Baltimore is hot spot for commodities


The shiny aluminum T-bars heaped in a hulking Baltimore warehouse have nowhere in particular to go just yet. Chances are, they will change hands several times before they do.

Commodities trading usually means "futures" - speculating or hedging on the future price of everything from pork bellies to gold, often with no intention of buying or selling the product in question. But if traders want to hold the commodity and wait for just the right moment to sell, they have to store it somewhere.

And one somewhere happens to be Baltimore. It pays to be a convenient stopover point.

"It is a major port which feeds into the industrial heartlands," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Commodities stored locally connect the city - in a small but tangible way - to the frequently intangible commodities markets, which are complex financial hubs that allow businesses across the globe to keep tabs on future prices and lock them in months ahead to reduce risk.

Three logistics companies have the London Metal Exchange's stamp of approval to store aluminum, copper, lead, zinc and similar commodities - typically from South America, Asia and Eastern Europe - in nine warehouses around the harbor and the Patapsco River.

It's the country's second-largest cluster of warehouses approved by the exchange, behind only New Orleans - never mind the comparatively small amount of manufacturing in the area nowadays.

"What we look for is to try and get a good spread of warehouses in certain areas that are in net consumption or in key distribution hubs," said Adam Robinson, a spokesman for the exchange, a futures market that is the world's largest for nonferrous metals. The exchange recorded about 56 million transactions this year through September, tens of thousands of which ended in delivery.

Many metal shipments come into private terminals in Baltimore with all trading completed, ready to go west to refineries or manufacturers after a short stint in these warehouses.

Some, though, are shipped in to hang around as the owners wait for the right moment to sell them for a profit, probably not through an exchange but directly to other traders or companies.

"It's not unusual for us to see a product sitting anywhere from six months to a year, in anticipation of a market change," said Rupert Denney, general manager of C. Steinweg (Baltimore) Inc., one of the logistics companies that takes London Metal Exchange deliveries.

When market change comes, the activity can be swift. "Sometimes we see commodities that are traded up to three times in one day," he said.

Inside C. Steinweg warehouses on the south side of the harbor are tons and tons of metal owned by people waiting to trade - aluminum, zinc and lead piled higher than workers' heads. Denney doesn't want to say how much that is, exactly, because the owners don't like information leaking out that could depress the price.

All around those bundles of metal are commodities that are spoken for but aren't needed yet, from nutmeg to pepper to crushed soda cans from Saudi Arabia that will be recycled in West Virginia.

Those who store metals here to wait for the right moment to sell are almost always traders, not producers, and they began doing that more often as interest rates dropped, Denney said.

"That's what we've seen in the last two or three years: People are taking longer positions on some of this because they can afford the financing," he said.

Baltimore is best known as an import-export location for automobiles because its inland location puts it closer to Midwestern automakers and consumers than the rest of the Atlantic seaports. That transportation advantage is also why metal gets shipped here from overseas: It's cheaper to truck it to refineries in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan and other points to the west.

Getting the exchange-traded metal off ships and storing it here first is a relatively small part of port activity, but it's worth the effort, said Bud Nixon, head of the Private Sector Port Coalition.

"That's a good piece of business," he said. "Pennies are very small too, but if you have enough of them, they make dollars."

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