Exiting commodities - "I want to know what the new rules will be before I play in the game"

A very interesting article by one leading US investment expert:

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission announced this week that they are looking very hard at possibly closing a regulatory loophole that allowed some extremely large commodity index funds to get around position limits. For those not familiar with the concept of limits, it basically works like this. No trader or fund is allowed to own more than a specific amount of a commodity traded on the futures exchange. This limit varies from commodity to commodity and exchange to exchange. The point is to keep one group from manipulating the price of a commodity, as the Hunts did with silver in the early 80s.

The loophole is one where large investment banks can sell a "swap" for a specific commodity like corn and then hedge their position in the futures markets. There is no limit on the amount of the commodity that can be hedged. So, a fund can accumulate sizeable positions far in excess of what they could do directly by working with an investment bank. In essence, the swap is a derivative issued by a bank which acts just like a futures trade, but it is with the bank as guarantor and not an exchange. Swaps are not regulated as such. And up until now, the banks were seen as legitimate hedgers so there were no limits on what they could buy in the futures markets.

This works for very large commodity index funds which try to mirror a particular commodity index and need to be able to buy very large positions in excess of the normal limits (and there are scores of them), and for the banks that make the commissions and profits on the swaps. Remember, the fund gets a management fee, so growing the size of the fund grows their fees.

These indexes typically have about 26 commodities, with the largest allocation to oil, but almost anything that is traded has some small portion of the allocation. As I noted last week, there are some who believe this is working to drive up the price of commodities beyond the simply supply and demand principles. Whether or not you believe this to be the case, the CFTC is looking at the loophole.

The key word in the announcement yesterday was the word "classification." Right now the banks are classified as hedgers and as such have no limits. But they are not really hedging the actual physical commodity as a farmer or General Mills might do, but the hedge is their financial position.

If the CFTC decides to look through them to the funds, and they did use the word transparency in their announcement, they could decide to change the classification of the banks from hedgers to speculators. While I do no think that might make a difference in the long run, in the short run it could make commodities volatile in the extreme, and exert downward pressure up and down the price curve, depending on how they would decide to unwind the commodity index funds.

For what its worth, I advised my daughter to get out of the commodity fund she was in for the time being. When the regulators are in the room, anything could happen. And they are getting intense pressure from Congress to change the rules. My bet is that the train has left the station and it is but a matter of time until position limits are put in place for commodity funds, including commodity ETFs. Is that a good thing? I think not, but that matters not one whit. The hand writing is on he wall.

Does this mean I am not a long term commodity bull? No, I remain bullish on a host of commodities over the long term from a supply and demand perspective. It is just that you might want to consider whether to stand aside for a time while the congressional elephant is stampeding around the room. Maybe it is a non-event and someone figures out a way to unwind the positions slowly and over time. Who knows? As I said, when the regulators are under pressure to do something, I want to know what the new rules will be before I play in the game.