The gold futures markets opened in New York on Friday, April 12 to a monumental 3.4 million ounces (100 tonnes) of gold selling of the June futures contract (see below) in what proved to be only an opening shot. The selling took gold to the technically very important level of $1,540 which was not only the low of 2012, it was also seen by many as the level that confirmed the ongoing bull run which dates back to 2000. In many traders’ minds it stood as a formidable support level... the line in the sand.
Two hours later the initial selling, rumored to have been routed through Merrill Lynch's floor team, was followed by a rather more significant blast when the floor was hit by a further 10 million ounces of selling (300 tonnes) over the following 30 minutes of trading. This was clearly not a case of disappointed longs leaving the market — it had the hallmarks of a concerted 'short sale', which by driving prices sharply lower in a display of 'shock & awe' — would seek to gain further momentum by prompting others to also sell their positions as they hit their maximum acceptable losses or so-called 'stopped-out' in market parlance — probably hidden beneath the unimpeachable $1,540 level.
The selling was timed for optimal impact with New York at its most liquid, while key overseas gold markets including London were open and able to feel the impact. The estimated 400 tonnes of gold futures selling in total equates to 15% of annual gold mine production — too much for the market to readily absorb, especially with sentiment weak following gold's nonperformance in the wake of Japanese QE, a nuclear threat from North Korea and weakening U.S. economic data. The assault to the short side was essentially saying "you are long... and wrong."
Futures trading is performed on a margined basis — that is to say you have to stump up about 5% of the actual cost of the gold itself making futures trades a highly geared 'opportunity' of about 20:1 — easy profit and also loss! Futures trading is not a product for widows and orphans. The CME's 10% reduction in the required gold margins in November 2012 from $9,133/contract to just $7,425/contract made the market more accessible to those wishing both to go long or, as it transpired, to go short. Soon after we saw the first serious assault to the downside in December 2012, followed by further bouts in January 2013 — modest in size compared to the recent shorting but effective — it laid the groundwork for what was to follow. One fund in particular, based in Stamford Connecticut, was identified as the previous shorter of gold and has a history of being caught on the wrong side of the law on a few occasions. As badies go, they fit the bill nicely.
The value of the 400 tonnes of gold sold is approximately $20 billion but because it is margined, this short bet would require them to stump up just $1b. The rationale for the trade was clear — excessively bullish forecasts by many banks in Q4 seemed unsupported by follow through buying. The modest short selling in January 2013 had prompted little response from the longs, raising questions about their real commitment. By forcing the market lower, the fund sought to prompt a cascade or avalanche of additional selling, proving the lie; predictably some newswires were premature in announcing the death of the gold bull-run doing, in effect, the dirty work of the shorters in driving the market lower still.
This now leaves the gold market in an interesting conundrum — the shorter is now nursing a large gold position and, like the longs also exposed — that is to say the market is polarized between longs and shorts and they cannot both be right. Either the gold bulls, like in a game of tug-of-war, pull back and prompt the shorters to panic and buy back, or they do nothing, in which case the endless stories about the "end of gold" will see a steady further erosion in prices. At the end of the day, it is a question of who has got the biggest guns. The shorts have made their play, let's see if there is any response from the longs to defend their position.