up the price of the commodity for customers and consumers alike. To understand why you have to understand supply, demand, yield curves and a weird trading term — “contago.”
But there are powerful people unwilling to let this issue go, including Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, and beer maker MillerCoors. The company’s global risk manager Tim Weiner, says that these activities have inflated aluminium costs by $US3 billion over the last year.
This isn’t to say that Wall Street would take this lying down (have you met them?). In an attempt to preserve this lucrative business from further criticism, Goldman countered the New York Times with its own defence last month, saying that aluminium demand is weak, and that its Detroit-based warehouses control such a small portion of the market that it couldn’t possibly be impacting price. The bank later promised to speed up deliveries of aluminium to customers.
But that didn’t stop the onslaught. It wasn’t long after Goldman’s defence that JP Morgan’s Henry Bath warehousing businesses (picked up from RBS during the financial crisis fire sale) was under scrutiny as well.
So — the question remains: What’s in these lawsuits?
We took a look at a complaint filed against Goldman and its warehouses, Metro International Trade Services, in Michigan. It’s a class action suit filed by aluminium product manufacturer Superior Extrusion. The defendants also include the London Metals Exchange and “John Does 1-10”.
And here’s what you need to know.
According to the complaint, From 2010 to now Goldman has had a monopoly over London Metals Exchange warehouses in the Detroit area, controlling over 80% of the storage space. That constitutes “75% of the LME aluminium in storage in the United States. It is estimated to constitute more than 50% of the total aluminium in warehouse storage in the United States,” the complaint continues.
Superior Extrusion accuses Goldman of “extreme monopoly pricing power and abusive agreements in very unreasonable restraint of trade.” Those agreements are described as “get paid more to do less” inefficiency agreements.
The LME, say the plaintiffs, have been more than complicit in this. Superior Extrusion alleges that the LME and Goldman have secondary agreements in which Goldman overbids other market participants to get aluminium to its warehouses.
That, argue the plaintiffs, in turn makes costs go up significantly as Goldman is “offering incentives of up to $US250 or more per ton to firms to store aluminium in LME Detroit Warehousing for long periods….”
The plaintiffs go on to say that the LME’s actions have an impact on American jobs and American workers (from the complaint):
Far from dissociating itself from Goldman’s anticompetitive purchases and diversions agreements, the LME, per Chris Evans, peremptorily announced in New York during January 2013, that purchasers of aluminium should simply stop paying the high prices. In effect, the LME encouraged users to starve themselves of aluminium and lay off their workers. This classic monopolistic and anticompetitive encouragement, was unlawful because Ford, Novelis, Coca Cola and other users of aluminium do not have to further restrain trade and lay off their workers so that Defendants’ unlawful agreements and abuses of their monopoly powers alleged herein, may continue.
In short: The whole thing is a massive anti-trust conspiracy.
The complaints in all these cases around the country will vary, but likely not by too much. These are all companies suing over the same grievances, hoping that one of them will stick on Wall Street.
The banks, on the other side, will be playing whack-a-mole.