President Obama, doing his best imitation of a late 19th-century prairie populist, recently pinned the blame for rising gasoline prices on speculators in energy futures markets. Just as the prairie populists were wrong about the market impact of “paper” futures trading in wheat, Mr. Obama is wrong about “paper” futures trading in crude oil.
The first problem with the attack on speculation in energy futures markets by Mr. Obama and his supporters is that no one can seem to agree on the exact target. Some argue that the problem is related to a wave of investment in long-only commodity index funds that overwhelmed the normal functioning of commodity futures markets, most notably crude oil. Others argue that, no, the real problem is found in the rise of hedge fund trading in these markets. Still others say the problem is actually due to the activities of a new type of “high frequency” trader who enters and exits markets by the millisecond. In his own remarks, Mr. Obama focused on shadowy traders that manipulate markets in the fashion of Enron.
The fact that opponents of “speculation” can’t even agree on the type of trader at fault is in itself a powerful indictment of the charges. One is instead left with the impression of a gang who couldn’t shoot straight rather than a reasoned and thoughtful analysis of energy markets.