18 June 2008

Oil, Gas, and Futures

So, you wondering why it costs so much to fill-up lately?

Ice, Ice, Baby

This from page 1 of the Executive Summary of that Senate investigation, there is this one troubling line: "Today, U.S. oil inventories are at an eight-year high, and OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) oil inventories are at a 20-year high."

That’s odd because, in 2006, just like today, the media reporting covered the serious international shortage of oil and justified oil’s high price. Even more troubling is that the House of Representatives held a hearing this past December, ominously titled "Energy Speculation and Price Manipulation." How did it pass under the radar that both the Senate and the House studied the issue of price manipulation in our energy markets and both concluded that it was unregulated, massive trading in one futures market that was really driving up the price of oil and natural gas? And given that conclusion, why has Congress done nothing about it?


A week ago Goldman Sachs issued a new investor note, suggesting that somewhere between six months to two years, the price of oil could go into a "super spike" and prices jump as high as $200 per barrel. It became the major story of the night. Ignored in the reporting frenzy was that many legitimate and well-respected oil analysts dismissed Goldman Sachs’ prediction as groundless.

Get ready for the next shock to your system. In the past month we have added 11.9 million barrels of oil into our stock reserves, giving us 32.3 million more barrels of oil than we had on hand January 1. On May 5, we found out that for the second time in as many years, Iran was storing its excess crude oil on tankers in the Persian Gulf, because it had run out of storage space in the desert and was awaiting buyers for its heavy crude. That same day Saudi Arabia cut the discount price for its Arabian Heavy crude to $7.45, hoping to entice more buyers for immediate delivery. We didn’t hear that news, either.

It’s amazing how quickly we forget our recent history. Congressional hearings in 2001, blasting certain Wall Street executives for using the media to sell the public on stocks in order to bid up the price – so their firm could divest of its shares without taking a beating. Meanwhile, other trusted advisors pushed stocks that were fundamentally worthless, because their affiliated banks had large loan agreements with those companies.

The year before Enron had been caught manipulating the California energy market, even forcing rolling blackouts across the northern part of their state apparently just for effect – to support their claim that there just wasn’t enough electricity to go around. Again, we now know that claim was untrue. It was Enron shutting down certain power generation plants, while placing bets on their unregulated energy futures market. The net cost to California consumers was almost $8 billion.

Ice, Ice, Baby - The Conclusion

Record high prices without record low oil inventories, analysts saying that so much money flows into oil commodities that it gives the impression of shortages, when in fact no shortage exists. That mirrors the situation in the commodities market for food, as Bloomberg pointed out in its April 28 article, "Wall Street Grain Hoarding Brings Farmers, Consumers Near Ruin": "Commodity investors control more U.S. crops than ever before, competing with governments and consumers for dwindling food supplies." That’s right; food, oil and gasoline have become an "asset class." No longer are you fighting a neighbor at the supermarket over the last box of Cheerios®; now you’re fighting the futures traders, who are actually determining what you will pay for that cereal.

We started as a society that worships hard labor and the basic business ethic of building value into the goods you create. How’d we get from there to worshiping Wall Street’s billion-dollar boys — who create nothing, build nothing, own nothing and deliver no goods, and yet can throw so much money into products made by others that they determine what we consumers will pay for those goods?

It wasn’t always this way.

In the past, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission acted as the cop on the beat, ensuring that buyers in the market were not distorting or manipulating prices beyond what supply and demand normally dictate. Certainly, if a hard frost hit Florida and cost growers an orange crop, then bidding up the price of the remaining oranges was both a wise investment and allowed under the trading rules. Right now investors know that if they borrow and invest huge amounts in commodities futures, they can create a shortage on paper – which drives prices up just like an actual shortage of any given product would. What kept traders from cornering the market that way in the past were the government’s anti-manipulation rules.

The late, infamous Enron head, Ken Lay, realized in the eighties that he could make more money bidding up energy in the futures market than by actually creating and selling energy. But, under then-current rules, how much you could make swapping paper was limited. Fortuitously, Lay had excellent Texas political connections; and in November of 1992, the head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission moved to exempt energy-derivative contracts and related swaps from any government oversight.

A vote was hurriedly put together before the Clinton White House would take over, and so Lay could finally start "dark" – unregulated – futures trading. The head of the CFTC was Wendy Gramm, wife of Texas Senator Phil Gramm; five weeks after she left, she became a board member of Enron in Houston.

Fast-forward to late 2000 and H.R. 5660, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, sponsored by Republican Congressman Thomas Ewing of Illinois. That bill went nowhere, even though Tom Delay’s wife Christine was then working for a Washington lobbying firm, Alexander Strategies – which Enron had paid $200,000 to push through legislation for permanent energy deregulation in these "dark" markets.

Six months later came Senate Bill 3283, also named the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. This time around the sponsor was Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, and now Phil Gramm was listed as one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Like it had in the House, this bill was destined to go nowhere until, late one night, it was attached as a rider to an 11,000-page appropriations bill – which was signed into law by President Clinton.

Now traders had an officially deregulated market for energy futures. Worse, that bill also deregulated many financial instruments – including the collateralized debt obligations that are at the center of today’s mortgage crisis, which may well cost us more than $1 trillion before it’s over.

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