For years there had been speculation, rumor and hearsay that JPM had cornered the US commodity market. Now, finally, we have documented proof.
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Traditionally, we look at the OCC’s Quarterly Bank Report on derivatives activities to see which was the largest bank in the US in terms of total notional derivative holdings. The reason being that like on frequent occasions in the past, we find some stunning results, such as most recently in January when we wrote that, for the first time, Citigroup had eclipsed JPM as the largest US bank in total derivatives, with just over $70 trillion compared to perennial megabank JPM’s $65.3 trillion as of the third quarter of 2014, explaining also why Citigroup had drafted the Swaps push out language in the Omnibus Bill.
And while this time there was little exciting to report at the consolidated level (JPM overtook Citi in Q4 only for Citi to once again become the world’s largest bank in total derivatives with $56.6 trillion compared to $56.2 trillion for JPM and $52 trillion for Goldman as Bloomberg reported earlier), and in fact total notional derivatives tumbled from $220.4 trillion in Q4 to $203.1 trillion in Q1 the lowest level since 2008…
… an absolutely shocking blockbuster emerges when looking at the underlying component data.
Presenting Exhibit 12: Notional Amounts of Commodity Contracts by Maturity: even a CFTC regulator would be able to spot the outlier charted below.
What the chart above shows is that after fluctuating around the low to mid $200 billion range for the past 5 years, in Q1 the amount of Commodities with a maturity of under 1 year exploded to a record $3.9 trillion!
Sadly, the OCC provides no actual explanation for why there was such an epic surge in commodity derivatives within the US banking system in the first quarter, so we decided to explore.
What we found is what those who have for years accused JPM of cornering the commodity markets, have known: because it is none other than JPMorgan’s Commodity derivative book primarily in the <1 maturity bucket, which exploded from just $131 billion to a gargantuan and never before seen $3.8 trillion!
In fact as the chart below shows, while historically JPM has accounted for just over 50% of total commodity holdings among all US commercial banks, in the Q1 this number soared to a stratospheric 96% which by anybody’s standards is the very definition of cornering the market!
We don’t know what prompted JPM’s commodity derivative book to soar to such a never before seen amount, but the number most certainly looks abnormal on both an absolute and a relative basis, especially considering that no other banks boosted their particular derivative book with the same vigor.
So what is going on here?
We decided to dig down some more when we encountered something even more perplexing. Because whereas in previous quarterly updates, the OCC broke out the FX and Gold categories as separate derivative items as seen in this most recent chart from the Q4 update…
… in Q1, once again quite inexplicably, the OCC decided to lump these two products together, thus making any credible observation about the total notional outstanding of just gold derivatives, impossible! But wait, we thought that according to former Chairman Bernanke, gold anything but currency: is the OCC suddenly disagreeing with that assessment?
Furthermore, while in all previous iterations of the OCC’s Table 9, gold derivative notionals by maturity were explicitly broken out as can be seen in this Q4, 2014 table below:
Starting in Q1, 2015 the “gold” section in Table 9 no longer exists (although we can see that while JPM cornered “commodities”, it was Citi that had its total derivative notional of “precious metals” undergo a massive jump, also for reasons unknown).
One would almost think the OCC is hiding something as the demand of US commercial banks. So while we no longer know what just total gold derivatives outstanding is, for some unexplained, reason, we do know that the combined total of FX and gold just hit an all time high.
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And while the OCC did all it could to mask the “gold” line item by lumping it with FX, it still kept “Precious Metals” as is, although we assume that this too will be lumped with FX and gold shortly.
It is this chart that shows something is truly odd when it comes to the US commercial bank industry’s activity in the precious metals space.
So in summary, this is what we do know:
What we don’t know is:
We have sent an email requesting much needed clarification from the Office of the Currency Comptroller, although we are not holding our breath.
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