Friday, October 22, 2004

Why Are Oil Prices So High?

I've heard some of the explanations, and they make some sense: the hurricanes shut down production in the Gulf of Mexico for a while. There has been unrest in Angola. But the Iraq situation shouldn't matter much; they haven't shipped that much oil since Gulf War I. Dan Gifford, a long-time journalist, tells me about the following interesting items that he has heard recently. From financial journalist Jim Cramer (no relation) on CNBC's "Kudlow and Cramer" show:
I don't want to sound too conspiratorial here, but there's something about this oil market that just doesn't smell right. Do you think certain big hedge funds could be buying oil contracts to drive the market up in order to make our current leader [George W. Bush] look bad?
From Jon Burnham, Burnham Financial Group, October 12, 2004, CNBC-TV, "Closing Bell" 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM ET:
The price of oil is high because it's being pushed up by speculators and money from the big hedge funds. The important thing that gets lost in all that is that there is no shortage of crude oil in relation to current demand.
And from Adel al-Jubeir, Advisor to the Saudi Crown Prince September 28, 2004 at about 1:40 PM Pacific time, CNBC interview with Maria Bartaromo:
We believe the price of oil should be between $22 and $28 per barrel. $25 is a good reasonable price. There is no extra demand accompanying today's very high price for oil. We are seeing no extra customers lined up and there is no shortage of supply. The high prices we are seeing are due to speculation in the oil markets.
Then we have this interesting item from the New Yorker (of all places):
On August 6th, a week after the Democratic Convention, a clandestine summit meeting took place at the Aspen Institute, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The participants, all Democrats, were sworn to secrecy, and few of them will discuss the event. One thing that is certain, however, is that the guests formed a tableau that not many people would associate with the Democratic Party of the past. Five billionaires joined half a dozen liberal leaders in a lengthy conversation about the future of progressive politics in America. The billionaires were not especially close socially, nor were they in complete agreement about politics or strategy. Yet they shared a common goal: to use their fortunes to engineer the defeat of President George W. Bush in the 2004 election.

“No one was supposed to know about this,” an assistant to one participant told me, declining to be named. “We don’t want people thinking it’s a cabal, or some sort of Masonic plot!” His concern was understandable: the prospect of rich men concentrating their wealth in order to sway an American election was an inflammatory one, particularly given the Democratic Party’s populist rhetoric....

The meeting’s organizer was Peter B. Lewis, the seventy-year-old reclusive chairman of the Progressive Corporation, an insurance company based in Cleveland, Ohio. He has spent much of 2004 discreetly directing millions of dollars to liberal groups allied with the Democratic Party, such as America Coming Together and, while cruising the Mediterranean Sea on his two-hundred-and-fifty-foot yacht, Lone Ranger. The yacht has communications equipment that allows Lewis to monitor political developments in America while sunbathing off the coast of Italy.


Flying in from Arizona was John Sperling, an octogenarian businessman who in 1976 created the for-profit University of Phoenix....

Herb and Marion Sandler, a California couple in their seventies, came to Aspen looking for ways to give back to a country that had allowed them to prosper. The founders of Golden West Financial Corporation, a savings-and-loan company worth seventeen billion dollars, the Sandlers are devoted to the idea of preserving progressive income taxes and inheritance taxes.

The wealthiest participant at this meeting of hard-core partisans—and the one whose presence was the most surprising—was George Soros, the seventy-four-year-old Wall Street speculator turned philanthropist.


Sperling proposed a potential new project for the group: unionizing Wal-Mart workers. Soros, however, had no interest in union drives. He wanted to stay focussed on the main objective—ousting Bush. Yet he also warned the group against the idea of combatting right-wing propaganda with leftist demagoguery. “I do not have an interest in replacing one extremist movement with another,” he said.

Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, a holdover from the traditional working-class base of the Democratic Party, was also at the summit. In an interview not long ago, he conceded that consorting with billionaires had become a strange but increasingly common part of his job. “I have to admit, I used to think I was doing well when I met millionaires,” he said. “I’m glad we’ve got the billionaires with us. But it did feel a bit odd.”


The Quantum fund, a pool for hugely wealthy investors that profited by anticipating and exploiting price swings in foreign currencies, is famously iconoclastic. Soros recently passed much of the fund’s management to his two grown sons, Robert and Jonathan, but under his direction it rejected the prevailing orthodoxy about the rationality of the market in favor of the notion that markets were prone to chaos and distortions stemming from human error.
Now, the Quantum Fund is no stranger to oil trading. But what is interesting is another remark in the New Yorker article. After explaining that Soros has contributed $18.5 million to defeat George Bush:
Critics of Soros see his donations as brazenly hypocritical, considering that, until recently, he was a leading crusader for campaign-finance reform in America. Starting in the late nineteen-nineties, he donated eighteen million dollars to groups that supported the cause, and he is credited with having contributed significantly to the passage of the McCain-Feingold law. When Soros was asked about this reversal, he said, “This is the most important election of my lifetime. These aren’t normal times. The ends justify every legal means possible.”
Now, Soros has said in the past that he would give away all his billions if he could be guaranteed of defeating Bush--and you wonder, since Soros has been a big player in currency markets in the past, if he could be manipulating oil prices right now.

Remember this: until oil prices started skyrocketing in early summer, the economy seemed to be flying upwards. What would it cost for Soros, Lewis, and some of the other billionaires to manipulate oil markets? It doesn't have to last for long--just long enough to derail the economy into October. You don't need to actually buy hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil. You can buy and sell oil future delivery contracts for a fraction of the final delivery price. (This highly leveraged nature of futures contracts is why you can make--or lose--an enormous amount of money in commodities trading.) Once you start playing with the price of a commodity, and causing panic buying, you can jerk the price up--or down--quite impressively.

I don't know for sure, but I would guess that people at Soros's level can probably spend two or three billion dollars to adjust future prices of 50 or 100 times that much oil--at least for a few months. The Quantum Fund was, back in the 1990s, what is called a "global macro fund", described this way:
By borrowing money to buy and sell futures contracts—themselves a powerful form of leverage—macro funds possessed the capability to move indexes like Japan's Nikkei or to influence significantly the value of important international currencies.
Now, supposedly the Quantum Fund isn't that powerful anymore. But is it powerful enough? Soros also returned to an active role in the Quantum Fund in 2002--after 9/11, when it became apparent that Soros was going to have to do something to bring down George Bush.

Large scale commodities market manipulation can't continue indefinitely, and you can lose your shirt on this sort of thing--but Soros has already said that he was willing to lose it all to defeat Bush. On the other hand, with a little care, he might actually make money. This article reports:
Soros, the founder of Quantum Endowment Fund, one of the world's largest hedge funds, was dubbed "The Man who broke the Bank of England" for his role in betting heavily that the pound would fall in 1992. As a result, Britain suffered a humiliating exit from Europe's exchange rate mechanism -- the precursor to Europe's 12-nation currency. It was rumored that Soros earned $1 billion in a day with his bet against the British pound.
Of course, I doubt that an oil play like this could be kept secret indefinitely--but certainly, President Kerry's Justice Department isn't going to prosecute George Soros for winning him the election. If we suddenly see oil prices drop down again after the election, I certainly hope the Bush Administration will take a serious look at possible market manipulation. But if Bush loses, there won't be investigation at all.

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