The Commondity Futures Trading Commission yesterday took the first step toward an eventual temporary suspension of dealer and London commodity options sales in the United States. The move is expected to trigger a barrage of federal suits from the companies and traders affected, agency officials said.
The five commissioners voted unanimously to direct the staff to prepare a suspension proposal and a notice for the Federal Register by the end of this week. The notice is to give the public and commodity industry 30 days in which to comment on the proposal before the CFTC takes final action.
At the crowded, open hearing, CFTC Chairman William T. Bagley stressed that neither the session nor the suspension proposal was a reaction to the recent scandal surrounding the shutdown of Lloyd, Carr & Co. and the arrest of its president, Alan Abrahams, alias James A. Carr.
Lloyd, Carr allegedly bilked customers out of $25 million to $27 million in fraudulent London commodity options sales in the past year through artificially inflated mark ups on the premiums and by "bucketing." Bucketing means pocketing the customers' funds on sales which never are executed at the exchange.
The CFTC had refused to register the firm or its principals to operate and was enmeshed in half a dozen administrative and court proceedings in the past 18 months in an attempt to put it out of business.
Yesterday Bagley said the CFTC had scheduled the session on options policy weeks ago to duscuss the second half of its proposed regulations for pilot program of trading in U.S. commodity options on exchanges here. In early 1977, the commission approved the first part of the options regulations.
National publicity and criticisms of the agency's apparent inability to cope with the widespread fraud in London options led to the commissioners to propose a temporary suspension of the London sales. The suspension would permit the agency to beef up its enforcement and investigative staffs and to minimize any negative effect the London sales scandals might have on the domestic program.
A commodity option is similar to a stock option. It gives the buyer the right to purchase a futures contract in an underlying commondity - such as sugar or silver - for a fixed price anytime before the expiration of the option. Options are purchased for a fraction of the value of the underlying commodity - the premium - which makes it an attractive investment for small, unsophisticated speculators. The profit on an options transaction is the difference between the value of the underlying futures contract at the time of the options sale and its value at expiration. Options are traded on the London Metals Exchange and the London Commodities Exchange.
CFTC and London exchange officials reportedly disagree on the value of the U.S. purchases of London options and the impact a suspension will have on the market there. Jack Gaine, general counsel of the commission, said at a press conference late yesterday that he was told "90 to 95 percent of the total volume" of London options sales originate in the U.S. While exact figures could not be obtained yesterday such a percentage would translate into excess of $200 million, according to New York brokers.
The suspension proposal approved by the commissioners was presented by Vice Chairman John V. Rainbolt II. It provides for the suspension on London and deal options sales to be lifted after at least four criteria are met. They include:
Institution of a so-called Title III program, which would creata a self-regulatory industry agency similar to the National Association of Securities Dealers to help police commodity futures and commodity options trading.
A pilot program of domestic commodity options trading on U.S. exchanges.
Implementing the remainder of the proposed options regulations which were discussed yesterday, and
Strengthening the enforcement capability of the agency.
The last item is dependent on congressional approval of the CFTC's supplemental budget request for $900,000 for the remainder of fiscal 1978, and $1.8 million for fiscal 1979 for enforcement, investigative and administrative staff on options.
The supplemental request, which CFTC officials must defend at a congressional hearing on Feb. 22, would add 50 or 60 professionals to the agency's small 450-person staff.
Bagley said the commission has 26 investigators nationwide, "about the size of the Pocatello police force at night." That figure would be doubled under the options budget. Congress turned the agency down twice last year when it asked for more money to regulate and enforce the options market, but the new request has been approved by the Office of Management and Budget and is included in the federal budget figures released by the administration Monday. The commissin made its move on the eve of its congressional reauthorization hearings. One of the reauthorization bills presented in the House last week by Sen. Walter (Dee) Huddleston (D-Ky.), would ban London commodity options sales until the CFTC could prove its capability to regulate the market.
The commissioners and staff moved gingerly yesterday as they worded their suspension proposal and provided for public notice because of fears that the feisty commodity options firms would seek a federal court order against such a ban.
As Commissioner Read P. Dunn Jr. said, the number of firms and sales-people nationwide "is quite large . . . possibly 5,000 to 10,000 salespeople. As a result, the ramifications of a suspension or ban are extensive.
The National Association of Commodity Options Dealers and individual options firms - including, at one point, Lloyd, Carr - fought the first half of the options regulations up to the Supreme Court. The agency expects a similarly long and expensive battle on the suspension.
The audience at yesterday's hearing was comprised of the presidents and chairmen of most of the nation's commodity exchanges, as well as the chairman and staff of the largest dealer option firm in the country, Mocatta Metals Inc.