If anyone in Congress thought the way to find out what went wrong in the silver market last year was to assign four federal agencies to study the question, the report that landed on their desks this week ought to convince them otherwise.
The 500-page, multiagency study is not the final word on silver.
The federal regulators who know the most about the topic aren't showing Congress their best stuff.
The report "does not address the legal issues of whether any person or group of persons manipulated or attempted to manipulate the price of silver or cornered or attempted to corner silver," the Commodity Futures Trading Commission stressed in its letter sent with the report.
"Possible violations of the law are being considered in the separate and ongoing enforcement investigations" by the CFTC and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
For more than a year, both agencies have been pursuing the billionaire Hunt clan of Texas and their cohorts in the silver business.
The SEC and CFTC have developed vastly different theories of what laws may have been violated, but none of this has been communicated to Congress, which probably ought to know what its watchdogs are doing.
The SEC's thesis seems to be that banks and brokers who dealt with the Hunts betrayed their obligations to shareholders and other customers by not disclosing the risk of their silver transactions.
Reading between the lines of the silver study suggests the CFTC is coming closer to the heart of the matter. There are hints of violations of reporting rules, use of foreign fronts to avoid disclosing holdings and inklings of a conspiracy to corner the market.
The decision to withhold results of the year-long regulatory probe from Congress strongly suggests the CFTC and SEC are confident they have cases they can make stick in court. Otherwise it would be far easier to use a privileged communication to Congress to discuss activities that may be improper but are not necessarily illegal.
But because neither agency wants to ruin its case, their supposedly joint report to Congress ducks the single most important question to be asked about the events that led to Silver Thursday (March 27, 1980) when the price of the metal hit bottom at $10.80 after plunging from $50 an ounce.
Whether this really is a joint study is another big issue raised by the report.
The CFTC staff wrote it and all four commodity commissions members approved it -- albeit with the disclaimer that the findings "will not necessarily represent the view of each individual commissioner.
Ever since Congress ordered the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury and SEC to help out the CFTC on the silver study, the four agencies have disagreed about what went wrong and what ought to be done. "Some differences among and within the agencies remain," the CFTC concedes in a classic understatement.
The report had barely even hit the Hill last Friday when the SEC sent Congress its own letter disavowing responsibility for much of the silver study and specifically rejecting some of the CFTC's conclusions.
The SEC said it had nothing to do with writing the central sections about silver-market activities, noting that its won investigation "may not support, and in fact may be inconsistent with," the CFTC's conclusions.
The securities agency also argues that the federal government ought to have control over setting the margins, or down payments, on commodity futures contracts, an approach specifically rejected by the CFTC.
More important, however, the SEC challenges the CFTC's assessment of the actions taken by the commodity exchanges back in late 1979 and early 1980 when silver prices were going up.
After the question of whether the Hunts and others were out to corner the market, the second major issue raised by the silver crisis was whether members of the boards of the two big silver markets lined their own pockets by changing the rules of the game.
The charge has been made repeatedly by the Hunts and in lawsuits filed against the board of the Commodity Exchange Inc. in New York and the Chicago Board of Trade.
"The study group did not uncover evidence to support the claims that Comex or CBOT rule-change actions were implemented out of self-interest," the CFTC-drafted study says.
The phrase "study group" apparently does not include the SEC, for that agency now says "we believe that the exchanges' action may have been a significant factor in the decline in the silver market."
"The commission believes that additional study of the significance of the exchanges' actions may be appropriate in order to fully understand the causes of the silver crisis," the SEC says, in effect reopening the issue the report was supposed to close.
The gulf between the commodity and security regulators widens when it comes to the second issue covered in the joint study -- the rapid expansion of trading in what are called "financial futures."
Just as silver futures contracts are agreements for future delivery of silver bars, financial futures are contracts covering Treasury bills and bonds, mortgages, foriegn currencies and other financial instruments.
Because questions about trade in these unconventional commodity contracts were raised about the same time as the silver fracas, Congress ordered all four agencies to study that issue as well.
The SEC opted out, justifying its action by saying "it would not be possible to achieve consensus on the difficult issues associated with the financial futures area by June 1," the deadline set for the report.
What that really means is that the SEC is doing its own study and the two agencies probably never will agree on how to regulate this field. Those who have seen the SEC's early drafts say that agency is far more concerned about corruption, manipulation and abuse of financial futures than the CFTC.
The whole silver study turns out to reveal a lot more about the differences between the regulatory approaches of the CFTC and SEC than it adds to what's already known about the collapse of the silver market.
When the two agencies finally complete the enforcement investigations so conspicuously missing from the report, Congress may be better able to judge which regulator is doing the better job and what ought to be done to protect the nation's financial markets from another silver crisis.