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Heritage: 'Speculators' Are Obama's Latest Oil-Price Straw Man

By: David Kreutzer | Posted: April 21, 2012 3:55 AM
David W. Kreutzer

David W. Kreutzer

From canceling oil leases in his second week in office to denying the XL pipeline this year, President Obama and his administration have offered up a nonstop assault on affordable energy.  Now that high gasoline prices have come home to roost, the president is flailing around for an energy policy.

His recent attempts at energy policy include:
  • Nobody can do anything about high gasoline prices.
  • Maybe I should release crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
  • There is a lot of drilling that I haven’t been able to stop.  Don’t I get credit for that?
The latest attempt is to blame everything on speculators. And why not? Previous polling shows that 80 percent of Americans believe petroleum price spikes are caused by speculation, which means no more than 20 percent believe it is caused by the fundamentals of supply and demand.

There are several flaws in “the speculators did it” theory. The first is why do they only do it occasionally? That is, why don’t speculators want to make unconscionable profits all the time?

Second, why do the index funds and all the other bad guys only speculate in oil?  Where are the profiteering speculators in natural gas, whose current price is about half of what it averaged over the last decade?

Third, there are sophisticated traders on both sides of the petroleum markets. For every speculator who makes money on a trade, somebody else will lose money. Blaming speculators on continued price increases requires an endless string of chumps to take the other side of the speculators’ deals. If anybody should be the chumps, it should be the newbies from the insurance industry and hedge funds, but they are at the top of the most-wanted list.

Finally, for speculation to drive up prices, the speculators must either cause oil production to slow down (which they haven’t) or to pull oil off the market. If the flow of petroleum and its products remains unchanged, the price at the pump will not change. If petroleum is pulled off the market, which can happen even though there are limits to what can be stored, it will eventually come back on the market. And the question becomes, “When the oil comes back on the market, is the price higher or lower than when it was pulled off the market?” The price will only be higher if the amount supplied at that time is lower or the demand is higher. In either of those cases, speculators have helped moderate price fluctuations and will be rewarded with profits. If the price is lower, then the speculators did a bad thing and will be punished by losing money.

The real problem is that combating high gasoline prices requires a greater supply, and this administration’s policies have pushed the other way. It seems the administration does not really want lower gasoline prices. Steven Chu, Obama’s non-car-owning secretary of energy, famously said we need to get our gasoline prices up to the $8-$10/gallon level they are in Europe.

Unfortunately for the president, the voters want more gasoline and lower prices. So, in the time-honored Washington tradition, he creates a boogeyman and blames his energy failures on speculators.



David Kreutzer is the senior policy analyst in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis.

Comments (4)

Frank
4:00PM APR 23RD 2012
So, if oil price is almost entirely dependent on demand, why are Republicans Congressional policies almost entirely focused on INCREASING the demand for oil by:

(1) Cutting mass transit funding
(2) Fighting minimum car mileage standards
(3) Demonizing alternative energy sources, like solar/wind power
(4) Eliminating funding for bike and pedistrian infrastructure
(5) Opposing energy smart meters, CFLs and energy saving measures
(6) Attacking Smart Growth planning as some type of international Agenda-21 conspiracy (ala RNC), rather than as an option to help cut down on sprawling infrastructure costs and the need for longer automobile trips.

Oh, I get it, they actually WANT to drive the price of oil skyward, so they can create more profits and rake in more money from their large contributors - Big Oil. Makes political sense, and STUPID public policy.
Dean
10:45AM APR 23RD 2012
Obama has to find someone to blame. This is not HIS fault.
Disenchanted
2:31PM APR 22ND 2012
No one wants to talk about the real reasons for the high spike in gas prices. The Federal Reserve's inflationary costs of "printing" more US dollars for the international banks is a prime reason. The commodities markets have also been known to be manipulated by large spectators, who also control or are in cahoots with the commodities market. The most recent to be JP Morgan Chase and the Silver Revolution last April/May.

JP Morgan had shorted more silver than what is above ground. The Silver Revolution was "coined" (no pun intended) by Max Keiser who encouraged people around the world buy silver and take it off the market (physical possession). The price of silver rose. JP Morgan put their stock up as collateral for their margin call, because the price steadily increased. JP Morgan started buying back contracts at $50 an ounce for the buyers to NOT take physical possession. The silver prices jumped, until COMEX came to JP Morgan's rescue and called three margin increases within 8 days, more than doubling the required margin percentage. The price dropped from $49 an ounce to $30 and below - overnight. COMEX saved JP Morgan Chase from another bailout by the US taxpayers.

The highest price of a barrel of crude oil was in July, 2008, at $147.30. The price of gas soared to over $4 a gallon. The price of a barrel of crude oil today is $104.04 and we are well over $4 a gallon for gas. At the same time, the US dollar index was around 74 in July, 2008 and is now at 79.13. Supposedly, we are paying the same price for gas now when a barrel is over $43 LESS and our US dollar is worth more and this is only due to the supply available in our nation?

Since you are such a good reliable energy economics analyst, explain why. The supply has no bearing to OUR prices. Perhaps the states' and federal fuel excise taxes which are a direct add-on? Or our politicians and media threatening another war, this one with Iran? Or Iran shutting off the spigot for Western Europe? China is able to barter for their Iranian oil, so they are using less of the other OPEC, South American and Canada's oil.

If you want to complain about the federal government not approving refinery permits, yes. But to claim that Keystone XL will drop the price is just pure propaganda.
Disenchanted
1:25PM APR 22ND 2012
Am I the only one concerned about the use of Eminent Domain for the private use by a foreign-based corporation?

Rick Perry tried the same in Texas for the building of the Trans-America Corridor. Condemning private property in the way of the purposed highway. The farmers and ranchers along the route defended their land and still have to stand guard today.

You want a Canadian corporation to confiscate privately owned fertile farmland for an oil pipeline to be built from Alberta, Canada to Freeport Texas (a free trade zone), so the Canadian company can refine their oil in Texas to be loaded on oil ships, free of tax, to any buyer with money - ie China. This isn't even a US subsidiary. It's a Canadian company - with zero commitment to sell their oil to us.

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