Dave Kocieniewski’s corker in yesterday’s Times is just a gorgeous piece of work, as an investigation, a piece of writing, and as a window onto the sad state of our financialized economy and collapsed regulatory regime.
It’s, like, nice. [UPDATE: But not, like, first to the topic. See my note below.]
The piece has something for everyone suffering from Wall Street scandal deprivation—it’s been months since Libor—and those curious about what investment banks are doing these days now that the blood funnel has finished with lower-middle class homeowners. Here is a star-studded cast of conflicted self-regulators (check); round-heeled government regulators (take a bow, Federal Reserve), a goodbye present from Mary L. Schapiro, and Pinteresque comic relief from forklift operators whose job it was uselessly to shuffle aluminum from one Goldman warehouse to another.
As Kocieniewski reveals, ever since Goldman Sachs bought a Detroit area warehouse company, one of the country’s largest storers of aluminum three year ago, the waiting time for delivery of the metal has soared 20 fold, from six weeks to 16 months. The delays add a soupcon of extra cost—an estimated $5 billion total, to everything from cars to cans of Coke—while helping Goldman to boost materially its commodities profits. Storage cost, apparently, is a major component of the premium added to the price of all aluminum sold on the spot market, so, the Times says, the delays mean higher prices for nearly everyone. The delay also just adds rent that Goldman can charge companies, those that actually make something, including Coca-Cola itself, which duly complained to the industry’s conflicted self regulator, the London Metals Exchange, owned by members of the exchange, including, Citigroup, Barclays, and yes, Goldman itself. Adding an element of the surreal to this rentier’s dream, industry rules require at least 3,000 of the 1.5 million tons of the metal sitting in Goldman’s warehouse to be moved each day. But instead of moving it to customers, it’s moved back-and-forth between warehouses.
None of this is possible without government help. The Federal Reserve lifted a sensible ban on bank holding companies from owning physical commodity trading assets; then Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Schapiro, on her way through the revolving door, granted the firm permission to start a similar business in copper.
The story has a source that confirmed that the slowdown in aluminum shipments is intentional and part of the business model.
Metro International, which declined to comment for this article, in the past has attributed the delays to logistical problems, including a shortage of trucks and forklift drivers, and the administrative complications of tracking so much metal. But interviews with several current and former Metro employees, as well as someone with direct knowledge of the company’s business plan, suggest the longer waiting times are part of the company’s strategy and help Goldman increase its profits from the warehouses.
There are other clues that suggest this is a direct hit by the Times against the bank.
First, the new owners of the exchange, which was sold last year, have already proposed new rules intended to reduce the bottlenecks at Metro. Second, even that round-heeled regulator, the Fed, says it is “reviewing” its 2003 finding that “certain commodity activities are complementary to financial activities and thus permissible for bank holding companies.”
And third, despite having said in Securities and Exchange Commission filings it would do for copper what it did for aluminum, Goldman tells the Times it has now changed its mind, and did so on Saturday, the day before the story ran, and without offering any particular reason.
In filings with the SEC, Goldman has said it plans by early next year to store copper in the same Detroit-area warehouses where it now stockpiles aluminum. On Saturday, however, Michael DuVally, a Goldman spokesman, said the company had decided not to participate in the copper venture, though it had not disclosed that publicly. He declined to elaborate.
The supine Goldman response speaks volumes.
Credit where it’s due: This piece is one of a string of big-foot investigative work done by the Times that has probed some of the world’s most powerful corporations and done so squarely with agenda-changing stories. Among the work that comes to mind are David Barstow’s WalMart bribery stunner last year, a classic (Pulitzer-winning) investigative work in any era; the Foxconn story, also last year, by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza; Kocieniewski’s (also) Pulitzer winning GE tax story the year before.
While we’re on the subject of Goldman, it was the Times that broke the news during the throes of the crisis that the AIG bailout was essentially a pass-through to Wall Street firms, especially Goldman, as well as, in 2010, that it helped create the designed-to-fail Abacus housing CDO.
It’s not that other news organizations aren’t doing blockbusters. The WSJ’s Matt Day had a fine piece in April about two firms amassing big chunks of the copper business. But the NYT’s are a cut above. Whatever else is going on over there, somebody is doing something right.
The most promising thing about the Times’s Goldman piece may be that it’s the first in a series, the “House Edge,” on Wall Street and consumer prices.
[UPDATE: As hinted at, Reuters, I learn, published a 2,600-word piece on Goldman’s grip on the aluminum storage business back in July 2011. The story, by Pratima Desai, Clare Baldwin, Susan Thomas, and Melanie Burton, is very good and includes many, but certainly not all, of the major elements of the Times story. Among them: that since Goldman had acquired the Detroit-area warehouse business, a shipping bottleneck had developed; and that the “spike” in prices had led to clashes between aluminum buyers, Goldman, and the London exchange. The piece also raises the potential conflict between Goldman’s role as a handler of physical assets and as a commodities trader that could benefit from knowledge gained from its operational role.
Having said all that, the Times story adds several new, important elements. Among those: the government’s regulatory laxity, the London exchange’s conflict, the estimated dollar cost to consumers, the complaint by Coke, and so on. But really, the key to the Times story is the forklift follies, the metal-shuffling of the lead anecdote, which illustrates the absurdity, and wastefulness, of the arrangement and elevates the story to another level. Finally, and there’s a lesson here, the Times piece is framed less as a business conflict and more as a matter of wider public concern. Should the Times have nodded to the Reuters story? It would have been nice, yes.The important thing is that the Times did the story, even if someone got to the subject first, and did it well.]