Big-bank commodity trading in jeopardy as Fed reviews policies

Ten largest made $6 billion in revenue from commodities in 2012

Colombian Coal

Goldman Sachs owns coal mines in Colombia, a stake in the railroad that transports the coal to port, part of an oil field off the coast of Angola and one of the largest metals warehouse networks in the world, among other investments. Morgan Stanley’s involvement includes Denver-based TransMontaigne Inc., a petroleum and chemical transportation and storage company, and Heidmar Inc., based in Norwalk, Connecticut, which manages more than 100 oil tankers, according to its website.

Mark Lake, a spokesman for New York-based Morgan Stanley, referred to company regulatory filings that said the bank didn’t expect to have to divest any of its businesses after the grace period ends. He declined to elaborate or to comment on the Fed’s announced rule review.

Brian Marchiony, a spokesman for JPMorgan, declined to comment on the review, as did Goldman Sachs’s Michael DuVally.

To gain Fed approval, bank holding companies must show that their involvement in physical commodities would relate to a financial activity of the bank, according to the law.

In 1999, after the creation of Citigroup Inc. through mergers, Congress repealed the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had forced deposit-taking companies backed by government insurance to be separate from investment banks.

Landmark Decision

In a landmark decision in 2003, the Fed allowed Citigroup to continue making transactions in physical commodities after finding them complementary to the firm’s trading and investing in financial instruments. The New York-based bank otherwise would have been forced to divest its Phibro energy-trading unit. Citigroup agreed to sell Phibro to Occidental Petroleum Corp. in 2009.

The 2003 ruling marked “a radical departure” from bank holding companies’ past practices, Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Washington-based Federal Financial Analytics, said in an interview.

The Fed is “certainly going out of its way to send a signal,” she said. While it’s hard to predict whether officials will reverse the ruling, “it sounds like it is a real dialing back.”

Inherited Arrangements

JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank, inherited electricity sales arrangements in California and the U.S. Midwest in 2008 when it bought failing investment bank Bear Stearns Cos. Its February 2010 purchase of RBS Sempra Commodities LLP’s worldwide oil and metal investments and European power and gas assets was also a distressed transaction. The European Union ordered Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc to sell its controlling stake in the firm after a taxpayer bailout.

Part of that deal was Liverpool, England-based Henry Bath & Son Ltd., a founding member of the London Metal Exchange in 1877 and the operator of 76 exchange-licensed warehouses in eight countries, according to LME data.

In a November 2005 order allowing JPMorgan to expand into trading physical commodities, the Fed mentioned such possible adverse effects as “undue concentration of resources, decreased or unfair competition, conflicts of interests or unsound banking practices.” All of them would probably be outweighed by the public benefit of introducing new competition to markets for physical commodities and commodity derivatives, according to the order. Derivatives are financial instruments used for speculation or to hedge risks and can derive their value from the prices of commodities.

‘Additional Risks’

The 2005 order also directed JPMorgan to stay out of the business of extracting, storing or transporting commodities to minimize its exposure “to additional risks.”

The central bank has not made public any order showing that it changed its mind. The Fed’s Hagenbaugh declined to comment, beyond saying that supervisory information on an individual bank is confidential. Marchiony, the JPMorgan spokesman, declined to comment. Neither Stephanie Allen, a Commodity Futures Trading Commission spokeswoman, nor Bryan Hubbard, her counterpart at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees retail banks, said they had any knowledge of a waiver.

In February 2010, Goldman Sachs bought Romulus, Michigan- based Metro International Trade Services LLC, which as of July 11 operated 34 out of 39 storage facilities licensed by the London Metal Exchange in the Detroit area, according to LME data. Since then, aluminum stockpiles in Detroit-area warehouses surged 66 percent and now account for 80 percent of U.S. aluminum inventory monitored by the LME and 27 percent of total LME aluminum stockpiles, exchange data from July 18 show.

‘Merely Store’

“The warehouse companies, which store both LME and non-LME metals, do not own metal in their facilities, but merely store it on behalf of the ultimate owners,” said DuVally, the Goldman Sachs spokesman. “In fact, LME warehouses are actually prohibited from trading all LME products.”

