May 12, 2011 8:28 pm

Silver price swings led by Shanghai trades

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Chinese speculators have emerged as a big driver of silver’s spectacular rally and subsequent crash with trading in the metal in Shanghai soaring nearly 30-fold since the start of the year.

The commodity, nicknamed “the devil’s metal” for its wild price swings, surged 175 per cent from August to a peak of almost $50 a troy ounce two weeks ago. Since then, it has plummeted 35 per cent, hitting a low of $32.33 on Thursday.

At the same time, silver turnover on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, China’s main precious metals trading hub spiked, rising 2,837 per cent from the start of this year to a peak of 70m ounces on April 26, according to exchange data.

The number of contracts outstanding, an indicator of investor exposure, doubled over the same period.

Edel Tully, precious metals strategist at UBS, said Chinese investors were “one big factor behind silver’s rally, particularly in April”.

The surge in silver prices has attracted investors the world over, from China and India to the US, where the metal has become the investment of choice for Americans distrustful of the actions of the government and central bank. Silver’s stunning rise has inspired a rash of conspiracy theories as investors and analysts struggle to explain the speed and scale of the rally.

Silver trading in Shanghai remains below the levels in London and New York, the two main global hubs, but its rapid growth means its has become increasingly significant in driving prices, bankers said. Turnover in New York silver futures, the most liquid futures contract in the metal, averaged about 700m ounces a day in April.

“I’m pretty certain it’s the Chinese retail [investment] that is driving this move,” one senior precious metals banker said. “There’s an enormous amount of speculation going on out there, they’ve got the bit between their teeth.”

Ms Tully said Chinese investors cut their positions in silver sharply last week as prices tumbled, before returning to the market early this week and driving a short-lived rebound in prices. “No less than during silver’s swift ascent, [Chinese] agency was very evident in its tumbling descent.”

Whether Chinese buying continues “will be a major determinant of whether silver can finally take out $50”, she added.

Silver’s collapse last week began a rout that sent global commodities’ prices 10 per cent lower, raising concerns that a two-year boom may be over.

Ivan Glasenberg, chief executive of Glencore, the commodity trader that plans to float this month, dismissed the drop as “froth” being flushed out of the market, saying that supply and demand fundamentals remained strong.

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