It has been less than a month since President Obama declared war on those evil oil speculators.
Standing in the Rose Garden on April 17th, the president laid out a $52 billion initiative to increase federal supervision of oil markets in an effort to crack down on oil price spikes.
At the time, oil was trading at $117.41 a barrel and $5 a gallon gas seemed all but inevitable.
According to the president, evil speculators had been working behind the scenes to screw the rest of us while engorging themselves on riches beyond our wildest dreams.
I said it then and I’ll say it again — the president is chasing a ghost he’ll never catch. Spending $52 billion on additional oversight is a complete waste of money and a misguided witch hunt.
I mean, think about it. If speculators are the same ones responsible for high oil prices, ask yourself why they’re the ones getting raked over the coals these days as oil prices fall.
The short version: It’s because speculators don’t control oil prices and never have.
The Real Culprits Behind High Oil Prices
Pricing inputs — for better or worse — are driven by geopolitics, supply constrictions, war, tyrants with spigots and buyers who will only purchase as long as the prices are low enough.
This is not complicated. Any time there are more buyers than sellers, prices go up. When there are more sellers than buyers, prices go down. Whether or not what’s happening now turns out to be short- term noise or a long- term trend remains to be seen.
As I noted before, legitimate speculation has a valuable and essential role in the markets. It’s very different from the already illegal manipulation that the president seems to confuse with speculation.
Oil prices are driven by two groups of participants — hedgers and speculators.
The former are typically producers or suppliers with a vested interest in securing as high a price as possible for their output. They can also be manufacturers who depend on procuring as low a price as possible for their raw materials. Both parties are interested in delivery as a function of pricing.
Speculators don’t care about delivery and, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid it.
They profit from price changes that would otherwise hold hedgers apart while also providing liquidity to other market participants.
Here’s an example that may help bring this to life.
Both McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) and the farmers growing potatoes for the restaurant’s world famous French fries are hedgers. McDonald’s wants to ensure the smoothest, lowest price it can for the millions of pounds of potatoes it needs. The potato farmers want to obtain as high and stable a price as possible for their spuds.
Speculators, on the other hand, profit from changes in prices that the hedgers are trying to avoid. They also make a market when the two – buyers and sellers – can’t agree on appropriate prices.
In this case, they may jump in, for example, if McDonald’s seems to be buying more potatoes than usual or if crop conditions suggest a lower harvest.
Their willingness to take on these risks helps ensure smoother prices that move up and down depending on what the market will bear.
Now here’s the thing…speculators don’t get it right any more than hedgers despite the fact that the Ministry of Whitewash seems to think they’re in control.