Obama calls for tougher penalties for oil market manipulators

With gas prices a big election issue, Obama says Congress should enact new curbs on speculation and illegal manipulation in a market now dominated by investors.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama, flanked by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (l.) and Attorney General Eric Holder, speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 17, about a plan to increase oversight and crack down on manipulation in oil markets.

President Obama called Tuesday for stepped-up oversight of oil markets, plus tougher penalties on trading firms caught trying to manipulate energy prices.

He asked Congress to provide more funds for regulators to monitor commodities trading and pursue rogue activities by investors. He also called for a tenfold increase in penalties when violations are found, and for those penalties to be levied for each day that manipulation persists, rather than for each general instance of manipulation. 

The president also said Congress should grant new authority to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to raise margin requirements on traders, in a bid to reduce market volatility and to ensure that investors can make good on their trades.

His appeal comes with US gasoline prices edging toward $4 a gallon, and with many voters citing high gas prices as a top pocketbook concern ahead of November's presidential election. Currently the price of regular gas is $3.90 per gallon, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

Many factors influence oil prices, from the strength of economic demand to concerns about how instability in oil-producing regions might affect supply. Mr. Obama cast his proposals as just part of an "all of the above" strategy to tame energy prices and to reduce US dependence on imported oil.

"None of these steps by themselves will bring gas prices down overnight," but they will help, he said. 

The new Obama proposals coincide with Republican efforts to push their own energy strategy, which calls for more aggressive efforts to develop domestic oil and gas resources. Republicans argue that Obama has paid little more than lip service to expanding fossil-fuel output at home.  

"We can harness our natural resources and end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina said on his website Monday. "But that won’t happen until Washington receives a wakeup call from the American people."

The debate over domestic drilling promises to be an important one in the presidential race. 

In effect, Obama was changing the subject Tuesday, arguing that another factor – market manipulation – is an important factor behind high oil prices.

Finance experts note that everything from tensions over Iran's nuclear program to trends in US refineries affects prices. But many agree with the notion that speculative investors now play a greater role in energy markets than they used to – though the effect of their trading activity on retail gas prices is inconclusive.

Still, a declining share of commodity market activity reflects the actions of producers and consumers of products like gasoline, and a growing share is accounted for by either "passive investors" (often viewing commodity investments as a hedge against inflation) and active traders seeking to profit from market volatility.

"Financial firms and speculators now make up the vast majority of these markets," CFTC chairman Gary Gensler said in testimony to Congress last month.

Already, some trading firms have been nabbed for market manipulation and have paid penalties as a result of federal prosecution. A central goal of Obama's latest proposals is to signal that cops are on the beat.

In his recent testimony, Mr. Gensler said an explosion of financial products related to commodities has left his agency short-staffed. "It is as if all of a sudden the National Football League (NFL) expanded eight times to play more than 100 games in a weekend. I think we’d all agree that the same number of referees could not monitor all those games."

Obama cited Gensler's football analogy in making his pitch for more CFTC funding, which would allow the agency to add personnel and upgrade its technology.

Prior to making his pitch for new legislative steps, Obama had set up a Gas Price Fraud Working Group, with various federal agencies involved, and had taken other steps designed to boost oversight of energy markets.

Trading schemes to push prices artificially up or down are generally short-term in nature, while longer-term trends are largely driven by supply and demand fundamentals, economists say. Still, market manipulation can impose significant losses on other market participants, including ordinary consumers of products like gasoline, say proponents of tighter enforcement.

Under Obama's proposal, Congress would boost potential civil and criminal penalties, which now run as high as $1 million, or three times the financial gains reaped by illegal activity, or 10 years in prison for a criminal conviction.

The new penalties could go as high as $10 million per day, three times the illegal gains, or three times the losses to victims. 

"This would ensure that where the losses to victims were greater than the gains to the defendant, the penalty reflected the magnitude of the misconduct," a White House fact sheet on the proposal said.

Potential sentences in criminal cases would also rise.

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