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Trading With Lehman: A Commodities Update

Lehman Brothers continues to trade natural gas swaps in the US ICE market, but ICE Europe has shut them out its market for crude oil futures, a person familiar with the matter said. The CME group continues to allow them to trade agricultural futures, currencies and interest rate swaps, and on the NYMEX (which is owned by the CME group) Lehman is still permitted to trade on the NYMEX, the person said.
No one is trading on the physical markets. While several trading floors were instructed by managers to cease trading on the spot market with Lehman late last week and over the weekend, part of the lack of physical trading could be due to the effects of hurricane Ike, which is believed to be diminishing physical trading in oil today. Many Houston trading desks are operating remotely today, with traders difficult to reach by emails and phones and some offices in Houston still closed.

Commodities slumped across the board today. Most market watchers are saying that aid for the mortgage markets encouraged some investors to move money from commodities to bonds. But commodities traders had more on their minds than bonds today, as rumors of additional margin requirements made their way across trading desks via instant messaging and phone lines.
What sparked concern was a rumor that the futures exchanges or regulators—or maybe both—were considering raising margin requirements for “non commercial” commodities traders—especially non-com energy traders. Non-commercial traders speculate on the price of commodities but do not ever take delivery of the commodities. Amaranth was a non-commercial trader, while Exxon-Mobil is a commercial trader.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is charged with overseeing trading in futures contracts, does not set margin requirements. This responsibility falls on the exchanges, such as NYMEX and the CME, which are viewed as having a better, ground-level view of the market’s volatility and risks. Spokespeople for the CFTC said they had no plans to begin regulating margin requirements.
A move to increase the margin requirements for non-com traders could be aimed at diminishing price-volatility, and might reduce commodity prices. This, in turn, might be viewed as aiding a faster recovery as investment dollars would be re-directed at areas of the economy that fuel growth. What’s more, it might tamper—or at least obscure—inflation fears by reducing prices in things like oil and gold.
The exchanges rarely distinguish between commercial and non-commercial traders, however. Market watchers DealBreaker contacted were skeptical that they would put in place such a distinction now. One economist also said that the move could actually fuel volatility, at least in the short term, by obscuring efficiency-creating arbitrage in the markets.