U.S. Commodities Watchdog Agency Subpoenas Documents: Reuters

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The U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has subpoenaed documents and other communications and records going back to 2010 from a metals warehousing firm. Reuters reports exclusively that “a source with direct knowledge of the matter” has said that the CFTC has issued the subpoena to an unnamed warehousing firm, or possibly more than one firm.

Large U.S. banks like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) have come to play a large if not dominant role in metals warehousing since a 2003 ruling by the Federal Reserve that some commodity activities are complementary to financial activities and that the Fed would allow bank holding companies to participate in those activities. The big commodities trading firms like Glencore Xstrata and Trafigura also have gotten into the warehousing business.

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A major focus has been aluminum stockpiling at warehouses in Detroit owned by a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. The Coca-Cola Co. (KO) complained in 2011 that the warehouse was not releasing aluminum and forcing the beverage maker to turn to the spot market, where it was forced to purchase aluminum directly from miners like Alcoa Inc. (AA) and Rio Tinto PLC (RIO). That drove up the cost of aluminum.

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According to Reuters’ source, the subpoena “included more than 30 areas of interest to the CFTC [including] anything that relates to moving metal from one warehouse to another within the same company.” The agency also wants the warehouse firms to provided details of trading based on prices reported by traders to the London Metals Exchange, the Comes and Platts.

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The U.S. Department of Justice has initiated its own investigation into metals warehousing, and at least four class action lawsuits have been filed against the warehousing companies.

Now that the commodities boom appears to be over, the banks and presumably the trading houses are considering whether to shed their warehousing businesses. The banks may be forced to. But as with all things related to government investigations, it could take months, if not years, to sort through what is surely a mountain of documents, emails and instant messages. If the warehousing firms want to stall, they have plenty of material to bring into play.

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