Silver price manipulation case narrows in on JPMorgan; drops HSBC for now

The media tends to brush off reports of manipulation in the silver market. Hopefully, this lawsuit will change that.

A new wrinkle in the silver price manipulation lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) has dropped the spotlight off HSBC Holdings PLC (NYSE:HBC) for now. The fresh lawsuit amendment, which was filed last Tuesday, now names JPMorgan as the sole defendant in the case (per the Wall Street Journal).

Here’s what we know: a lawsuit filed by individual silver investors alleged that JPMorgan and HSBC amassed massive short positions in silver futures between 2008 and 2010, then reaped the rewards as silver prices declined in the face of the large short positions. The new move drops allegations against HSBC, as investors have entered into a tolling agreement with the London bank.

Tolling agreements give both sides in the case time to negotiate a settlement. Should those talks crumble, HSBC could be re-added to the lawsuit. A tolling agreement certainly isn’t an admission of guilt on HSBC’s part, but it’s a clear signal that they don’t want to go to trial (perhaps to avoid the massive legal fees, the bad press, or because they fear they’d be on the losing side of the case). What bothers me about the agreement is the fact that we may never know whether HSBC was truly involved in attempting to manipulate the price of silver – especially if JPMorgan enters into a similar agreement in the future.

New numbers in the amended lawsuit allege that JPMorgan’s shorts pushed silver prices down 12 percent in a single day – a move that, if true, made the bank $220 million.

All told, more than 43 separate silver price manipulation lawsuits were filed against JPMorgan and HSBC (per Reuters). Those lawsuits were eventually combined into a class action lawsuit.

“The complaint alleges that HSBC and J.P. Morgan made large, coordinated trades, among other things, to artificially lower the price of silver at key times when the precious metal should have been trading at higher levels,” the law firm Girard Gibbs LLP writes on its web site. “By depressing the price of silver, the class action alleges that the defendants made substantial illegal profits while harming investors and restraining competition in the COMEX silver futures market.”

Due to it’s small size and relative lack of liquidity, the silver market has often been the target of price manipulation (see my post Silver Thursday, the Hunt Brothers, and the collapse of a precious metal for more). But there’s also a tendency for the media to brush off reports of manipulation in any markets – particularly emotionally-charged markets like precious metals. This lawsuit could help bring visibility to a problem that’s lost a lot of money for a lot of people. Let’s just hope it makes it to trial.

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