Chris Lehmann,  July 24, 2013

Speed Metal

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When the New York Times published a blockbuster investigation into the manipulations of the global aluminum supply by Goldman Sachs and other investment banks in late July, the usual rigors of impression management in an official finance scandal duly ensued. The story, by Times business writer David Kocieniewski, outlined in edifying detail just how the investment-bank giant has insinuated itself at the top of the supply chain of the international aluminum market.

Exploiting a rule revision introduced at the Federal Reseve in 2003 (a.k.a. the High Greenspan Era) which permitted investment houses to move, for the first time since the 1950s, into the direct revenue streams of the commodities markets, Goldman snatched up 27 aluminum warehouses at one of the central distribution nodes for the industry in North America, in and around Detroit. Kocieniewski explains the next, nauseatingly predictable developments with the patient-yet-weary mien of a movie reviewer summarizing the plot of the fifth installment in the Saw franchise.

Here’s how Kocieniewski laid out the whole grim business:

Only a tenth of a cent or so of an aluminum can’s purchase price can be traced back to the strategy. But multiply that amount by the 90 billion aluminum cans consumed in the United States each year — and add the tons of aluminum used in things like cars, electronics and house siding — and the efforts by Goldman and other financial players has cost American consumers more than $5 billion over the last three years, say former industry executives, analysts and consultants.

The inflated aluminum pricing is just one way that Wall Street is flexing its financial muscle and capitalizing on loosened federal regulations to sway a variety of commodities markets, according to financial records, regulatory documents and interviews with people involved in the activities.

The maneuvering in markets for oil, wheat, cotton, coffee and more have brought billions in profits to investment banks like Goldman, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, while forcing consumers to pay more every time they fill up a gas tank, flick on a light switch, open a beer or buy a cellphone. In the last year, federal authorities have accused three banks, including JPMorgan, of rigging electricity prices, and last week JPMorgan was trying to reach a settlement that could cost it $500 million.

So much for Act One in the pantomime drama of the official business scandal. Goldman, by now an old hand in these matters, met the Times‘ revelations with a “ fact sheet” outlining, in the broadest possible terms, the contours of its aluminum interests. The document resounded with all the detail and analytical persuasiveness of a Richard Scarry book on the subject, noting mainly that Goldman is a really big player in a really big market. Did you know that “at any time, a company can buy aluminum from a producer”? Well, all right, then! We can only assume it was due to a harried lack of imagination on the part of the firm’s PR team that the release was not, in fact, titled “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.”

The closest Goldman came to engaging in a substantive claim was an entry citing the oversight authority of the global board for the industry, the London Metal Exchange (LME). Because of the LME’s strictures, the sort of collusive delays that the Times reported occurring among the aluminum warehouses in Michigan are strictly forbidden: “Trading affiliates of a warehouse operator do not have any information regarding warehouse operations,” Goldman insisted, “as such trading is separated by LME-mandated information barriers, the integrity of which is verified through regular independent audits.”

This was not only double speak; it was backwards-and-all-around-speak. As the Times report made painfully clear, the LME is not exactly a disinterested overseer of the aluminum industry. It collects its fees directly from the companies it putatively regulates–much as was the case with the credit-ratings industry at the height of the mortgage bubble. That would be why, Kocieniewski explained, the new owner of the LME, who is based in Hong Kong (it is a lesser, though still amusing, irony of this whole saga that the London exchange at the center of it is now a property of an investor in this former Asian colony of England) pulled up short when it came to implementing his bold initial promise to “take a bazooka” to the storage delays bedeviling the aluminum trade. He has, the Times notes, “balked at adopting a remedy raised by a consultant hired to study the problem in 2010: limit the rent warehouses can collect during the backlog. The exchange receives 1 percent of the rent collected by the warehouses, so such a step would cost it millions in revenue.”

Yes, that’s right: a financial incentive to eliminate operational inefficiencies has run afoul of a cronyist fee-collecting model of rentiership. Where have we heard that one before?

Regulatory details aside, Goldman’s portrait of the pristine insulation of aluminum warehouses, designed to fend off any market-distorting exchanges of intelligence, presents something of a problem for Goldman’s own acquisition strategies. After all, if the warehouses in question are so segmented from a porous chain of both information and supply then why, exactly, has Goldman gone to the trouble of buying 27 of the damn things?

Team Baffler is at least happy to report that the Third Act of the aluminum set-to–the one taking place on Capitol Hill–has fallen under the supervision of the one credible populist in the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren. She’s using her perch on the Senate banking committee to open hearings on the warehouse slowdown, and to goad the 2003 revision of Fed rules that set up investment banks as commodities peddlers a bit closer to its overdue demise. These days, the ruling doesn’t claim much enthusiastic backing from anyone not named Lloyd Blankfein.

Still, even this provisional positive turn in the story shouldn’t obscure the larger, dismal moral. Despite all the feverishly advertised digital trappings of the new millennium’s investment world–for all the breakthroughs in information-sharing that have expedited the fraternity-style price-fixing of the LIBOR era [[INSERT LINK TO LORENTZEN LIBOR PIECE FROM 20 HERE]]–the shuddering course of financial oligarchy has hardly changed at all from its heyday in the 1890s. The stratagems that Goldman has used in aluminum–much like those favored by JPMorgan Chase in the hopelessly deregulated energy sector–follow the same basic playbook pioneered by the likes of Standard Oil and Union Pacific in the high-brigand capitalism of the American Gilded Age: Isolate all the critical chokepoints along a vital supply chain, and then proceed to bleed maximum revenues from small producers and end-use consumers. For chapter and verse on these consummately bad actors in the great monopolizing age of enterprise, we commend the excellent works of Ida Tarbell, Henry Demarest Lloyd–or Frank Norris, for that matter. (Provided, that is, you can find any of them in print.)

While we are happy to cheer Sen. Warren on, there’s something dispiriting about seeing a tribune of the people’s business forced to re-fight battles that had been fought and won, in both political and empirical terms, 120 or so years ago. And while we are also fans of the timesaving contrivances of Yon Information Age–we are typing all this on a computer at this very moment, after all–we must also confess that we’re disheartened to see so much communications expertise and just-in-time information sharing devoted to the cause of metal-hoarding on an ever-larger scale.

 

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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