The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is expected to vote today in favor of a suspension of commodity options sales.
That action is expected to trigger the filing of a number of federal lawsuits to block the suspension - by the National Association of Commodity Option Dealers, Mocatta Metals Corp., and individual option firms.
The CFTC suspension vote had been expected yesterday, but the single decision made in a two-and-a-half-hour session was to defer the vote until this afternoon.
Congress, state law enforcement officials and other CFTC critics have brought pressure on the commission to take drastic action to curb the allegedly widespread fraud in London options sales in the wake of such scandals as the Lloyd, Carr & Co. case. Alan Abrahams, alias James Carr, allegedly bilked the public out of $50 million over two years through deceptive, high-pressure, boiler-room sales of options.
An option is a contract to buy a futures contract date for the price agreed on at the time of the option sale. Options attract small, unsophisticated investors because of their promise of windfall profits for a relatively minor "premium," which is only a fraction of the value of the underlying contract.
During the rambling, protracted exchanges between the five commissioners and the agency's top staff, CFTC Chairman William T. Bagley commented, "I understand, although I have not taken a poll, there are five votes for a suspension here and that we will likely take that vote tomorrow afternoon."
The commissioners, however, appeared extremely reluctant to discuss their position on the issue at the open meeting. Instead, they each drew the staff into involved discussions about options regulation and enforcement, customer protection and the possibility of exempting so-called "trade" and "dealer" options from the suspension.
Leading staff members were unanimous in their support of a suspension when questioned by Bagley and Vice Chairman John V. Rainbolt II. But Terry Claassen, director of the division of trading and markets, said, "I have my own doubts about the utility of this suspension. '60 Minutes' (a CBS-TV program which ran a segment on options fraud) and (U.S. District) Judge (Noel) Fox took care of the options problem for us . . ."
Claassen said he would support the suspension, but only because it would be several months before the pilot program of exchange-traded domestic options could be implemented. That program is expected to reduce fraud and improve regulation and enforcement because the exchanges as well as the CFTC will be overseeing the trading.
Claassen also vented some frustration about the commission's enforcement problems with London options dealers. "One of our greatest failures was not to have jumped at a time when we had simpler violations looking us in the face . . . problems with books and records, capitalization, segregation of funds . . . But because it would have looked sexy to have some fraud thrown in, we waited and we found ourselves in the mud," Claassen said.
Bagley proposed granting an exemption to dealer options, a sector of the market which has not been involved in the boiler-room, high pressure sales and fraud that has marked London options sales.