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Online Traders Cause Silver Surge, Regulators Keep Watch

Tom Burroughes

2 February 2021

(Updated with fresh price action, adds Singapore regulator's comments.)

Social media traders who last week prompted big swings in the share price of US games retailer GameStop – hitting short-sellers in the process – have turned fire on silver, triggering a sharp rise in the precious metal. 

In New York, futures prices for the metal settled at their highest point in eight years (source: Wall Street Journal, 1 February). The most actively traded futures gained 9.3 per cent to $29.42 a troy ounce, the highest for almost eight years, and briefly went over $30 at one point. Analysts have noted that earlier attempts to corner the silver market have led to crashes, and that this is a notoriously volatile commodity. In overnight trading,  prices subsequently fell by 1.96 per cent after the CME Group hiked trading margins by about 17.9 per cent on silver futures contracts. The exchange said that the decision was based on “the normal review of market volatility to ensure adequate collateral coverage.” (Source: Deutsche Bank).

The extraordinary market moves of recent days have prompted the main US financial regulator and UK watchdog to warn about consequences for retail investors. The , the US hedge fund that was hit hard by the soaring stock prices of heavily shorted stocks, reportedly lost 53 per cent on its investments in January (source: WSJ, 31 January, quoting unnamed sources).

In a 29 January statement, the  said: “Buying shares in volatile markets is risky and you may quickly lose money. These losses are unlikely to be covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Broking firms are not obliged to offer trading facilities to clients. They may withdraw their services, in line with customer terms and conditions if, for instance, they consider it necessary or prudent to do so. Firms are exposed to greater risk and therefore more likely to need to take such action during periods of abnormally high transaction volumes and price volatility.”

“We will of course take appropriate action wherever we see evidence of firms or individuals causing harm to consumers or markets,” it added. 

Singapore's MAS said yesterday: "The public should be aware that certain individuals may exploit this interest for their own benefit through “pump and dump” activities that can amount to market misconduct under the Securities and Futures Act."

Comments on the silver market began circulating on Reddit forums last week, reports said. One comment read that the “Silver Bullion Market is one of the most manipulated on earth. Any short squeeze in silver paper shorts would be EPIC.” Another post on the forum stated that “inflation-adjusted silver should be at $1000 instead of $25. Why not squeeze $SLV to the real physical price. Think about the Gainz. If you don’t care about the gains, think about the banks like JP Morgan you’d be destroying along the way.” (Source: Daily FX).

Adrian Ash, research director BullionVault, said: “We've seen people try to corner the market in silver before, but the size and speed of the Reddit Ramp is off the charts for silver. The billionaire Hunt brothers took a decade to build their position in the 1970s, and Warren Buffett built his mid-1990s' holdings over a couple of months. Both helped drive the price higher, but nothing like as fast as the 'hive mind' of Reddit has spiked silver 20 per cent since Wednesday night , an alternative investments advisory firm, said. 

“We don’t think this is a one off but rather something that has been going on for a while now to different degrees. This is clearly creating unwanted volatility for managers, especially market neutral and fundamental strategies, as companies with questionable fundamentals are suddenly rallying and this is leading to dislocations in portfolios. Eventually fundamentals should prevail but in the meantime this can lead to losses for managers despite them being correct in their analysis,” he said. 

“Understanding flows, and retail investor behaviour, has become very important in this environment and has led to sometimes significant distortions in equity prices. It feels like some of these platforms have in effect turned parts of the markets into a version of legalised gambling, with retail investors that are stuck at home due to the pandemic passing their time by playing the markets,” Ghali said. 

“Fundamentals should win out in the end, but nobody can predict how long this may take and in the meantime this can certainly force managers to close out positions due to unforeseen losses. Low liquidity stocks are obviously more vulnerable to such moves,” he continued. 

“It has already started to spread to Asia though to a smaller extent. I think there are a couple of points to remember. Firstly, company fundamentals will have to prevail in the end. A company that isn’t making money isn’t going to make money just because the valuation increases. Secondly, it is too simplistic to look at hedge funds as this Goliath you want to attack. People should remember that many hedge funds manage investments for public and other pensions etc, and so attacking them means that ordinary people will suffer losses in their pensions etc. Hardly a noble goal,” he added.