As the December 2010 COMEX silver contracts approached maturity, a higher than normal number of contracts were not closed out before the first day of notice for delivery. In theory, potentially all of these open contracts could have ended up being called for delivery. While a number of short sellers absorbed their losses by purchasing an offsetting long contract, the amount of silver that was needed for physical delivery did stress available COMEX inventories.
As a result, in November and December 2010 the price of silver jumped more than 30%.
This same pattern looks like it will repeat for the maturing March 2011 COMEX silver contracts. This time, however, the potential supply squeeze is much larger.
February 28 is the first day of notice for delivery of the March contracts. Normally, parties not wanting delivery would have closed out their contract long before then. At the COMEX close on February 22, there were still 50,848 open March 2011 silver contracts, representing a potential liability to deliver 254.24 million ounces of silver by the end of March. The COMEX registered silver inventories available to cover deliveries totaled only 41.91 million ounces. Even including customer inventories that are stored at the COMEX, which are only eligible to deliver against COMEX contracts if the owners so choose (and most do not), the total is only 102.35 million ounces.
During COMEX trading hours on February 22, there were 124,000 March 2011 silver contracts traded—almost 2-1/2 times the number of open contracts! This is almost unprecedented volatility!
Here’s what I suspect happened to cause such a huge trading volume that day. The price of silver had been rising significantly for the past several trading days, reaching successive 31-year high price records (ignoring inflation). The US markets were closed on February 21 for Presidents’ Day. In trading in Asian and European markets early on February 22, the price of silver passed $34.00. If this price were maintained, then a large number of short sellers would get margin calls when the COMEX market opened on February 22. That could have forced leveraged short sellers to put up additional cash, physical silver, or to buy long contracts to close out their short positions. Any of these actions would likely have the effect of pushing silver prices up even higher.
It appears that a massive effort was mounted to drive drown COMEX silver prices on February 22 in order to avoid or reduce the margin calls to leveraged short sellers. This strategy was successful to a degree in that the price of silver dropped to just below $33.00 at one point on the COMEX. The temporary drop encouraged some owners of long positions to liquidate and take profits, further helping to push the price down.
However, the price suppression effort was not successful at pushing down the silver price below the February 18 COMEX close. Once it became clear that the manipulation was losing steam, buyers jumped back into the market on February 23. During COMEX trading hours, the price of silver reached as high as $33.75. Trading was extremely volatile, with 1% swings up and down occurring within a matter of minutes.
Several hedge funds, seeing how easy it was to make a short-term profit in silver squeezing COMEX short sellers last November and December, are likely to repeat the tactic with the maturing March contracts—but on a greater scale.
If the price of silver from now through the end of March were to rise by 30% again, that would put the price around $43. But, if there is a larger supply squeeze underway, the price could go much higher.
Already we are seeing several physical silver wholesalers using a two-tier silver spot price system. If you want to sell to them, they are using spot prices derived from COMEX and other markets. On the other side, if you wish to purchase physical metals from them, they are quoting a selling spot price that is 5-10 cents higher than their buying spot price.
The mainstream media is reporting that stock market prices and most commodities (with the exception of gold) fell on February 22 as a result of concerns about unrest in countries in the Middle East and North Africa that could lead to reduced supplies of petroleum. The unrest is sparked in part by soaring food prices (which the US government pretends is not occurring) in addition to political factors. But this news does not give you a clear picture of what is really going on in the silver (and gold) markets.
Expect both gold and silver prices to become much more volatile in the coming weeks. Don’t be surprised if silver prices move across a $2-3 range within a 24-hour period. In the past week, our company has enjoyed a significant increase in demand for physical silver. Thus far we have been able to make immediate or short-term delivery of most forms of silver. That could change quickly. At last report, the Perth Mint was telling buyers that they would have to wait until at least April to receive delivery of newly manufactured silver ingots.
Even though silver prices are now near 31-year highs and gold is near its highest prices ever, I still consider both of them to be at bargain levels compared to what I expect to see by the end of March. Silver will outperform gold, but both will do well versus the US dollar and all currencies.
Patrick A. Heller owns Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Michigan and writes “Liberty’s Outlook,” a monthly newsletter covering rare coins and precious metals. Past issues can be found online at http://www.libertycoinservice.com/ Pat Heller is also the gold market commentator for Numismatic News. Past columns online at http://numismaster.com/ under “News & Articles”. His bimonthly columns on collectibles can also be read at http://www.lansingbusinessmonthly.com under “Articles” and “Department Columns.”His radio show “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 AM Wednesday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at http://www.1320wils.com.