The U.S. CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) announced on January 14th that it was going to investigate trading in the gold and silver markets. This follows the commission's high profile hearings on speculation in the oil and natural gas markets held in the summer of 2009. Those led to the demise of the popular ETF, DXO, and caused the natural gas ETF UNG to trade so irregularly that it no longer behaved like an ETF. Both of these were investment vehicles for the small investor. Big-time speculators went on their merry way untouched and unscathed by the CFTC's action that was supposedly aimed at protecting the public. Anyone who was the least bit cynical might conclude that the CFTC's actual purpose was to protect the profits of the large commercial users of the commodities it regulates.
The CFTC efforts in investing oil and natural gas were in reality a thinly veiled attempt at price controls. Governments almost without exception resort to price controls when inflation becomes a threat. Price controls are of course extremely effective - not in controlling prices, but in creating shortages and driving prices much higher than they would have been if controls hadn't been implemented. Governments never learn, however. In the short-term, the CFTC managed to drive natural gas prices to the low levels that were common in the 1990s. Natural gas was already trading at multi-year lows before the CFTC investigations and half of all natural gas rigs in the U.S. had already been shut down. The impact on natural gas was only collateral damage though from the CFTC's real target, which was oil.
Nothing has a greater impact on consumer prices than does oil and governments know that controlling its price is one of the keys to controlling inflation. Around the same time that the U.S. CFTC announced its hearings, the prime minister of England, Gordon Brown, and the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy made a joint proposal that an international body of government bureaucrats should set the price of oil instead of the free markets. They suggested the price should be kept in the $70 to $80 range. For those who don't recall, Gordon Brown was the British government bureaucrat that sold half the UK's gold for under $300 in 1999 and the early 2000s. Gold has since quadrupled from the price where he sold it, so the UK didn't get that profit. The U.S. dollars that Brown bought from the gold sale then subsequently lost at least 30% of their value. This is the type of market 'genius' that government brings to the table. Would you like to let a government bureaucrat make investing decisions for your 401K?
The CFTC has more ability to impact oil and natural gas than it does gold and silver. ETFs that deal with energy commodities have to do so through some type of futures trading. Oil and natural gas cannot be easily stored as is the case with gold and silver. While there are ETFs for both gold and silver that only trade futures, there are 11 ETFs globally that buy physical gold. None of them store that gold in the United States. They are beyond the reach of the CFTC and the claws of the U.S. government, which for those who don't remember confiscated all of its citizens gold in 1933 and silver in 1934. In aggregate, the gold ETFs have become the sixth largest holder of gold worldwide since the first one was created in March 2003. They hold more gold than China, but less gold than France. In several more years, they could easily have more gold in storage than any central bank.
Both oil and gold are completely international commodities (natural gas trades in regional markets). If regulation becomes too onerous in the United States, trading can and will shift elsewhere, just as trading in ETFs will shift from those that invest with futures to those that hold physical metal. When the CFTC made its announcement that it would be investigating gold and silver trading, the London Metal Exchange said it would offer clearing for gold over-the-counter (OTC) contracts in London by the second half of 2010. Hong Kong, Singapore, Zurich, Sydney, Tokyo and Mumbai would probably like to have the trading business too if it leaves the U.S. commodity markets.
The CFTC's action is just another government- motivated attempt to prop up the U.S. dollar by trying to hold the price of gold down. It won't work. The CFTC doesn't have the power to make it happen. Prices will eventually have to move to the point that the market dictates, just as they always do.
Disclosure: Long gold and silver