How The CBOT, Comex And CFTC Coordinated To Break The Last Silver Price Surge

Tyler Durden's picture

Just like QE is nothing new in the monetary arena, and has seen some incarnation at least since the early 80's primarily in Japan, so parabolic commodity price surges have occurred periodically, most notably in 1980, when Bunker Hunt brought the price of silver to over $50. However, unlike any time before, never in the history of the world have we seen a coordinated worldwide monetary stimulus via relentless credit money "printing" courtesy of global central banks. In that regard, this time really is different, as there is no other remaining backstop to the world financial system: the global banking cartel has used up all its bullets and now can only double down in the most nightmarish Martingale system ever conceived, where each iteration means further fiat absolute value destruction (on a relative basis it simply means a race to the currency bottom, whereby definition only one can be in the lead at any given moment: usually the one with the biggest printing press, and greatest deflationary threat). And while many still believe that QE2 will be the last of domestic US monetary easing episodes, as Bill Gross noted earlier, it is very possible that the US may be headed into a triple-dip recession, for which the only prescription will be another QE round (with political gridlock in DC at unseen levels no fiscal stimulus is even remotely possible). If this happens, precious metals will once again surge. The only question is what will the exchanges do after the next gold and silver spike? Indeed, as we suggest, margin hikes are just the beginning. For a complete playbook of how the CME may proceed after the margin hike approach fails, we once again go back to the curious case of Bunker Hunt. Below, from the Playbook biopic of the Texas billionaire we posted yesterday, we present the walk through of how the CBOT, Comex and CFTC tried to break silver's back. Back in 1980 they succeeded. Have they, and will they succeed this time?

...The CFTC and the officials of the two exchanges decided to have a little talk with the Hunts. Explaining that they feared a squeeze, the exchange officials asked them if they would consider selling some of their silver. The brothers’ answer was no. What was more, they said, they intended to keep buying silver and to keep taking delivery on it. They thought silver was still a good buy, even at the  new high prices. Besides, as Bunker put it with typical understatement. “If you sell, you get into a tax problem.”

On top of all that, Bunker really did believe in silver as a long-term investment, the underpinnings of a new economy. He did not say that in so many words to the CFTC men and the exchange officials, but he did give them a glimpse of his basic apocalyptic vision when he revealed a previously undisclosed feature of his silver play: the fact that he was moving his metal to Europe. This time, he did not fly the bullion overseas in chartered jets with cowboy guards. As he told the CFTC, Bunker simply traded 9,000,000 ounces’ worth of metal he held in Chicago and New York exchange warehouses for an equal amount of bullion held by other traders in London and Zurich. The reason? As he explained to the CFTC and the exchange officials, he feared that the U. S. Government might expropriate silver from Americans just as it had expropriated gold back in the Thirties.

But Bunker’s assurances that he was willing to cooperate as much as possible apparently mollified the CFTC officials; the C.B.O.T., however, concluded that it was time to act. In a move aimed directly at the Hunts and the other big buyers, the Board of Trade raised the margin requirement and declared that silver traders would be limited to 3,000,000 ounces of futures contracts. Traders with more than that would have to divest themselves of their excess futures holdings by mid-February 1980.

With that, the battle lines were drawn. Bunker let it be publicly known that he thought the C.B.O.T. was changing the rules in the middle of the game, and vowed to fight the limits all the way. Privately, he regarded the C.B.O.T.’s action as another conspiracy against him by the Eastern establishment. And for once, he had a good prima-facie case.

The boards of both the Chicago and the New York exchanges were composed not only of “outside” directors but also of representatives of the major, usually Eastern-based brokerage houses. Later testimony would reveal that nine of the 23 Comex board members held short contracts on 38,000,000 ounces of silver. With their 1.88 billion dollar collective interest in having the price go down, it is easy to see why Bunker did not view them as objective regulators. At the same time, though, the C.B.O.T. restrictions made Bunker even more bullish on silver, because, as he put it, “they show a silver shortage exists.”

Bunker appeared to be right. Through November and December, the price of silver rose faster than ever. By the last day of 1979, the price reached an astronomical $34.45 an ounce. Meanwhile, the Hunts’ silver holdings kept increasing. By the end of December, the Hunts and their Arab partners held 90,300,000 ounces of bullion that the CFTC knew about and another 40,000,000 ounces the Hunts had stashed in Europe. The Hunt group also held about 90,000,000 ounces worth of silver futures, most of them due for delivery in March on the Comex in New York.

By this time, the CFTC became concerned that the silver positions held by the Hunts and the Conti group were “too large relative to the size of the U. S. and world silver markets.” Subscribing to the philosophy that the futures market was not a substitute for the cash market, the commission determined that the time had come to stop Bunker’s perverse buying spree. A meeting to decide what to do was set for January 8, 1980.

Then the Comex stepped in. On January seventh, the exchange announced new position limits restricting traders to no more than 10,000,000 ounces’ worth of futures contracts. The effective date of the limits was set for February 18. The day after the Comex announcement, the CFTC announced that it was backing the exchanges new limits.

Bunker was incensed. “I am not a speculator. I am not a market squeezer,” he protested. “I am just an investor and holder in silver.” Taking the offensive, he accused the exchanges and the Government of destroying the U. S. silver market by changing the rules in the middle of the game. “The market will move to Europe,” he predicted ominously. “The silver market in this country is a thing of the past.”

Strangely enough, the price of silver fell only one day in the wake of the Comex announcement, then started climbing even higher. Part of the reason for the continued price spiral, according to an after-the-fact analysis by the CFTC, was that Bunker kept buying silver. On January 14 and 16, the Hunts made agreements to take future delivery on 32,500,000 ounces of silver (mostly in London) at various dates that spring. The largest of those contracts were with Englehard Minerals. On January 17, silver hit a record high of $50 an ounce.

Bunker could hardly be incensed about that. On that one day, the worth of the Hunts’ silver bullion holdings was nearly four and a half billion dollars. Since most of that silver had been acquired at less than ten dollars an ounce, they had a profit of over three and a half billion dollars. Bunker and Herbert had made nearly as much money in the past six months as their late father had made in his entire lifetime, at least on paper. Of course, if Bunker actually sold all that bullion, he would face enormous tax consequences. The trick now was to figure a way to utilize those huge gains without having them decimated by the taxman.

As Bunker pondered that, the exchanges decided to impose their most stringent restriction yet. On January 21, the Comex announced that trading would be limited to liquidation orders only. There would be no more futures buying. The game was closing down.

The next day, the price of silver plunged to $34, a drop of ten dollars in a single day. It stabilized shortly after that, and remained in the mid to high 30s for the rest of the month. But in February, the price began to slide downward again. By that time, silver was literally coming out of the woodwork. In response to the new high prices, old ladies had been selling their tea sets. Families had been hocking their silverware. Coin collectors had been divesting themselves of their collections. In January and February alone, an estimated 16,000,000 ounces of silver coins and an additional 6,000,000 ounces of scrap silver had come onto the market. With the price of silver now dropping, some of those small sellers and small investors began complaining to the CFTC about the exchange restrictions...

Ironically, while the paper holders of silver may be complaining to the CFTC now, the inverse is true about physical supply-demand dynamics. Indeed, instead of a scramble to convert physical silver to paper, we continue to see the inverse as a material amount of silver wholesale retailers continue to be out of actual silver.

And, as was posted yesterday, those who wish to read the full story of Bunker Hunt and the still historic surge in silver, may do so here.