«The oil price today, unlike twenty years ago, is determined behind closed doors in the trading rooms of giant financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank or UBS. The key exchange in the game is the London ICE Futures Exchange (formerly the International Petroleum Exchange). ICE Futures is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Atlanta Georgia International Commodities Exchange. ICE in Atlanta was founded in part by Goldman Sachs which also happens to run the world’s most widely used commodity price index, the GSCI, which is over-weighted to oil prices.
As I noted in my earlier article, (‘Perhaps 60% of today’s oil price is pure speculation’), ICE was focus of a recent congressional investigation. It was named both in the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations' June 27, 2006, Staff Report and in the House Committee on Energy & Commerce's hearing in December 2007 which looked into unregulated trading in energy futures. Both studies concluded that energy prices' climb to $128 and perhaps beyond is driven by billions of dollars' worth of oil and natural gas futures contracts being placed on the ICE. Through a convenient regulation exception granted by the Bush Administration in January 2006, the ICE Futures trading of US energy futures is not regulated by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, even though the ICE Futures US oil contracts are traded in ICE affiliates in the USA. And at Enron’s request, the CFTC exempted the Over-the-Counter oil futures trades in 2000.
So it is no surprise to see in a May 6 report from Reuters that Goldman Sachs announces oil could in fact be on the verge of another "super spike," possibly taking oil as high as $200 a barrel within the next six to 24 months. That headline, "$200 a barrel!" became the major news story on oil for the next two days. How many gullible lemmings followed behind with their money bets?Arjun Murti, Goldman Sachs' energy strategist, blamed what he called "blistering" (sic) demand from China and the Middle East, combined with his assertion that the Middle East is nearing its maximum ability to produce more oil. Peak Oil mythology again helps Wall Street. The degree of unfounded hype reminds of the kind of self-serving Wall Street hype in 1999-2000 around dot.com stocks or Enron.
In 2001 just before the dot.com crash in the NASDAQ, some Wall Street firms were pushing sale to the gullible public of stocks that their companies were quietly dumping. Or they were pushing dubious stocks for companies where their affiliated banks had a financial interest. In short as later came out in Congressional investigations, companies with a vested interest in a certain financial outcome used the media to line their pockets and that of their companies, leaving the public investor holding the bag. It would be interesting for Congress to subpoena the records of the futures positions of Goldman Sachs and a handful of other major energy futures players to see if they are invested to gain from a further rise in oil to $200 or not.
Another added turbo-charger to present speculation in oil prices is the margin rule governing what percent of cash a buyer of a futures contract in oil has to put up to bet on a rising oil price (or falling for that matter). The current NYMEX regulation allows a speculator to put up only 6% of the total value of his oil futures contract. That means a risk-taking hedge fund or bank can buy oil futures with a leverage of 16 to 1.We are hit with an endless series of plausible arguments for the high price of oil: A "terrorism risk premium;" “blistering” rise in demand of China and India; unrest in the Nigerian oil region; oil pipelines' blown up in Iraq; possible war with Iran…And above all the hype about Peak Oil. Oil speculator T. Boone Pickens has reportedly raked in a huge profit on oil futures and argues, conveniently that the world is on the cusp of Peak Oil. So does the Houston investment banker and friend of Dick Cheney, Matt Simmons.
As the June 2006 US Senate report, The Role of Market Speculation in Rising Oil and Gas Prices, noted, "There's a few hedge fund managers out there who are masters at knowing how to exploit the peak oil theories and hot buttons of supply and demand, and by making bold predictions of shocking price advancements to come, they only add more fuel to the bullish fire in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy."