The Battle over Banning Banks from Physical Commodity Trading Continues


The battle over bank participation in physical commodities is reaching a climax. The deadline for commenting on potential Federal Reserve regulation of this activity is approaching, and many letters from groups representing banks (‘natch) but also from energy and commodity industry groups plead with the Fed to permit continued bank involvement in the markets. However, on Capitol Hill the sentiment largely runs the other way, and Senators Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren submitted a letter demanding that the Fed defenestrate banks’ commodities businesses.

Most of the Brown-Warren letter is stuff I’ve written about before, so I won’t comment more on it now. But this part stood out to me, and deserves a rebuttal:

Commodities activities present risks that are different from financial-market risks, are idiosyncratic, and have the potential to disrupt more than just the financial system. Global supply chain disruptions can affect industries in the broader economy that rely upon raw materials.

First, from a systemic risk perspective, the fact that commodities risks are idiosyncratic, and different (i.e., less correlated) with other risks in the banking system is a good thing. Diversification is beneficial in this regard.

I have looked at some evidence that speaks directly to this issue. Over the period of the crisis, the profits of the biggest physical commodity trading firms (the Glencores, Cargills, Vitols, etc.) did not suffer the same extreme drop as bank profits. Indeed, with a few exceptions (Bunge) profits of the major commodity trading firms rose from 2008 to 2009, when bank profits were in freefall.

This lack of cyclicality in trading firm profits, which is in stark contrast to the extreme cyclicality in prices (especially for energy and metals) is readily understood. Physical trading is a margin and volume business: these factors, not flat prices, drive profits. Due to the inelasticity of supply and demand for commodities, margins and volumes tend to be much more stable than flat prices. Prices, rather than quantities, tend to bear the bulk of the burden of responding to demand shocks. Moreover, some commodity trading activities-notably storage-tend to be countercyclical, providing a source of profit to physical commodity traders during recessions.

Commodity trading firms actually had more issues when prices spiked in 2008, because it was difficult for them to finance inventories at very high prices, and the low prices of 2009 eased these financing constraints.

The lack of cyclicality, which contrasts starkly to the pronounced cyclicality of earnings in traditional banking and capital market activities, means that physical commodity trading could reduce the systemic risk posed by banks. The effect will not be large, because even for the biggest banks  commodity trading revenues are small relative to those generated by the more traditional activities. But directionally, this lack of cyclicality in physical trading profitability makes it an attractive part of a bank’s portfolio, especially from a systemic risk perspective.

Second, the Brown-Warren warning about disruptions beyond the financial system are vastly overblown. Presumably what they mean is that if a large bank or several large banks with commodity trading operations were to run into financial trouble, this could disrupt global supply chains. But especially for the commodities that banks tend to focus on (particularly energy), they represent a small fraction of total physical market trading activity. If they disappeared overnight, others could step in and handle most of the business at a slightly higher cost. (Not to mention that it is kind of strange to justify driving banks out of the business by saying that if they leave the business it could disrupt global supply chains.)

But even more importantly, we know that even major disruptions in global supply chains are likely to have only trivial impacts on the global economy. Look at the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011. It devastated supply chains throughout Asia, far more than the loss of even several major commodity trading firms could have. Yet the effects on global growth were minimal. Several central banks examined the issue, and found that the catastrophe reduced global growth by around .1 percent for a couple of quarters. Even in Asia, the effect was minor.

As another example, the implosion of the merchant energy sector in the US in 2002 had no marked effect on US economic activity.

Another concern raised about bank participation in physical markets is environmental risk. This is potentially a serious concern, but even there legal protections (notably dealing through subsidiaries that protect a bank or bank holding company from liability) and insurance can sharply reduce the risk that legal exposure arising from an oil spill or the like could threaten the viability of a large financial institution. Also, since different commodity trading activities pose different environmental risks, a blanket restriction on commodity trading activities, some of which are not particularly environmentally risky, is not warranted.

In sum, the Brown-Warren arguments are not persuasive. Financially, the nature of physical commodity trading tends to reduce the cyclicality of of bank profits, which tends to reduce systemic risk. The fears about threats to global supply chains from the failure of any major commodity trader leading to adverse macroeconomic consequences are vastly overblown. Finally, the environmental/legal risk issues can be allocated away from banks through organizational structure and insurance. Since there also complementarities between traditional banking activities and commodity trading (which I discussed in posts from last summer) some commodity producers and consumers would pay higher costs if they could not enter into physical trading deals with banks: this is one reason why some of these producers and consumers object to limitations on bank participation in these markets. It’s hard to see the benefits of a ban (or restriction), but some costs are evident.

I doubt that will matter much in the end though. Commodities are a politically sensitive issue. Banks are a politically sensitive issue. Put them together, and the sensitivities are acute. Meaning that politics will largely drive the outcome.

Update. One other amusing part of the Brown-Warren letter. They say:

Some have argued it is preferable to allow commodities activities and physical asset ownership within the regulated banking system, rather than at the more lightly regulated commodity trading houses. As a general matter, the CFTC maintains authority to police fraud and manipulation in the commodities markets, regardless of the party engaging in such behavior.

So are banks somehow less subject to deterrence by the threat of CFTC action? If the objective  is to reduce the amount of manipulation and fraud, to justify forcing banks to eschew commodity trading it is necessary to argue that banks are  somehow less responsive to CFTC action than commodity trading houses. Maybe, but it’s not obviously true and I’ve seen no evidence that would support my view.

This relates to a point I made in earlier posts, namely, that if the economics are such that banks find it tempting to manipulate, non-banks will also find it tempting. Meaning that moving a business (e.g., metal warehousing) from a bank to a non-bank is unlikely to reduce the amount of manipulation.

One other thing needs to be said in this context. The Brown-Warren point is correct to the extent that it demonstrates that the term “lightly regulated” is used far too sloppily. Yes, trading houses are less subject to less of some kinds of regulation than banks, but they are subject to anti-fraud and anti-manipulation rules just as banks are. Similarly,  environmental laws and anti-trust laws and many other laws apply to these firms. “Lightly regulated” does not apply uniformly to all forms of bad conduct. The fact that commodity traders are not subject to some regulations that banks are (e.g., capital requirements) makes sense, given the differences between them.

Whenever anyone says “unregulated” or “lightly regulated”, I get suspicious and skeptical. Often those using these phrases are playing a shell game.

About Craig Pirrong 227 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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