Tag: Speculation

Speculating About Oil

Gasoline prices have reached absurd levels. In my town – which is not exactly the most expensive market – the price today was $3.83 per gallon. This is kind of odd since we are not yet in the summer travel season and the global economy, while improving, is not exactly on fire. So what is driving it? As with all thing, the Left has their ready-made answer: eeeeevil speculators. But Ezra Klein has put up a great piece demonstrating why he’s one of the few liberals I take seriously, pointing that speculation is sometimes a good thing:

In essence, says energy analyst Stephen Schork, a lot of oil speculation works like insurance. Countries and companies that need oil are willing to pay a “risk premium” now in order to ensure that they’ll have oil at a reasonable price in the future, even if shortages erupt. Schork adds that oil speculators are typically piggybacking on fundamentals — like the fact that global supplies are tight.

Exactly. I’m reminded of the bitching after the last stock market bubble about evil short sellers. Short sellers are critical to the proper functioning of a market, injecting skepticism and concern about popular investments, keeping a lid on prices. In the case of the dotcom bubble and the real estate bubble, they were the only thing keeping the train from going completely off the tracks.

Speculation may not be as noble a pursuit as building expensive inflammable electric cars that no one wants or blowing hundred of millions on solar tech. But it is a critical part of functioning markets. And speculation, as Ezra notes, goes both ways.

By contrast, in the natural gas market, speculators are actually pushing prices down to decade-low levels. “That’s because the fundamentals in that market are the polar opposite,” Schork says.

You don’t hear anyone bitching about that because natural gas prices are irrelevant the belief that we are somehow entitled to cheap oil and if we aren’t getting it, it’s because of some evil Republican plot.

Or a Democratic one. Cato, perhaps feeling the need to tweak the Kochs in their legal fight, defends Obama from the charge that he is responsible for oil prices:

despite the popular perception of President Obama as anti-oil, domestic oil production is increasing for the first time since the Johnson administration. Alas, little of this has to do with the president. Prices increased from $22 in 2002 to just under $100 a barrel average in 2008 and supply has responded. President Obama is no more responsible for production increases than other presidents were responsible for production declines.

The liberals who loved to blame Bush for every oil price spike have been eerily silent on Obama’s culpability. But while I’d love to blame him, US production is up by a couple of million barrels a day. This is not his doing, of course: it’s the long slow response to the last price spike. While Obama has done everything he can to stand in the way, even he cannot control the market forces that are demanding and getting more oil.

And in the end, it is those market forces that are making my eyes pop out of my head at the pump, not some conspiracy. There’s no one factor driving this: it’s a mixture. World demand is up — not a lot, but enough. US demand is up. North Sea production is down. The oil we are getting is increasingly expensive to pull out off the ground — almost all the low-hanging fruit has been burned. Arab Spring spooked the markets, especially when Libya briefly halted production. Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is that latest wrinkle, but that’s just another factor.

Some solutions have been proposed, but their impact would be minimal. Oil costs what it costs. More drilling won’t pay off for years and, because of the expense of future sites, won’t be that cheap. We should do it, but let’s not pretend it will drop oil to $16 a barrel. Better fuel efficiency standards and more cars running on electricity or gas might help in the long run, but efficiency is usually just matched by increased demand. Opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would help a little, but not much. And frankly I don’t think this has risen to the “break SPR glass in case of emergency” level yet. Cracking down on speculating, even if it were possible, would do nothing. It might even make the prices shocks worse.

In the end, we have to do what we always do: ride it out. We really don’t need a grand plan for remaking the Universe. Americans are already responding as they have in the past: driving less, driving smaller cars and conserving. Just today, te WSJ noted that the non-hybrid version of the Volt — the 40 mpg Cruze — is selling way better than the Volt itself, proving once again that consumers aren’t nearly as stupid as politicians.

But no President, Congressman or Senator is going to come out and say: “The oil market is tightening; deal with it.” Much easier to blame shadowy speculators and rapacious oil interests. I’d say it’s an election year but, with this crowd, it’s always an election year.

