Presidential candidate John McCain said that while demand is the main reason for rising oil prices, speculators have contributed to the increase.Last night on the Factor, Bill discussed the issue of oil speculators with both Dick Morris and Dennis Kucinich. Morris agreed that whichever candidate took the more aggressive stance against the oil speculators would have a huge political advantage on this issue.
``There's a certain speculator effect here; how big that is is impossible for me to judge,'' McCain said in an interview on Bloomberg television today. ``There should be a thorough investigation.''
This issue seems tailor made for Barack Obama because he is so in love with regulations. That said, attacking oil speculators can be done with one simple regulation. In fact, the problem of oil speculation is very similar to the problem we had with speculation in stocks in 1929. Speculators can buy oil futures with only ten percent of the money down. In order to control the speculation, politicians need only to regulate a higher margin.
Of course, this plan is fraught with unintended consequences. For instance, it isn't merely oil futures that have ten percent margin but just about all futures work as such. In fact, the low margins create speculation, and frankly, what is a futures market if not a market for speculators. There is no doubt that such a plan would irk many a conservative. In fact, it didn't take long for conservative blog, Red State, to get irked.
Crude oil is a commodity that combines very large size (trillions of dollars per year) with excellent liquidity on futures markets, and is in demand.
Global demand for crude oil is at least stable (it’s falling in the developed countries, but rising like a rocket in Asia and the Middle East). That puts a floor under the crude price in the near term.As a result, crude oil has taken on many of the characteristics of an asset class (the kind of thing that investors buy) in addition to an industrial commodity. And as an asset, oil is very attractive because it acts as a hedge against inflation.
Why are investors buying an industrial commodity instead of the fixed-income securities they usually buy? Simple. Because there’s still a huge amount of sovereign money in the world (what Ben Bernanke calls the “savings glut”) and it tends to migrate into US Treasury debt. That raises the price and lowers the yield.
Far be it from me to disagree with this very tedious if not financially sound explanation of the oil market. Still, there is no doubt that speculators drive up the price of oil far beyond what any measures of supply and demand call for. There is varying degrees of speculation in all markets, however there are few markets as vital to our economy as oil. It is still up for debate whether or not more regulation on oil futures would be good for our society. What is not open for debate is that taking on the speculators is good for the political standing of whatever politician decides to do it. Of course, simply calling for investigations is not nearly enough. For now, John McCain has taken a baby step in this confrontation. If he is to make this a political issue, he will have to do a lot more than calling for investigations.