Silver soars past $30 as WallStreetBets crowd piles in

Futures prices jump 13 per cent to their highest in eight years on commodities exchanges

FILE - In this file photo dated Wednesday, May 9, 2007, Silver bullion, bars weighing five kilograms each, are displayed in the trading room of the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany.  Silver futures jumped more than 10% on Monday Feb. 1, 2021, following strong gains over the weekend.(AP Photo/Michael Probst, FILE)
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Silver broke above $30 an ounce as the precious metal took centre stage in the retail investor frenzy sweeping through markets.

The most active futures contracts jumped as much as 13 per cent to $30.35 an ounce on the Comex, the highest in eight years. That followed a weekend buying binge that overwhelmed online sellers of silver coins and bars from the US to Australia. BlackRock’s iShares Silver Trust (SLV), the largest exchange-traded product tracking the metal, recorded an unprecedented $944 million net inflow on Friday.

Like the buying stampede in GameStop and other small-cap stocks that has captivated the financial world in recent weeks, silver’s advance can be traced to Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum. One post last week declared the metal “THE BIGGEST SHORT IN THE WORLD” and encouraged traders to pile into the iShares trust as a way to stick it to big banks.

Yet silver differs in important ways from stocks like GameStop. For one, the scope for a short squeeze in silver is far less obvious: money managers have had a net-long position on the metal since mid-2019, futures and options data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission show.

The market for silver is also by some measures much deeper than those for smaller stocks like GameStop. The bricks-and-mortar video game retailer had a market capitalisation of about $1.4 billion in mid-January, before the Reddit frenzy sent the company’s value soaring more than 16-fold. By contrast, London vaults held 1.08 billion ounces of silver at the end of November, according to LBMA data. That’s worth almost $32 billion at current prices.

What’s more, it’s unclear how long retail investors will stick to the silver trade. Already some prominent members of the WallStreetBets forum have advised against it, with some noting that Ken Griffin’s Citadel Advisors, a favorite bogeyman of the Reddit crowd, is listed as one of the biggest shareholders of the iShares silver trust.

Whether or not the rally fizzles, it could have ramifications beyond what has typically been a relatively niche corner of the commodities world. As the first high-profile target of the retail frenzy to start trading on Monday, silver may help set the tone this week for managers trying to gauge how Reddit-fuelled volatility will affect their risk models and potentially cascade from one asset to the next.

“Last week’s events have shown it to be unwise to doubt the purchasing power of retail investors, and this has been sufficiently demonstrated again on the silver market,” Howie Lee, an economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, said.

“They may find it a bit harder to squeeze the silver market than they did with GameStop – the former is much bigger and more liquid – but the momentum looks like it rests with them at the moment.”

Early trading pointed to more gains for SLV on Monday. The ETF was up 7.6 per cent at 7.54pm UAE time in New York on Monday.

Futures were trading 7 per cent higher on the Comex, after rising more than 5 per cent last week. Spot silver climbed to as high as $30.1003 an ounce, before falling back to $28.51. Other precious metals also advanced.

The buying frenzy also fed into mining shares. Mexican silver miner Fresnillo surged as much as 21 per cent in London trading. China Silver Group rose as much as 63 per cent in Hong Kong, while Australia’s Silver Mines gained as much as 49 per cent.

The calls to buy silver began appearing on WallStreetBets as early as Wednesday, when the mania surrounding GameStop reached a fever pitch. Some of the posts touched on a similar David versus Goliath theme that has inspired individual investors to take on short-selling hedge funds: “Any short squeeze in silver paper shorts would be EPIC. We know billion (sic) banks are manipulating gold and silver to cover real inflation.”

But that narrative isn’t as straightforward as the one surrounding GameStop, one of the most-shorted stocks in the US before it began surging this month.

Silver has performed well over the past year, rallying more than 60 per cent on a weaker dollar and hopes for an end to the pandemic. It has also attracted bullish commentary from some of the biggest Wall Street banks. Goldman Sachs Group described silver as the “preferred precious metal” in a January 27 research note that had a price target of $30 an ounce. Net-bullish bets by money managers rose to a three-week high in the week to January 26, according to CFTC data compiled by Bloomberg.

Short-term forward rates on the London silver market flattened on Monday, indicating strong demand for the metal in coming weeks.

“I can envisage a scenario where maybe a hedge fund has purchased maybe a short-term tactical long position, so the upside could be a combination of several factors now,” said Philip Newman, managing director at consultancy Metals Focus.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some retail investors from piling in. By Sunday, sellers of physical silver including Apmex – often called the Walmart of precious metals products in North America – said they were unable to process orders until Asian markets opened because of record demand. “It’s been nuts,” said John Feeney, business development manager at Guardian Vaults in Sydney.

Ken Lewis, Apmex’s chief executive, said the decision to temporarily suspend silver sales was unprecedented in the company’s history and that it may take longer then usual to fill orders going forward.

“As we evaluate the markets, it is difficult to know where silver’s price and demand will go in the coming day and weeks,” Mr Lewis said, adding that his firm is “locking up any metal we can find in the marketplace”.