Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What’s Driving Skyrocketing Oil Prices?

Last week came the news that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is investigating potential manipulation of the oil trading market.

That’s a good thing, though the CFTC is not exactly the most aggressive regulator around. (Says Judy Dugan of Consumer Watchdog: “On its face, the investigation smacks of the fox investigating a hen shortage in the chicken coop.”)

Market manipulation may be contributing to the recent oil price spike — though even in the worst case, it is only part of the story. The most important factor is supply and demand: supply is having trouble keeping up with unabated demand growth.

Are Wall Street firms and hedge funds in fact manipulating the oil market? Perhaps. There are certainly enough conflicts of interest, and unregulation, to make such activity plausible. These aren’t exactly guys with an honorable track record.

Whether speculation is driving price up is a separate issue from manipulation. Investment dollars are pouring into oil futures, pretty clearly driving up price. This reflects supply and demand for oil futures as an investment tool, more than available supply and demand for actual crude oil. Some nontrivial portion of the recent run-up in price is almost certainly due to this speculative activity, which is fueled by leveraged buying (use of borrowed money).

At the end of 2007, with oil prices around $100 a barrel (a shocking height, just half a year ago), Jennifer Wedekind, my colleague at Multinational Monitor, interviewed roughly a dozen oil analysts about the price of oil. They were divided on the reasons for high oil prices of $100, with some agreeing that speculation — but not manipulation — played a role and others fiercely denying it.

Among those attributing some role to speculation was Linda Rafield, a senior oil analyst, with Platts: “We have seen money market funds and asset managers and portfolio managers definitely putting money to work in the commodities sector, and that certainly has bolstered prices, since most of those people notoriously will trade from the long side.” Against speculation as a factor was Jeff Rubin, chief economist and chief strategist, CIBC World Markets. Asked what factors were driving the price spike, he said, “Certainly not Middle Eastern instability or speculation or so-called geopolitical factors.”

Six months later, it seems like speculation has become increasingly important. It’s just very hard to identify what has happened in the last half year to jump prices by a third.

A second key factor in rising prices is the decline in the value of the dollar. A barrel of oil today is worth a barrel of oil tomorrow. If the dollar is worth less tomorrow than today, then the dollar value of a barrel of oil will be higher tomorrow. Against a basket of currencies, the dollar has fallen by 25 percent since 2003, and considerably more since its peak in 2001.

But, whatever the allocation of blame for today’s price, the most important factor in the big picture is supply and demand.

Global demand is growing at a steady clip, thanks to very rapidly rising oil use in China, India and the Middle East.

Global supply is stretched thin. Some argue this is because the world is at or near “peak oil production,” a tipping point when half the world’s oil has been extracted, and yields begin to decline, with very major price effects.

A different view is uncomfortable with the apocalyptic element of peak oil theory. From this vantage point, more oil — or close substitutes, like tar sands or shale — is available, but it is harder and more expensive to get. This is the preferred view of the oil industry analysts (many of whom note that much oil that is easily attained from a technological standpoint — for example, in Iraq — is hard to reach for political reasons).

Either way, the supply challenges combined with rapidly growing demand means the world is going to see steadily higher prices. Additionally, very tight supplies will inevitably lead to price spikes that appear irrational from a close-up view.

Says Charles Maxwell, senior energy analyst at Weeden & Co: “So long as capacity utilization in the world crude oil producing system is running at 98 percent, which it is today, and so long as perhaps one-and-a-half, 2 percent, that’s excess, is in the form of Saudi heavy, sour crudes, which the typical American refinery can’t use any more of — they use some, but they can’t use any more of because it has very serious effects in pitting the insides of these pipes and then requiring the refinery to shut down for a long time and the redoing of all the pipes — we’re going to have these periodic price rises of this sort.”

Explains Maxwell: “Any system needs to have a little cushion between adversity that strikes — weather factors or cut-offs for political purposes or political struggles from civil wars. We don’t have in this system enough of a cushion. Normally, capacity utilization is considered ideal around 94 to 95 percent. So our 98 percent capacity utilization is well above that and we can’t get it down, because it takes 5 to 7 years to create it and we aren’t spending the money today that would create it 5 to 7 years out.”

So, by all means, forward with a robust investigation of market manipulation, and yes to re-regulating oil markets that are now too financialized and removed from the buying and selling of real oil.

But the supply-demand challenges facing the world are much more serious than the speculative and other factors contributing to the present run-up in price.

It’s hard to imagine why the United States — or the world — would need more incentive than responding to climate change to invest in renewables, mandate much tougher efficiency standards for cars and a switch away from the internal combustion engine, and massively scale up public transportation. But climate change doomsday scenarios have, so far, not proven enough. Perhaps the prospect of $200/barrel oil will.

ROBERT WEISSMAN is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor and director of Essential Action.

 

 

More articles by:

ROBERT WEISSMAN is president of Public Citizen.

Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail