I am on my last day in Singapore, where I participated in the rollout of Trafigura’s Commodities Demystified hosted by IE Singapore. The event was very well attended (an overflow crowd) and the presentation and new publication (which builds off the conceptual framework of my 2013 white paper The Economics of Commodity Trading Firms) was well-received. It helps fill a yawning gap in knowledge about what commodity traders are and what they do.
In addition to that event, I spoke as a panelist at the FT’s Commodities Asia Summit. One of the main speakers was Charles Li, CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, who laid out his ambitions for plans in mainland China. Things started out well. Whereas expectations were that HKEx would create a modest spot metals trading platform in China (because it doesn’t have and is unlikely to receive a license for trading futures), Li stated that HKEx (which owns the LME) would attempt to create a “lookalike” LME metals warehousing system. In the aftermath of the Qingdao fiasco this could be a very salutary development.
I would suggest caution, however. This may be easier said than done. While Li was describing this, my mind immediately turned to a paper I wrote over 2 decades ago about the successes and failures of commodity exchanges. One of the signal failures occurred when the Chicago Board of Trade attempted to tame the depredations of grain warehouses in the 1860s. Public storage was rife with all sorts of fraud and illicit dealing. The quality and quantity of grain being stored was a mystery, and warehousemen played all sorts of games to exploit their customers. The CBT, acting in the interests of traders who relied on the warehouses, attempted to impose rules and regulations on them, but failed utterly. Eventually the State of Illinois had to pass legislation to rein in some of the warehousemen’s more outrageous actions. Furthermore, larger traders integrated into warehousing, and eventually public storage became primarily ancillary to futures trading (i.e., to facilitate delivery against futures).
The CBT’s problem is that it did not have an adequate stick to beat the warehousemen into compliance. They were kicked out of the exchange, but the gains of being able to trade futures were smaller than the gains from operating warehouses outside the CBT’s rules.
Public warehousing has proved problematic in commodities to the present day. The LME’s travails with aluminum warehousing are just one example, but others abound in commodities including coffee, cocoa, and cotton. In cotton, for instance, even though warehouses are subject to federal regulation, there are chronic complaints that warehousemen do not load out cotton promptly, in order to enhance storage revenues.
So I wish Mr. Li luck. He’ll need it, especially since lacking the ability to deny those violating the warehouse rules from futures trading, he won’t even have the stick that proved inadequate for the CBT. Public warehousemen has long proved to be a very recalcitrant group, over time, place, and commodity.
Li specifically criticized the speculative nature of China’s futures exchanges, and claimed that his new venture would be for physical players, and that it would not be “another financial speculation forum.” But his follow on remarks gave a sense of cognitive dissonance. He said the system would allow banks and hedge funds to participate in the market.
More disconcertingly, he highlighted the effects of financial repression in China (without using the phrase), which leads investors looking for higher returns than are available in the banking sector to turn to alternative investment vehicles. Li specifically mentioned wealth management products, and suggested that metals stored in the warehouses his new venture would oversee could form the basis for such products. I understood him to say that while the warehouses would facilitate the typical function of commodity storage, i.e., filling and emptying in order to accommodate temporary supply and demand shocks, there would also be the possibility that metal would be locked up for long periods to provide the basis for these wealth management products. What I envision is something like physical metal ETFs that have been introduced in the West. These are primarily in precious metals. JP Morgan proposed a similar vehicle for copper, but backed off due to the pressure from Carl Levin and others a couple of summers ago.
In other words, the new warehousing system would be part of the shadow banking system thereby providing a new speculative vehicle for Chinese investors desperate to circumvent financial repression. Hence my cognitive dissonance.
I would also note that even a purely physical spot exchange can be a speculative venue, through buying and selling and borrowing/carrying warehouse receipts. The New York Gold Exchange of Black Friday infamy was hugely speculative, even though it was purely a spot physical exchange.
I also heard Li to say that the venture would guarantee transactions, though I didn’t fully catch what would be guaranteed. Would the exchange be insuring those storing their metal against a Qingdao type event? If so, that’s a pretty audacious plan, and one fraught with risk.
This was just a speech at a conference. It will be interesting to see a fully-fleshed out plan. It will be particularly interesting to see how the enforcement mechanism for the warehouse regulation will work, and it will be especially particularly interesting to see whether this venture is indeed just viewed as a mechanism for improving the efficiency of the physical metals market in China, or whether it will be a clever way to tap into the intense interest of investors large and small in China to speculate and find better returns than those on offer in the banking system. That is, will this be another speculative venue, but one masquerading as a staid market for physical players. Given the way China works, I’d bet on the latter. Pun intended.