WASHINGTON — Oil and gasoline prices are rising fast as Memorial Day weekend approaches, but not because supplies are tight or demand is high.
U.S. crude-oil inventories are at their highest levels in almost two decades, and demand has fallen to a 10-year low, but crude oil prices have climbed more than 70 percent since mid-January to a six-month high of $62.04 on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, although refiners are operating at less than 85 percent of capacity, which leaves them plenty of room to churn out more gasoline if demand rises during the summer driving season, the price of gasoline at the pump has climbed 28 cents a gallon from a month earlier to $2.33.
This time, Wall Street speculators — some of them recipients of billions of dollars in taxpayers' bailout money — may be to blame.
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Big Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs & Co., Morgan Stanley and others are able to sidestep the regulations that limit investments in commodities such as oil, and they're investing on behalf of pension funds, endowments, hedge funds and other big institutional investors, in part as a hedge against rising inflation.
These investors now far outnumber big fuel consumers such as airlines and trucking companies, which try to protect themselves against price swings, and they're betting that the economy eventually will rebound, that the Obama administration's spending policies and Federal Reserve actions will trigger inflation — or both — and that oil prices will rise.
"They're buying because they think it will diversify their portfolio, and they think it will diversify their portfolio against inflation, and maybe they think the economy will turn around," said Michael Masters, a hedge-fund manager who testified before Congress last year about the consequences of what are called exchange-traded funds.
Oil contracts are traded mostly in U.S. dollars, and inflation would erode the value of oil earnings, stocks or any other asset denominated in U.S. currency. Many investors are pouring money into oil futures — contracts for future deliveries of oil at specified prices — in the belief that oil prices will rise as inflation erodes the dollar's value.
This turns oil futures contracts into a way for investors to hedge against inflation at the expense of American consumers, who have to pay more to fill their gas tanks as oil and gasoline prices rise.
Masters and other critics say this speculative flow of money into commodities markets is a self-fulfilling prophecy that's distorting the usual process by which buyers and sellers set prices and is driving up the prices of oil, gasoline, grains and other essentials.
"There is definitely an inflation premium at work here," said John Kilduff, a senior vice president of MF Global in New York, a brokerage house that helps large investors trade in energy markets.
In a report May 6, CNBC television senior energy correspondent Sharon Epperson said that traders told her that prices were disconnected from supply and demand.
"Nymex traders tell me they're seeing new money coming in from passive funds that are reallocating assets away from precious metals and into energy holdings. It's this money flow — rather than the fundamental supply-demand data — that's driving oil prices higher," she reported.
Morgan Stanley didn't respond to requests for comment via e-mail and telephone.
"Goldman Sachs declines to comment for your story," spokesman Michael DuVally said.
In a report April 16 on last year's spike in natural gas prices, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that similar investment flows drove up the price that consumers paid to heat their homes with natural gas.
"This increase in commodity prices occurred as large pools of capital flowed into various financial instruments that essentially turn commodities like natural gas into investment vehicles," the report says. "Ultimately, we believe that financial fundamentals . . . explains natural gas prices during the year."
During a visit to McClatchy's Washington Bureau, hedge-fund manager Masters also said that big institutional investors were sucking the air out of the fragile economic recovery, in part because their Wall Street partners were exempt from federal limits on how much they could bet on commodity prices.
"What they don't realize is because we don't have position limits, the money they put in is driving up the price" for oil and other commodities, he said.
Contracts for future deliveries of oil and other commodities are traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and the futures market for oil has position limits that restrict how much of the market big speculators can control.
However, big Wall Street banks are exempt from these restrictions, and there also are no such limits in derivatives markets. These vast unregulated markets involve private contracts between swaps dealers — usually big Wall Street banks — and large investors. These dark markets, also called over-the-counter markets, are thought to be 10 times larger than the futures market, and they have no position limits and no regulation.
"We were in essence operating with a blindfold on for those over-the-counter markets that we couldn't see," Michael Dunn, the acting chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, acknowledged last week during a news conference to announce proposed new regulation of derivatives markets.
A stream of financial deregulation under the Clinton administration, culminating in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, led to a global race away from regulation.
"The Modernization Act specifically said we were not going to look at those; we weren't going to regulate them. Times have changed, and now we think it is time for us to look at them," Dunn said.
Does Dunn think that Wall Street is partly to blame for the current $27-a-barrel run-up in oil prices or for the 12-month run-up from $70 to last July's record $147, followed by the four-month collapse in prices to $56?
"Everybody has an opinion of what drove the market in the energy crisis. Do I think it was part of the problem? I do," he said. "Do I think it was all of the problem? No.
"I think monetary policies — a weak dollar — had an impact on it. I think speculation by the herd, people saying prices of fuel are going to go up and I want to get in on that" also played a part.
The International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which represents the big players in these markets, said in a statement to McClatchy that fundamentals, not speculation, were driving up prices.
"Oil prices are fundamentally driven by macroeconomic factors affecting supply and demand," the group said. "Energy derivatives are a key tool for helping companies manage the resulting fluctuations in prices."
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