In July, the public learned that Goldman Sachs and several other large banks have morphed into giant merchants of physical goods, routinely shipping oil, running power plants, and amassing stocks of metals so large that Coca Cola accused them of hoarding. It was a disconcerting moment, as regulators realized that firms so recently known for their explosive mortgage-backed securities also deal in goods that can literally explode.
In 1996, the world learned a Japanese firm had cornered the copper market. The company, Sumitomo, was fined $125 million for squeezing copper supplies and artificially inflating prices--at that point the largest penalty ever levied by a U.S. government agency. The Commodities Futures Trading Commission called the scheme “one of the most serious worldwide manipulations” of a commodity in decades. Last Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission posted a decision that could effectively lead to a repeat of the Sumitomo corner, with one key difference: hoarding copper will now be legal.