Don't Blame the Speculators; Without Futures Markets, Oil Might Be At $200 Instead of $135
Excerpts below from the Fortune Magazine article "Don't Blame the Oil Speculators: A Campaign in Congress to Punish Traders for Record Oil Prices Reveals a Fundamental Misunderstanding of How Futures Markets Work":
Here's a suggestion: The next time a Congressional committee wants to hold a hearing on how "speculators" are driving up oil prices, each committee member should first be required to demonstrate - preferably in their opening remarks - a basic understanding of the mechanics of futures trading.
Even better, they should be required to explain in detail how it is that investors who never take delivery of a single barrel of crude - and thus never remove a drop of oil from the open market - are causing record high oil prices.
"Do I think politicans understand the role of futures markets - how they facilitate price discovery and the transference of risk?" asks former U.S. Commodities Futures Trade Commission chief economist Gerald Gay. "No, they're clueless - at least most of them."
If our representatives did understand the oil markets, they'd know that the true telltale sign of a speculative bubble is not rising trading volumes but rising oil inventories. Speculators would be hoarding oil - building up inventories either in anticipation of higher prices or as part of a scheme to drive prices there. Yet according to the Department of Energy, U.S. oil inventories are now at below-average levels. U.S. oil stocks stand at 309 million barrels, versus 330 million in June 2005.
A more basic misconception in Washington involves what these so-called speculators are really buying. They're not buying oil, they're buying futures, and this is a crucial distinction. A futures contract is an agreement between a buyer and a seller to deliver a set amount of oil at a specific price on a specific date. The value of that contract rises and falls, depending upon market conditions, right up until the date of delivery.
"For speculators to be propping up the price of oil, they somehow have to be taking physical oil off the market," says energy markets expert Craig Pirrong, a finance professor at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business.
There's something else politicians conveniently overlook: futures trading requires two to tango. For every investor who is betting oil prices will go up, there also needs to be an investor willing to take the opposite side of that bet.
Today's speculators are evenly split between shorts and longs. Moreover, the percentage of futures contracts held by speculators (as opposed to commercial traders) actually decreased over the last year even at the same time that oil prices were increasing.
Without a futures market, I believe we'd be decrying oil at $200 a barrel oil instead of oil at $135.