Tag Archives: bust

Hazards of the Copper Antimarket

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post connecting Chinese urbanization with the new mining around Lake Superior. Chinese demand for copper — which is used in everything from large scale infrastructure projects to new housing construction — is likely what brought Rio Tinto to the Upper Peninsula in the first place. But the copper extracted by Rio’s successor Lundin Mining, which took ownership of the controversial Kennecott/Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula just last week, or Polymet, which is developing a mine in Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, won’t be shipped directly from the US to China. Instead, it will travel a long and circuitous route from Lake Superior through a tightly-controlled system of warehouses, and now the copper those warehouses hold will be the property of big financial firms.

This new arrangement — copper’s new holding pattern — entails new risks for the global financial system, the American economy and the places where copper is mined.

A story in the Times this past weekend reported that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other big Wall Street players are already manipulating the market for aluminum, and developing Bank Holding Companies that will mix finance with global commerce in new ways. By hoarding aluminum and exploiting the rules of the London Metals Exchange — which the banks owned until just last year, when the LME was sold to a group of Hong Kong investors — Goldman and other banks are set to make billions of dollars without actually moving aluminum into the market. Copper, as the story noted, is “next up.”

Last winter, the SEC approved two new copper-backed Exchange Traded Funds, one from JPMorgan, which was the first of its kind, and a second from BlackRock. These new Copper ETFs not only permit but require JPMorgan and BlackRock to take possession of and physically store tons of copper in warehouses. It’s an audacious plan that will “ultimately allow JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and BlackRock to buy 80 percent of the copper available on the market on behalf of investors and hold it in their warehouses.” A few firms will essentially control the world copper market — or to establish what rightly deserves to be called an antimarket. (The term is historian Fernand Braudel’s, and has been popularized by Manuel DeLanda).

Big copper consumers like Southwire and Encore registered their dissent, but SEC officials capitulated after heavy lobbying by too-big-to-fail finance. The SEC even said it shared the view put forward by the banks, that the new funds would “track the price of copper, not propel it, and concurred with the firms’ contention — disputed by some economists — that reducing the amount of copper on the market would not drive up prices.” Robert B. Bernstein, an attorney representing the copper consumers, suggested in a letter to the SEC last year that this took too narrow a view, and that copper prices were not the only thing to worry about. Bernstein argued that the investment houses’ hoarding of copper will disrupt the copper market, impede economic recovery, and work “contrary to the public interest.”

The public interest had some defenders at yesterday’s Senate Banking Committee hearing on Financial Holding Companies, where ETFs and the banking practices behind them came under scrutiny. Chaired by Senator Sherrod Brown and featuring expert testimony from Saule Omarova, Joshua Rosner, Timothy Weiner and Randall Guynn, the hearing touched several times on how the control of metals markets by financial players like Goldman and JPMorgan will affect the American consumer and greatly heighten the risk of another financial crisis like the one in 2008 — and necessitate another bailout by American taxpayers of firms that are too big to fail (but seem, oddly, hellbent on failure).

At the hearing’s end, Sherrod Brown said we need “to ask ourselves what it does to the rest of our society when wealth and resources are diverted into finance.” It was a good summary comment, because the hearing raised a whole host of questions about the social hazards this diversion entails.

For instance, what effect will these ETFs and financial manipulation of the global copper market have on the communities where copper is mined? Yesterday’s hearing didn’t directly address the point. Randall Guynn tried to suggest that a bank-controlled mine in a bank-controlled market where the bank warehoused and manipulated the price of the metal being mined would create a reliable and steady labor market. But others warned that the speculative bubble will inevitably burst, and that will leave both investors and communities in the lurch. Even while the boom lasts, workers and communities are likely to be powerless against giant commodity-extracting, -holding and -trading financial conglomerates with lobbying power, friends in high places and apologists like Randall Guynn.

Will the cornering and squeezing of the copper market by big finance exert new pressures to relax environmental controls? Why not, especially since multinational miners already complain about the delays caused by prudent environmental assessments? Both Omarova and Rosner asked us to imagine a scenario in which the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe happened on an oil rig owned by JPMorgan; now, with banks moving aggressively into copper, a mining catastrophe like the Bingham Canyon collapse (which I wrote about here) could send shockwaves throughout the entire financial system. “If we saw a catastrophic event at non-financial facility,” Joshua Rosner told the Committee, “the impact to the [financial] institution and the Fed would be catastrophic.”

