Silver spikes as retail investors swarm their biggest target yet

Silver broke above USD 30 an ounce as the precious metal took center stage in the retail investor frenzy sweeping through markets, fueling a debate over the power of Reddit-inspired speculators to take on ever-bigger targets.

Silver bars | Photo: MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS / X90041

Most-active futures jumped as much as 13 percent to USD 30.35 an ounce on the Comex, after a weekend buying binge that overwhelmed online sellers of silver coins and bars from the U.S. to Australia. BlackRock Inc.’s iShares Silver Trust, the largest exchange-traded product tracking the metal, recorded an unprecedented $944 million net inflow on Friday.

Like the buying stampede in GameStop Corp. 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 capitalization of about USD 1.4 billion in mid-January, before the Reddit frenzy sent the company’s value soaring more than 16-fold. By contrast, the value of silver sitting in vaults in London is alone worth about USD 48 billion.

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 LLC, 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-fueled volatility will impact their risk models and potentially cascade from one asset to the next.

Momentum Trade

"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," said Howie Lee, an economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. “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.”

Futures were trading 11 percent higher on the Comex as of 8:19 a.m. in London, after rising more than 5 percent last week.

The buying frenzy also fed into mining shares. China Silver Group Ltd. rose as much as 45 percent in Hong Kong, while Australia’s Silver Mines Ltd. gained as much as 49 percent

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-vs-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 U.S. before it began surging this month.

Silver has performed well over the past year, rallying more than 60 percent 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 Inc. described silver as the “preferred precious metal” in a Jan. 27 research note that had a price target of USD 30 an ounce. Net-bullish bets by money managers rose to a three-week high in the week to Jan. 26, according to CFTC data compiled by Bloomberg.

Locking up

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 officer, 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,” Lewis said, adding that his firm is “locking up any metal we can find in the marketplace.



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