The New York Commodity Exchange, afraid that there will not be enough silver around in March to satisfy customers demand, today placed such severe restrictions on trading silver futures that it effectively closed the market.

The Comex directors announced that "futures contracts in silver could be bought or sold on the exchange. The announcement came after a four-hour meeting during which silver trading was suspended.

Traders will be limited to "liquidating" their current position.

Comex insiders said the directors felt forced to make the move because of small groups of speculators apparently have bought large numbers of contracts and plan to take delivery of the metal when the contracts fall due.

"There's just not enough silver around," said Charles R. Stahl, president of the Economics News Agency. There are contracts outstanding requiring delivery of about 100 million ounces of silver in March, he said, and only 77 million ounces in Comex's warehouses. Of that 77 million, only 20 to 22 million ounces is deliverable.

The rest of the 77 million ounces is owned by the very speculators who are likely to demand delivery in March, Stahl said.

Texas oil magnate Nelson Bunker Hunt has been pinpointed by many silver market participants as one of those who has amassed a large holding of silver contracts.

But other insiders say that the same Arab interests that have been driving up the gold price in recent months have amassed much bigger positions than has Hunt or anyone else in his family.

"Hunt has behaved like a gentleman," said one major metals broker. "He owns a lot of silver, but he bought most of it years ago. He owns a lot of contracts but he keeps selling them. He does not try to embarrass the contract by requiring delivery."

The fact is, however, that no one knows for sure who the major participants are in the futures markets.

Robert Wilmouth, president of the Chicago Board of Trade -- the other silver futures trading floor in the United States -- said the COBT board will meet Tuesday morning to see what action it should take.

Chicago apparently does not have the "deliverability" problem that the Comex faces, but analysts say the problem could develop there quickly as trading shifts from New York to the Chicago Board of Trade.

Analysts said that the Comex move could spell the eventual death of much of the futures trading in metals in the United States, especially if Chicago finds itself forced to move in the same direction as New York.

Furthermore, the move -- if prolonged -- could spell the death of the commodity exchange here, which calls itself the world's largest metals exchange. About 40 percent of the Comex business is in silver. The rest is in gold and copper plus a fledgling market in financial futures.

When trading in silver was reopened on the Comex, the cash price was $46 an ounce. In the March contract, the price rose to $41.

In other developments, the price of gold continued to rise, although it fell back from its European highs in late London trading and in New York (on the Commodity Exchange).Gold closed in New York at $826 an ounce, up $16. In London, the afternoon fixing was $850, although in late trading it fell back to about $838.

The dollar, meanwhile, continued strong despite the runup in the precious metals. It gained against most European currencies.

But the desperate Comex action -- it has taken many steps in the last few weeks to try to stop the "lock" that big silver futures buyers have been putting on the market -- shifted the spotlight from rampaging gold prices to silver.

The problem in the silver markets, according to metal expert James Sinclair, is that the market is becoming a physical market -- one in which participants want to take delivery of the metal -- instead of a hedging market. p

In recent history, participants in the world's futures markets -- be they grain, metals or livestocks -- have not been interested in either delivering the product they promise to deliver or taking delivery of the product they promised to buy at the expiration of the contract.

Instead, buyers of the commodities such as millers who need grain or film manufacturers who need silver purchase "long" contracts requiring delivery at a specified price merely to lock in that price. Speculators, who sell "short" contracts, promise to make the delivery at a certain price in the future.

For the first 100 contracts a customer holds, he must put down $40,000 (up from $10,000). The next 150 cost $50,000 (up from $20,000) and anything above 250 requires a $60,000 per contract margin (up from $30,000).

Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith -- the nation's largest broker -- said today it would no longer deal in metals futures. Other big brokers are also discouraging customers from speculating in metals futures and many have adopted policies like Merrill's.

In the foreign exchange markets, where trading was light, the dollar gained against major currencies. It closed at 1.7283 West German marks, up from 1.7220. In Switzerland the dollar was worth 1.600 francs, up from 1.5890. The British pound closed at $2.2830, compared with $2.2852 Friday, while the dollar could buy 240.95 yen today compared with 239.55 on Friday.