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JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS): How Big Banks Are Driving Up the Prices of Practically Everything

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JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) nosed closer to a settlement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over the past week as both parties work toward resolving the issue of energy market manipulation in California and other key markets.

That state’s Independent System Operator had estimated that the engineered run-up in electricity prices added up to $73 million, so the big bank’s reputed penalty of $410 million seems like a pretty good deal — except for the rumored lack of sanctions against those responsible for this scandal. However, as The Wall Street Journal notes, nothing is written in stone yet, and things could possibly change.

Banks’ involvement in commodities questioned
Perhaps the terms of the settlement will change, but the myriad ways in which the largest banks manipulate commodities markets very likely won’t — unless regulators force them to. Happily, the winds of change may be in the air, as a Senate subcommittee plans hearings on July 23 on the issue of banks and commodities, spurred by consumer and corporate complaints.

In addition, the Federal Reserve is taking a fresh look at the 2003 decision to allow banks to immerse themselves in commodity markets, when it opted to allow such activities as “complimentary to financial activities.”

Banks have been manipulating commodities in so many ways
For years, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM), Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS) , and Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) have been making a killing in the commodities markets, scooping up mass quantities of aluminum, coffee, oil, and wheat over the intervening years, according to The New York Times. They’ve accumulated such huge stores, in fact, that they have been purchasing warehouses to store them in, as well as pipelines and other delivery systems to transport them.

This creates problems in many ways, though not for the banks, the 10 biggest of which have made a neat $6 billion on commodities, according to Bloomberg. Where the problems tend to arise is for regulators and consumers: the former, in that they can’t get a good handle on how deeply these banks are involved solely from their regulatory filings, and the latter, from the higher prices the “storing” of these commodities is causing.

It is notable that, when the Federal Reserve gave JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) permission to enter the commodities game in 2005, it banned the bank from buying actual storehouses for its booty. Despite that restriction, the bank now owns a string of storage facilities, just like Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS).

Manipulating markets
These players have known for some time that this day would come. Feeling the steely gaze of regulators, the top three have been making a show of trying to keep a cap on their activities. Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) has considered selling its commodities trading desk, while JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS) have sought buyers for their warehousing subsidiaries. JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) even made changes to the board of one of its metal warehousing units in order to make it look more like a mere investment.

Meanwhile, these banks make money by creating false shortages, as well as by bending rules and regulations in order to create extra fees. With Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS) hoarding over 25% of the saleable aluminum, it’s not difficult to imagine that extending the wait time from six to 16 weeks has had a moving effect on markets.

There are some nifty ways to play the commodity manipulation game, it seems. The Times article describes how Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS) uses its vast network of storehouses in the city of Detroit and its environs to make several layers of profit off of the same hunks of metal by moving them from one storage facility to another. This not only helps build in more storage time, but also increases the rental fees, generally based on the tonnage of metal on hand.

Obviously, this has been a goldmine for Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS), since the firm has increased the number of storage facilities owned by its subsidiary, Metro International Trade Services, from 19 to 27 over the past two years.

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