Omarova stressed the complexities of these commodity markets, and expressed serious doubts that regulators “can oversee risks caused by Bank Holding Companies and this mixture of commerce and banking.” Rosner echoed these concerns: “to suggest regulators have ability to manage holding companies is to ignore all the areas regulators failed to oversee in 2008,” he said. Worse, the banks themselves would be incapable of predicting, controlling or even appreciating the risks to which they are exposed.

I made a similar point about JPMorgan’s inability to manage its exposure to human rights risks in the wake of the London Whale episode.

The new mix of banking, speculation and holding of commodities, said Saule Omarova, may make another London Whale more likely, and worse. So history may be about to repeat itself. Omarova went on to suggest that in making their moves into the commodities markets, Goldman, JPMorgan and the other firms playing this dangerous new game seem to have adopted a business model pioneered just a little over a decade ago, by Enron. That observation prompted Senator Elizabeth Warren’s dark comment: “This movie does not end well.”

All Clear for the Mining Boom in Michigan’s UP, Unclear What That Portends

Just before the holidays I wrote a short post about the one-two punch that Michigan legislators delivered during the 2012 lame duck session. They rushed through legislation to make Michigan a “right to work” state despite widespread protests and they passed Emergency Manager Legislation in defiance of voters.

Most of the news coverage of these bills focused on the action in Lansing and effects this legislation might have in the Detroit auto industry. I wondered aloud (or at least on Twitter) what implications these bills might carry for towns and working people in the Upper Peninsula.

There’s a new mining boom underway in the region, with global giants like Rio Tinto and Orvana exploring, leasing, and re-opening old mines.

This map [pdf], put together by the Lake Superior ad hoc Mining Committee, shows all mines, mineral exploration and mineral leases in the Lake Superior Watershed as of 2010.

Mining-Activity-Lake-Superior-2011

The map merits some careful study. As you can see, there is already significant activity in the Upper Peninsula. On the Canadian side, especially around Thunder Bay and further north, there’s been a leasing boom. Lots of gold on the eastern shore; copper and nickel as you move further west. They’re also exploring for uranium in at least two places.

The new mining is going to put enormous pressure on the Lake Superior basin. There are the usual environmental hazards associated with mining — subsidence, toxic runoff, acid mine drainage. Mining puts the waterways – the Lake and the streams and rivers that feed it – at risk. And then there is the infrastructure that’s going to be built to support all those mines. Access roads and haul roads, like the proposed CR 595 in Big Bay, roads to get to those roads, gas stations to fuel the vehicles that run along those roads, housing to shelter the people who drive on those roads to get to work and haul the ore from the mines, and so on.

Governor Snyder and his cronies in the Michigan legislature are doing everything they can to encourage this new activity. Just before the holidays, the Governor signed a third lame-duck bill, addressing the taxes that mining companies operating in Michigan will pay. The new bill, brought by outgoing Republican representative Matt Huuki, relieves mining companies of up front costs.  Indeed, they will pay no taxes at all until they start pulling minerals from the ground. Even then, companies will pay only 2.75 percent on gross value of the minerals they extract. So a million dollar sale of Michigan’s mineral wealth on the copper exchange will yield the state a paltry $27,500 in taxes.

35 percent of these so-called severance taxes will go to a “rural development fund to support long-term economic development opportunities.”

A number of things aren’t clear to me. What, exactly, is meant by “economic development” here? What’s the best course of development for a rural region, and for the Lake Superior region? How will fueling the boom benefit the region over the long term? How much if any of this money will go to alleviating the environmental impact that all this new mining is bound to have? How is it possible to talk about rural development without taking responsible stewardship of the environment into account?

It’s also unclear what sort of working conditions in the new mines the “right to work” legislation might allow, and whether the Emergency Manager bill could be used to limit community oversight.

For now, at least, it looks like the big mining companies are running the show in the UP, and the vague promise of economic development — whatever that means — has trumped all else.