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Financials

UPDATE 2-EU unveils drive to control commodity speculators

* Curbs proposed on grain betting, high-frequency trades

* Changes part of EU overhaul of complex financial products

* EU exec pushes for tough penalties for financial crimes

(Adds industry comment)

By John O’Donnell

BRUSSELS, Dec 8 (Reuters) - The European Commission unveiled plans on Wednesday to clamp down on speculators in commodities such as grain, following in the footsteps of Washington which has already acted to prevent spikes in food prices.

The EU executive wants traders to disclose their positions, a cap on mega-trades and power for regulators to intervene in order to curb speculators suspected of driving food and energy prices to record highs in 2008.

“If someone is doing something which affects the market then he or she must be held to account,” Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner in charge of the reform, told journalists. “Hyper-speculation is scandalous.”

Barnier, a former French agriculture minister, announced his blueprint for new rules as France continues to push for tighter regulation of the sector, having taken over the presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) top global economies.

France, the EU’s biggest grain producer, wants to stem speculation on futures markets designed to help farmers guard against the risks of a poor crop by guaranteeing a payout at a fixed price.

Barnier’s proposals, which could become law in 2012, are part of a sweeping reform of EU rules known as MiFID (the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive), which govern financial instruments. Many blame financial tools such as derivatives for global economic difficulties and say the existing regulations failed to keep such trading in check.

Barnier will also tackle high-frequency trading, the millisecond buying and selling by computers of stocks and bonds that is suspected of triggering the flash crash in July, when U.S. stock markets plunged, only to recover within minutes.

The change to rules will also demand more information for regulators about trading prices in so-called dark pools, where the price of a deal is published only after it has happened.

“This reform has been overdue because the markets broke down in the same way as banks did,” said Sony Kapoor, a financial expert with London think tank Re-define.

“No one knows what is going on in the markets in Europe. They are playing catch-up with the United States. Regulators there already know more about how the markets work.”

HIDDEN RISKS

As part of Wednesday’s proposals, the Commission also launched a push to raise penalties across the region for financial crimes such as insider trading, and to force national regulators to name and shame offenders.

The EU executive is leading a shake-up of financial services across the 27-country EU after what began as a freeze in bank lending led to recession, widening budget deficits and ultimately sucked whole countries into a debt crisis.

Its proposals will need the backing of the European parliament as well as powerful EU member states such as Germany and France.

European commodity markets are under pressure to tighten regulation as the United States pushes forward with plans to tame speculative activity.

“I don’t think there is any reason why we Europeans should be any less rigorous than the Americans,” Barnier said.

Politicians have repeatedly blamed financial speculators for causing the global financial crisis but officials in Brussels are grappling to understand how big their role really was.

A recent internal study failed to find a link between a government’s cost of borrowing and swings in the price of insuring against debt default through credit default swaps -- an area that had been identified as a cause of concern.

“Complaints that speculation leads to market manipulation misunderstands what drives the commodity markets, which is fundamental demand and supply,” said Andrew Moorfield, head of the oil and gas division of banking group Lloyds.

To read more about the EU’s plans to reform trading rules, click on [ID:nLDE6B114X]

For a TAKE-A-LOOK on EU plans for the rules overhaul, click on [ID:nLDE6B61TX]

To read about the EU energy chief’s clampdown on insider trading click on [ID:nLDE6B711P]

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov in London)

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