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Who's to blame for rising oil prices? Speculators

Many blame Middle East turmoil or a weak dollar for rising oil prices, but they provide only a partial explanation. The chief culprit is speculation in oil markets. Fortunately, it can be stemmed with several regulatory steps.

By Steve A. Yetiv / April 27, 2011

Norfolk, Va.

People around the world are feeling the pain at the pump. President Obama, whose reelection in 2012 may depend on a rebounding American economy, has promised that his energy plan could temper oil prices. Adding to the stakes, minutes from the US Federal Reserve meeting in March 2011 revealed concern that high oil prices could hurt the American economy.

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So why have oil prices risen from around $36 dollars per barrel in December 2008 to $110 dollars per barrel now? And what can be done to lower them? Speculation in oil markets, which has little to do with oil demand and supply, is a key part of the problem, and it can be stemmed with several regulatory steps.

Oil prices are determined mainly by the combined behavior of oil traders on markets, the most important one being the New York Mercantile Exchange. When traders believe that oil prices will rise, they buy oil futures in the hope of selling them down the road for a profit. Such buying increases oil prices, and, eventually, the price of gasoline, heating oil, and many other products.

Oil prices started to rise because traders saw clear signs that the US and global economy were rebounding after the Great Recession, creating more demand for oil. The weakening dollar and fears that Middle East turmoil would disrupt oil supplies have also pushed prices higher.

While popular opinion and media coverage often blame Middle East turmoil for higher oil prices, it’s only a partial explanation. After all, the Saudis are pumping extra oil to make up for lost oil from Libya. And while oil traders and many others thought that unrest in Bahrain could spread to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, this has not happened. We now have more oil in the markets than we need, pushing the Saudis to actually lower their oil production.

Enter speculation.

How speculation drives up oil prices

Only some traders are speculators. Speculators are those who do not produce or use oil, but buy oil futures solely to make a profit on price changes. Data released in March 2011 by Bart Chilton, commissioner of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, suggest that speculators have increased their positions in energy markets by 64 percent since June 2008. That’s the highest level on record.

Oil prices have continued to rise despite mixed news on oil supply and demand, a diminishing chance of Saudi oil disruptions, and Japan’s human and economic catastrophe. Such price movements were even more dramatic when oil prices rocketed from $50 in February 2007 to over $147 per barrel in July 2008. Rapid swings in price, which are hard to connect to traditional market forces, indicate the influence of speculation.


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