Sunday, June 22, 2008

How oil can be back to where it was 12 months ago - PART I.

George W. Bush would have you believe that oil is where it is because India and China are using more of it (he did that for food!!) - as if they've just started using twice the number of cars in just the last 12 months! Their economy is growing pretty fast - but not that fast. There is only one reason why oil is at 140 dollars a barrel - people are buying oil on the mercantile exchange as you and me would buy the stock of yahoo on Nasdaq. They are betting that the price of oil would go up next week - and when it does, they make a huge profit.

Here is a simple FAQ on how speculation drives up the cost of crude oil (arguably the most important commodity that is traded in the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and its sister exchanges)

Q) So how does it all work?
A) Oil futures are traded in the 2 main exchanges - The New York Mercantile Ex (NYMEX) and the InterContinental Ex (ICE) in London.

The way these futures markets are supposed to work, is that both the producers (sellers of futures contracts) and end users (physical buyers of the commodity), have a market place to negotiate market prices in the future, to take some of the risk out of fluctuating daily market prices.
However, there is one more player in the game, the speculator. The speculators role is to keep the market liquid by betting on the price going either up or down of any given commodity on any given day or future day.
Speculators can make huge gains or losses in the futures market because the futures contracts are leveraged. Speculators control the value of the contract purchased with only a fraction of the money out of pocket.

Now that you have the basics, heres how the price get manipulated:
It's called cornering the market. Cornering the market has a long and checkered history. There are many techniques a group of speculators can use use if they buy up a majority of the open interest in the outstanding contracts in one commodity. By simply owning most of the contracts, the speculators refuse to sell until they can receive a much higher price
(source: oil speculation - how does it work?)
Have some time on your hand? Read 'The Economic Purpose of Futures Markets and How They Work'.

Q) Who are these 'Speculators'?
A) These are no ordinary Joes. They are huge investment banks that owns hedge funds and pension funds. Banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley etc. They are neither producing oil nor the end users - they just invest their big investment dollars in the hope that a (well predicted) change in price will result in huge profit.

Q) Why speculate on oil?
A) Since the US economy is slowing down (if not in recession already) resulting in a poor ROI in the stock market, the crash of the real estate market, the falling US dollar, the hedge funds and the pension funds are finding it hard to make money for their millionaire customers. That's where futures trading in crude oil comes in. They can, very safely - one can say, bet that the price of oil is on the up - for some time to come. Their reasoning is not entirely flawed. After all, the entire world runs on oil and the demand of oil is going up - while the supply is always under a huge question mark (stability in Iraq, confrontation with Iran, unstable Nigeria, new flexing of muscle of Russia, growing power of Venezuela etc etc etc), the demand is not going to go down any time soon (think China, India, F-150s, Toyota Sequoias, Tata Nanos). In short - its a low risk, high return investment.
I doubt there is any other commodity in the market that would give them a 100% profit in 12 months.

Q) Shouldn't the futures market reflect the fundamental law of supply and demand?
A) Of course they should. The futures markets were created to let users of commodities 'lock in' the price of the future today. For ex. airlines and home heating oil companies locking in the future price of oil today. The speculators, however, create a false sense of over-demand driving the price higher.

Q) How about regulation?
A) Good question. Shouldn't all this be regulated? After all - this is a good case of for regulation - right? Actually - there is a regulatory authority - it is known as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). They were created by the congress to make sure that the laws of supply and demand are met by the futures market. This is all well and good as long as the trading is done in the US. Th crude oil futures (that have an impact on the price in the US oil) are also traded in ICE as mentioned above. These trades are not regulated by the CFTC - thereby allowing manipulative practices and excessive speculation. BTW - it was the Bush administration that gave ICE the permission to trade US crude oil futures (Big Surprise!!) (source: this article from author F. William Engdahl)

Q) So who is making all this money?
A) 2 words for that - Hedge funds. Actually - no one really knows. The opacity of this whole deal is phenomenal. The information about who is buying the options at ICE and who is involved in this mess is protected by European laws.

Q) Isn't OPEC in control.
A) In one word - NO. It's out of their hands - and into the hands of hedge fund and pension fund manager sitting in an office on the Wall Street.

Q) What about the developing economies?
A) Oh - they are just a convenient, easy to understand people to blame - nothing more. As I wrote above - their economy is growing - but at a decent rate of 7-8% Not 70-80% per year as some would have you believe.

So here is the trillion dollar question? How does the price of oil come down?
That will be covered in Part II of this most important topic.

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