By Susan Thomas and Silvia Antonioli
LONDON (Reuters) - Goldman Sachs' <GS.N> olive branch to beleaguered metals customers will do little to help bring down the high cost of securing aluminum, but even critics praised the proposal as a smart move to placate regulators and silence complaints.
Goldman responded to mounting political pressure and regulatory scrutiny of its Metro International metals business on Wednesday, by offering customers immediate access to aluminum stored in its warehouses.
In a statement outlining the bank's proposals to cut waiting times at all London Metal Exchange-registered warehouses, Goldman said it would let major consumers swap aluminum held in its warehouses for metal the bank has acquired, without the need to pay a steep cash premium.
"With all this pressure from regulators it looks like Goldman wants to come clean," Kamil Wlazly, a senior analyst at Metal Bulletin Research, said.
"But aluminum queues were one of the reasons why aluminum consumers have increasingly decided to shy away from procuring metal through the LME warehousing network."
Novelis Inc <NVLX.UL>, the world's biggest maker of flat-rolled aluminum used to make beverage cans, received Goldman's offer last week, but said it is of "no benefit" to the company or other industrial users.
"We believe that other physical users of aluminum, like Novelis, are unlikely to be in the queue because no manufacturing business can tolerate a 19-month delay between buying metal and achieving delivery," said Nick Madden, chief supply chain officer, in an email to Reuters.
Madden, a longtime critic of the warehouse system, said he stopped securing supplies from warehouses in 2011 after waiting five months to get metal from Metro's Detroit facility for its Oswego, New York plant. The wait time has since ballooned.
Customers and U.S. lawmakers have accused Goldman Sachs and other warehouse owners of artificially inflating wait times and lines to boost rents for warehouse owners and cause metal costs to rise. One major customer estimated the delays have cost consumers more than $3 billion.
Warehouse owners and outgoing LME CEO Martin Abbott have said the complaints over long lines are unjustified, arguing there is no shortage of metal.
Instead, they said the long lines have been created by traders trying to move metal to rival warehouses that are offering financial incentives in a bid to boost their own rental income.
Madden said Goldman's offer does not deal with the record high physical prices being paid by steelmakers and carmakers and other industrial customers, even though the market is in a chronic surplus.
"We believe the focus should remain on the warehouse ownership issue and the reform of LME warehousing rules," Madden said.
"I think this proposal is a very smart move on Goldman's part," said one source with knowledge of the warehousing business. "They have always claimed that the objections from the consumers are spurious because they are not the ones that are actually in the queues."
Goldman said its offer applies only to large metal consumers like carmakers and soft drink producers, not to financial traders like hedge funds, or rival merchant commodity traders like Glencore Xstrata <GLEN.L> or Trafigura <TRAFGF.UL>.
"If no-one takes them up on this, they turn around and say there you are, told you! Nobody needs to swap warrants to take physical delivery," the first source said. "To people not really in the know, they will say that's great, so it's a clever piece of business."
In testimony to the U.S. Senate banking committee last week, brewer MillerCoors LLC complained aluminum users like themselves were being forced to wait in some cases over 18 months to take physical delivery of metal, or pay the high physical premium to get aluminum today.
Goldman President Gary Cohn told CNBC television on Wednesday that no consumers had stepped forward to take up the offer.
This is not surprising, consumers said. Most end users have purchasing contracts with producers and do not have to queue for metal, but they do end up paying the price of the metal being tied up and unavailable.
"Packaging producers buy aluminum sheet so they don't take aluminum from LME warehouses, but they still suffer the consequences of the queues at warehouses propping up the premium," Gino Schiona, director general of Italian aluminum packaging association CiAl.
"The concentration of metal in warehouses and the rising premiums smell of speculation."
The queues have caused the price premium on some metals, like oversupplied aluminum and zinc, to surge, prompting accusations that the banks and traders that own storage facilities are artificially inflating prices and distorting supplies.
"In terms of premiums, there is no big change on the ground. Maybe a very gradual reduction but nothing steep," the European trader said. "If you want to buy aluminum you will still struggle to find any cheap metal. I can't find anybody who has drastically reduced their premium."
Under mounting pressure to ease the problem with wait times, the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd <0388.HK> owned LME announced on July 1 sweeping reform of its warehousing policy, its third attempt to placate angry users. If approved, those changes will come into effect in April.
And it might just work.
The LME's warehousing committee, which includes Metro and Glencore's Pacorini warehousing firm, held an extraordinary meeting this week, and all but one of its members voted in favor of the new deal, three sources with knowledge of the matter said.
"That is a big accomplishment," said one of the sources.
(Additional reporting by Harpreet Bhal in London and Carole Vaporean in New York; Editing by William Hardy and Leslie Gevirtz)