(Unrelated Note: You know, I am continually amazed at the tags tagaroo comes up with for my posts. “Crack spread” is one of its recommendations. I don’t even want to know what that means.)

Evil, Evil Oil

I have no love for oil companies, speculators or Wall Street traders. But I do have a love of constitutional rights and the rule of law. There now seems to be a determined effort to subvert both in the pursuit of … well, anyone who’s unpopular.

First, the oil companies. The Democrats and various people are targeting subsidies for oil companies, which I’m fine with it. But it turns out that much of what they call subsidies aren’t subsidies at all.

Seriously, nearly half the “subsidy” number is the ability of a company to use LIFO accounting on inventory for their taxes? Since the proposition is to eliminate these only for oil and gas, what is the logic that somehow LIFO accounting is wrong in Oil and Gas but OK in every other industry? In fact, at least the first two largest items are both accounting rules that apply to all manufacturing industry. So, rather than advocating for the elimination of special status for oil and gas, as I thought the argument was, they are in fact arguing that oil and gas going forward be treated in a unique and special way by the tax code, separate from every other manufacturing industry.

In fact, many of these are merely changes to the amortization and depreciation rate for up-front investments. Typically, politicians of both parties have advocated for the current rules to encourage investment. Now I suppose we are fine-tuning the rules, so that we encourage investment in the tax code in everything but oil and gas. I will say this does seem to be consistent with Obama Administration jobs policy, which has been to try to stimulate businesses that are going nowhere and hold back the one business (oil and gas drilling) that is actually trying to grow. I am fine with stopping the use of the tax code to try to channel private investment in politician-preferred directions. But changing the decision rule from “using the tax code to encourage all manufacturing investment” to “using the tax code to encourage investment only in the industries we are personally sympathetic to” is just making the interventionism worse.

LIFO is fairly standard accounting practice. It’s just a way of delaying taxes by changing which inventory you claim to be selling. All businesses do it. But as we saw with the “GE pays no taxes” bullshit, accuracy is not the Left’s strong suit.

If you want to get rid of these “subsidies”, simplify the corporate tax code (or better still, eliminate it). But this is not some sneaky under-handed Cheney-concocted plot. It’s tax law.

But that’s not the worst violation that is occurring when oil is involved. The cadmium hat of dishonor goes to Bernie Sanders:

Oil trading data that exposed the extensive positions speculators held in the run-up to record high prices in 2008 were intentionally leaked by a U.S. senator, sparking broader concern about industry confidentiality as Congress moves on Wall Street reform.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a staunch critic of oil speculators, leaked the information to a major newspaper in a move that has unsettled both regulators and Wall Street alike.

The leaked information has sparked concern at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is legally prohibited from releasing confidential information that identifies trader positions and identities.

The leak also raises broader questions as U.S. regulators gear up to collect massive new amounts of private data from market players on everything from swaps and hedge funds to blueprints for how large financial firms can be liquidated. The breach of data could make Wall Street less reluctant to hand over sensitive information if they fear it is not appropriately safeguarded.

Sanders is being praised in liberal circles for committing an egregious violation of privacy and bypassing the law. You can be damned sure that if this were private information about anyone other than eevil evil oil speculators, the Democrats would be screaming about privacy. But throw in some greed Wall Street types and their concerns about information safety vanish.

As it happens, speculators did not drive prices up in 2008; the world economy did that. Nor are speculators driving it up right now. Speculators can speculate all they want; it’s supply and demand that ultimately determines prices.

Even funnier is that they can’t decide who to blame. Stock market crashes are always blamed on “short sellers” even though short sellers are taking a risk and are critical to preventing bubbles. Now … are they blaming long sellers?

Maybe we just shouldn’t buy or sell at all. Remember that we are dealing with the only open socialist in Congress. To the likes of Bernie Sanders, finance is not a legitimate way of making money so financiers have no privacy or rights. The only legitimate work is being a prole in a factory. Anything else is evil.