CFTC May Probe Other Commodities Besides Oil

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has launched an investigation into possible price manipulation in U.S. oil markets, may soon probe trading in other commodities, analysts said.

Prices for a broad range of commodities from oil to wheat, corn, soybeans and rice have soared to record highs this year -- a trend that has intensified debate over whether fundamentals or fund managers are behind the market boom.

Traders buy and sell crude oil futures contracts at the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Traders buy and sell crude oil futures contracts at the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Farm groups and food producers blame a rise in speculative trading by investment funds for added volatility, which they believe has undermined the role of futures markets in determining price and managing risk.

Last week, the CFTC, the government agency that oversees futures trading, announced an investigation into possible price manipulation and abuse in the crude oil market.

The agency started the nationwide review in December.

The CFTC is expected to announce on Tuesday a similar investigation into cotton futures trading. The cotton markets have been under close scrutiny after cotton rose to a 12-year high in early March, then fell by nearly 30 percent a few weeks later.

Corn, wheat and soybeans could be subject to CFTC examination, one agency official suggested on Monday.

As with cotton, there were complaints at a CFTC round-table in April that prices on futures markets were out of kilter with cash prices for those crops.

Chad Hart, an agricultural economist with the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University, said the price surge, along with heightened interest from Congress, would bring greater oversight in the market by the CFTC.

The current review could be extended to include wheat and corn, he said.

"We will possibly see some more investigations into commodity markets, and you will see (CFTC) at least investigate the rules as they now stand, the loopholes...that some of the large hedge funds can utilize to skirt around some of the limiting rules," said Hart. "This is a story that will not go away any time soon."

So far, CFTC officials have been reluctant to point to a "silver bullet" as the cause of the increased volatility. The CFTC has cautioned against new regulations and shifting the blame entirely on so-called speculators.

The regulatory agency's top economist told lawmakers in May the market seems to be acting appropriately, with global demand and tight supplies responsible for sending prices to record highs.

Charlie Sernatinger, a grain and soybean analyst with Fortis Clearing Americas, said he does not believe the CFTC will waver from its stance that fundamentals and not speculation are impacting the markets.

"Ultimately nobody really expects the CFTC to come up with anything particularly concrete in terms of cutting back on speculation," said Sernatinger. "There is clearly a great deal of political pressure on them right now to look like they are doing something...otherwise the politicians are going to take the power out of their hands," he said.

Congress is unlikely to enact new controls this year, according to a farm lobbyist, because of the approaching election season.