Early last year, when prices for computer memory chips were climbing as quickly as a squirrel up a tree, Jeff Bittner saw a good chance to make a fast buck.
Bittner bought 5,000 of the tiny semiconductors for $3.50 each on a Wednesday, sold them two days later for $5 each, and pocketed a tidy $7,500 profit.
Still, he regrets that he didn't hold on until the following Monday, when the price climbed another dollar. "That's how fast the price was moving," exclaimed Bittner, president of a small Laguna Hills microchip distributor.
Before long, Bittner may be joined by a legion of new speculators in computer chips. Both the Pacific Stock Exchange and the Twin Cities Board of Trade in Minneapolis have proposed trading futures contracts on dynamic random access memory chips beginning in early 1990. DRAMs are the most common type of chip used to store information in personal computers and an array of other electronics products.
If the proposals are approved, the memory chips will become the first high-tech product ever traded on a futures market, which normally handles the likes of pork bellies, corn and crude oil.
Applying to CFTC
Supporters of DRAM futures trading say it would help ease price fluctuations, benefiting chip makers and users. But the proposal has sparked a debate within the semiconductor industry, with skeptics arguing that the contracts won't catch on because chips are different from traditional commodities and can't be traded the same way.
Undaunted, Pacific Stock Exchange officials say they will apply to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington in the next few weeks for approval to launch a futures contract for 256-kilobyte and 1-megabit DRAMs. The Twin Cities board, a new exchange, also is seeking CFTC approval to begin trading chip futures and options.
"We looked at the semiconductor industry and said 'this is a product that needs a futures market,' " said Jeffrey R. LeMunyon, vice president of operations for the Minneapolis board.
Skeptics, however, say there are important differences between microchips and other commodities that make them poorly suited for futures trading. DRAMs, they say, are not an interchangeable commodity like wheat or potatoes. They are subject to rapid technological change and are finding their way into a growing number of products. Increasingly, they vary according to manufacturer, speed, design, density and packaging, critics say.
"This is something I'd expect to come out of Las Vegas, not the stock exchange," said Charles M. Clough, president of El Segundo-based Wyle Laboratories, the West Coast's largest semiconductor distributor. "I think the exchange would do better to stick to things that have a true commodity flavor."
Proponents of the DRAM futures idea argue that the memory-chip business has the key characteristics of any commodity market. Futures trading will help reduce volatility in the market and ease the financial risk for chip makers and users.
"Because of the history of price fluctuations in DRAMs, the industry needs some kind of instrument to enable them to hedge their risks in price fluctuations," said Roy Berces, a Pacific Stock Exchange spokesman. "A futures contract is an age-old device for doing just that."
A futures contract is an agreement that allows a buyer to purchase a commodity at a fixed price at a future date. Producers and buyers of the commodities use the futures market to protect themselves against sharp price fluctuations. Speculators, who almost never take possession of the actual commodity, use the market to assume the risks of rising or falling prices in exchange for a chance to profit on those changes.
A semiconductor maker, for example, might use the futures market to lock in a price for a batch of chips that it knows it won't be able to sell to its regular customers until six months from now. A computer maker, worried that a possible rise in chip prices could make its products more expensive to build in six months, could buy a futures contract to protect itself against a sudden price fluctuation. Speculators, in principle, would make the market more fluid by stepping in as additional buyers or sellers, depending on which way they think the market will go.
The Pacific Stock Exchange has declined to release details of its proposal until it is submitted to the CFTC. The exchange has said it will set up a trading floor in San Francisco because of that city's proximity to Silicon Valley as well as its ties to Pacific Rim nations and investors there.
The 551-member exchange, which currently operates equity trading floors in San Francisco and Los Angeles and an options trading floor in San Francisco, began drafting plans for a DRAM futures exchange in early 1988, in the midst of a severe shortage of memory chips. The shortage hurt many computer firms that had to scramble to get enough DRAMs to keep their production lines going.