Friday, May 13, 2011

Blatant Manipulation in the Precious Metal Market

Recently the CME Group had been raising margin requirements on silver and other commodities almost on a daily basis. The relentless margin hacking up ultimately caused a plummet of silver price from near $50/oz, to around $35/oz, a roughly 30% drop, in less than one week. Such plummet in silver price was un-precedent. The plummet in silver price wiped out a lot of speculative silver investors.

A number of precious metal analysts call the CME margin increase blatant market manipulation. I agree. It's blatant market manipulation conducted by the CME exchange itself. It is unfair. The policy change is clearly tilted in favor of one group of market participants against another group. Whether such blatant market manipulation has broken any SEC regulation, or whether some one should go to jail for it, I will leave it to lawyers to decide. But one thing is clear: The actions of CME had caused disturbing disruption in the precious metal and commodity market.

The problem is not with the increased margin requirement. It is completely in an exchange's right and duty to set proper margin requirements and adjust it periodically to ensure orderly market trading activities. The problem is with the manner in which the CME raises margin requirement.

Instead of a gradual and smooth adjustment of the margin requirement over a long period of time, CME choose to leave the margin unchanged while the silver price was raising rapidly early in the year. And then, right before the "sell in may, go away" season, they suddenly begin to hack up silver future's margin aggressively on a daily basis. The consequence is predictable. Instead of stabolizing the market, they disrupted the market. Why they do not adjust the margin down accordingly, now that silver has lost 1/3 of its recent price high? Why are the margin adjustment asymmetic? One has to wonder whether the decision to successively jack up margin ratio was purposeful, with the goal of suppressing silver price in aim.

The margin requirement in its current forms are asymmetric, because the long side is being punished while the short side is rewarded. It is unfair because it requires CASH deposits on both the long and the short. This torelates and encourages illegal naked shorting of futures contracts.

Let me explain. A silver future's contract is a binding legal contract between the contract writer (the seller, or the short side), and the contract holder (the buyer, or the long side), that at a future time, the seller shall deliver an agreed amount of physical silver, for consideration of an agreed amount of cash tendered by the buyer. Alternatively, the buyer may choose to settle the contract in cash instead of take physical delivery. But that should be up to the buyer to choose, NOT up to the seller to decide whether the contract can be settled in cash or delivery be made. Failure to do either cash settlement or delivery by contract expiration date is a breach of the binding contract, and the side which causes the failure is the side at fault. Please note, if the contract buyer demands a physical delivery but the seller could not honor the request, it is a contract default even if the two sides could settle in cash.

Margin requirement is a requirement of maintaining minimum asset, imposed by the exchange to ensure that futures contracts will be fulfilled, and no default shall occur. It is reasonable to impose a cash margin requirement, so in the case the contract holder is unable or unwilling to tender the full cash amount for delivery, he/she is able to choose instead settle in cash and be able to pay the difference in cash.

But what about margin requirement on the contract seller side. The existing margin requirement on sellers is in CASH, just like the requirement on buyers. This ensures that the seller can pay the cash difference in the case the contracts are settled in cash. But what about the cases that the contract holder request physical delivery but the seller is unable to honor the request? Remember, it is up to the buyer, not the seller, to choose physical delivery.

What assurance does the exchange has that when the contract buyer demands physical delivery, that it will be honored, and there will be no failure of delivery? Nothing. There is simply no such guarantee. I think that is a big problem. Maybe the exchange reason in imposing a cash margin requirement on the short is that as long as the short has the cash, he she can always go to the spot market to acquire physical silver, and make good on the delivery request.

Such reasoning is frauded. The physical spot market is limited, while the volume of contracts that can be written and sold has no limit. It is impossible to deliver more silver that what's actually exist out of there. As a matter of fact, if all existing silver future's contracts are settled in physical delivery, the delivery requirement will be many times more than silver that is available.

I believe silver future contract writers must be required to pose a certain amount of physical silver, or demonstrate ability to delivery physical silver (like for mining companies), instead of pose cash, to meet the margin requirement.

Allowing silver future contract writers, most of them have no business in silver mining and have no possession of an ounce of silver, to meet their margin requirement in cash instead of silver bullions, not only is unfair and frauded, but probably is ILLEGAL, too.

Knowingly enter into a business contract with knowledge that he/she can not and will not fulfill, is not just a SCAM, but a CRIME punisheable under contract laws and criminal laws.

If one trader naked short 2 million shares of a company's stock, knowing there's only one million shares outstanding and that he/she could not possibly borrow two million shares, is ILLEGAL under SEC regulations. You can go to jail for doing that.

If you write up a contract to sell a bridge in Brooklyn, New York, and actually collected an idiot's money from it, knowing full well that you do not own that bridge, is a crime. You go to jail for it. I am not sure though, about some one who sells real estate property on the moon, as some obviously is doing. But at least the guy claims he owns the moon, and the buyers do not insist on delivery.

Shouldn't there be some legal repercussions for the nake shorters of silver, especially the biggest naked shorters of silver who happen to be big banks? They write and sell a huge volume of silver future contracts to knock price down within a very short period of time, rip profits doing so, knowing full well those futures contracts are invalid, because they could NOT be honored if physical delivery is requested. There were far more silver future's contracts sold and outstanding, than physical silver that is available.

I hereby request that CME and other commodity exchanges consider imposing margin requirements in physical commodity, rather than in cash, on future contract writers. And I want to see if the authority is up to its task to investigate whether there has been illegal naked shorting in the precious metal and commodity future's market, activities that certain parties write future contracts that they know full well can not be honored. But I do not hold out hope on that happening any time soon.

To precious metal investors, I say you either take physical delivery, or do not even participate in the market. What is the point of buying a contract but do not take delivery? Future's trading is a zero sum paper game. As I explained in the past, if you want to profit from the commodity bull market, take possession of physical goods is the only way. If you don't hold it, you don't have it.

Full Disclosure: The author is heavily invested in physical palladium metal, and have very large positions in palladium mining stocks SWC and PAL. The author also owns a number of silver mining stocks but does not own any share of GLD, the gold ETF, or of SLV, the silver ETF.