From canceling oil leases in his second week in office to denying the XL Pipeline this year President Obama and his administration have offered up a non-stop assault on affordable energy. Now that high gasoline prices have come home to roost, the president is flailing around for an energy policy.
His recent attempts at energy policy include:
- Nobody can do anything about high gasoline prices.
- Maybe I should release crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
- There is a lot of drilling that I haven’t been able to stop. Don’t I get credit for that?
The latest attempt is to blame everything on speculators. And why not? Previous polling shows that 80 percent of Americans believe petroleum price spikes are caused by speculation, which means no more than 20 percent believe it is caused by the fundamentals of supply and demand.
There are several flaws in “the speculators did it” theory. The first is why do they only do it occasionally? That is, why don’t speculators want to make unconscionable profits all the time?
Second, why do the index funds and all the other bad guys only speculate in oil? Where are the profiteering speculators in natural gas, whose current price is about half of what it averaged over the last decade?
Third, there are sophisticated traders on both sides of the petroleum markets. For every speculator who makes money on a trade, somebody else will lose money. Blaming speculators on continued price increases requires an endless string of chumps to take the other side of the speculators’ deals. If anybody should be the chumps, it should be the newbies from the insurance industry and hedge funds, but they are at the top of the most-wanted list.
Finally, for speculation to drive up prices, the speculators must either cause oil production to slow down (which they haven’t) or to pull oil off the market. If the flow of petroleum and its products remains unchanged, the price at the pump will not change. If petroleum is pulled off the market, which can happen even though there are limits to what can be stored, it will eventually come back on the market. And the question becomes, “When the oil comes back on the market, is the price higher or lower than when it was pulled off the market?” The price will only be higher if the amount supplied at that time is lower or the demand is higher. In either of those cases, speculators have helped moderate price fluctuations and will be rewarded with profits. If the price is lower, then the speculators did a bad thing and will be punished by losing money.
The real problem is that combating high gasoline prices requires a greater supply, and this administration’s policies have pushed the other way. It seems the administration does not really want lower gasoline prices. Steven Chu, Obama’s non-car-owning Secretary of Energy, famously said we need to get our gasoline prices up to the $8-$10/gallon level they are in Europe.
Unfortunately for the president, the voters want more gasoline and lower prices. So, in the time-honored Washington tradition, he creates a boogeyman and blames his energy failures on speculators.