Traders employed by the bank can steer metal owned by others into Metro facilities, creating a stockpile, said Robert Bernstein, an attorney with Eaton & Van Winkle LLC in New York. He represents consumers who have complained to the LME about what they call artificial shortages.

With so much metal already in storage, the warehouses can afford to offer incentives to owners to store even more, earning additional rent through volume. The LME requires a daily minimum amount to leave the warehouses; it doesn’t specify how much can enter. As supply accumulates, traders can finance the metal, Bernstein said.

Contango Benefit

Financing typically involves the purchase of metal for nearby delivery and a promise to sell it at a later date to take advantage of a market in contango, where prices rise into the future, Bernstein said. The transactions are made easier by record-low borrowing costs after central banks cut interest rates to boost economic growth.

“Users who need the metal can’t get it, and the money they make is coming at the expense of the American consumer,” Bernstein said.

Since 2010, the additional cost to aluminum users is about $3 billion annually, according to the Beer Institute, a Washington-based trade group that represents brewers.

Buyers have to pay premiums over the LME benchmark prices even with a glut of aluminum being produced. Premiums in the U.S. surged to a record 12 cents to 13 cents a pound in June, almost doubling from 6.5 cents in mid-2010, according to the most recent data available from Austin, Texas-based researcher Harbor Intelligence.

Creating Logjams

Warehouses are creating logjams, said Chris Thorne, a Beer Institute spokesman.

“Restrictive and outdated warehousing rules are interfering with normal supply-and-demand dynamics, creating supply-chain bottlenecks, and preventing brewers and other aluminum users from getting aluminum in time and at fair market prices,” Thorne said.

The LME has proposed new guidelines, slated to take effect in April, that would link the amount of metal leaving a warehouse to the amount going in. The proposal would affect warehouses with waiting times longer than 100 days. The queue in Detroit is more than 400 days, according to a July 9 report by Barclays Plc analysts led by Gayle Berry. If rents stay where they are, the rule change would cut Detroit-area warehouse fees by as much as 70 percent, the analysts said.

It’s difficult to say how expansive the central bank’s review of banks’ commodities activities might be, said Rosner.

Risky Forays

“Even if the Fed forces the sale of the warehouses, it’s unclear if they are serious about addressing our systemically risky banks’ forays into critical non-financial businesses,” he said.

Already, tougher regulations and lower profits have persuaded JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs to look for buyers for their warehouse networks, the Financial Times reported on July 14, without saying how it got the information.

Pressures on banks to curtail commodities businesses include stiffening capital rules, a regulatory crackdown on trading practices and an industry slump. Commodities revenue at the 10 largest firms slid 24 percent in 2012, and was down 54 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier amid low volatility and fewer client trades, according to Coalition.

Morgan Stanley is cutting 10 percent of its workforce in commodities, a person briefed on the matter said last month. Chief Executive Officer James Gorman said in an interview last week that he’s open to different structures in that business.

“We have no compulsion to act rashly,” he said. Morgan Stanley held talks last year with Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund about selling a stake in the business. The deal could have added capital.

Increasingly Complex

JPMorgan is nearing an agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to settle allegations that the bank manipulated electricity prices in California and the U.S. Midwest and received at least $73 million in improper payments, the Wall Street Journal reported. A deal could cost the bank $500 million, the New York Times said, citing people briefed on the matter. JPMorgan’s Marchiony declined to comment.

FERC ordered London-based Barclays and Deutsche Bank AG, Germany’s biggest bank, to pay fines for allegedly manipulating energy markets. Deutsche Bank agreed in January to pay $1.6 million with no admission of wrongdoing. Barclays said this month it would “vigorously” fight the $487.9 million in combined fines and penalties.

Financial regulators face an increasingly complex task at the largest U.S. banks. In 1990, the four biggest bank holding companies had, combined, about 3,000 subsidiaries, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. By 2011, the top four had more than 11,000.

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