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Monday, July 02, 2012

Turning Metals into a Goldmine

Posted by Ben Ernest-Jones

"Every man now worships gold, all other reverence being done away," said Roman poet Sextus Propertius sometime around 15 BC.

Metals are hot. The Hong Kong Exchange's extravagant £1.39 billion bid to win the London Metal Exchange (LME) shows just how hot. HKE bought LME, which accounts for 80% of trade in nonferrous metals such as copper and aluminum, in a bidding frenzy against NYSE Euronext, CME and ICE.

From gold and silver to copper and nickel, it seems everyone is interested in buying and trading metals. Once the domain of producers and specialty traders such as Glencore and Marc Rich, investors globally are clamouring for access to this non-traditional asset class.

There is a natural cyclicality to asset classes; they wax and wane in popularity depending upon the opportunities to make money by trading them. Lately, investors have lost heart in stock markets and volumes are plummeting. Commodities such as oil and agriculturals lost their shine when demand in China and other emerging nations dwindled.

With returns shrinking in equities and fixed income market plays, it is no wonder that investors are interested in asset classes outside the traditional. Foreign exchange markets have been extremely active in recent years, for example, and with the current uncertainty over European debt problems demand for "safe haven" currencies is high. Precious metals often fall under that safe haven umbrella, which is presumably why interest has soared of late.

The correlation between gold and currencies such as the US dollar and the Japan yen is well documented, as gold and other metals are often used as a hedge against inflation or against a weak currency. There is also a strong correlation between gold and oil prices, and gold and the stock market historically. So there are plenty of opportunities to use metals for cross-asset-class trading, particularly in high frequency or black box strategies which monitor for anomalies in these correlations.

Luckily, pressure from investors is giving banks and brokers the incentive to break down the barriers to trading metals. Some brokers are adding metals to their foreign exchange trading platforms. We’re seeing an increase in the number of banks that are converting metals futures -  from CME, NYMEX, LME, etc. - into spot prices to stream to clients for trading. It looks like the beginning of a trend.

It is only a matter of time before banks and brokers are aggregating FX, metals, oil, stocks and bond markets for their clients - all onto one trading platform. Then we may finally see true cross-asset class and cross-geography trading. In the meantime metals trading may be the next goldmine for banks.

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