Limits on futures trading could boost gas prices, expert says

July 25, 2008,

Proposals to reign in wallet-draining gasoline prices by curbing speculation in oil markets would likely increase costs at the pump instead of trimming them, a University of Illinois economist says.

Scott Irwin argues congressional efforts to curb trading by speculators is a "misguided witch hunt" that ignores the root of America's energy problem – a finite global oil supply that has been stretched thin by surging demand in China, India and other developing countries.

"We need to have a real national debate about issues related to both the demand side and the supply side of our energy use. That's what we need to be focusing on, not speculators," said Irwin, an agricultural and consumer economics professor who testified this month before a House committee considering limits on speculation in futures markets.

The Senate voted unanimously this week to move ahead on legislation to curtail speculation in oil futures markets, which Irwin contends would be a step backward in the battle against $4-a-gallon gasoline prices.

"If the markets become overregulated, they become less efficient mechanisms for transferring risk from parties who don't want to bear it to those that do, creating added costs that ultimately get passed back to consumers," Irwin said.

Dozens of proposals have surfaced to scale back speculation that has exploded in oil markets over the last few years. Billions of dollars have been pumped into oil futures and related over-the-counter derivative contracts, which supporters of trading limits contend has artificially inflated oil prices by 20 to 50 percent.

Irwin maintains that speculation accounts, at most, for a small part of the recent spike in oil prices, based on a recent study of commodity futures markets he conducted with Southern Illinois University agribusiness economist Dwight Sanders.

The study shows that a surge in trading by commodity firms has offset the dramatic rise in speculation, maintaining a market balance of buyers and sellers.

"The bottom line is that the balance between hedgers and speculators in our commodity markets today is very much within historical norms for these markets going back to the 1940s," he said. "We argue that when there's a buyer and a seller, the market will balance itself."

Another key, Irwin says, is that investments by speculators largely amount to "side bets" on the price of oil and other commodities. "They rarely buy and hold physical tanks of crude oil. That's where the price is set," he said.

He says history is dotted with misguided attacks on speculators, including a 50-year-old ban on onion futures trading that producers are seeking to repeal even as limits are being mulled for oil markets.

"We have been here before and we have made now well-documented mistakes in trying to over-regulate markets, so let's not make the same mistake again," said Irwin, who has studied the impact on speculation on commodity futures for nearly 25 years.

Ironically, Irwin says his earlier research dealt with cases where speculators were blamed for driving down farm commodity prices.

"That says something all by itself," he said. "In all big market cycles, when prices are very low, the natural sellers such as farmers will start screaming that speculators are the problem. And when prices are really high, the natural buyers in the market – consumers and processors – are the ones screaming."

"There's a tendency to look for a scapegoat, and speculators are the convenient scapegoat," he said. "But, really, it's a supply and demand issue."

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Explore further: General Electric dropped from Dow Jones stock index

Related Stories

Study: Oil speculators dominate open interest in oil futures

August 27, 2009

A new policy paper by Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy shows a clear increase in the size and influence of noncommercial traders, or "speculators," in the oil futures market since regulations were eased ...

Recommended for you

T. Rex couldn't stick out its tongue, new research shows

June 20, 2018

Dinosaurs are often depicted as fierce creatures, baring their teeth, with tongues wildly stretching from their mouths like giant, deranged lizards. But new research reveals a major problem with this classic image: Dinosaurs ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2008
Enron... Enron... Enron...
The problem is not regulation, but lack of it.
Of course the speculators are not going to like having their gambling toys confiscated.
1.5 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2008
Supply has so far kept up with demand. Its not a near term supply problem that's driving up prices.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2008
I have to agree with this... If you just let the free market take its course eventually it evens itself out.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2008
In the land of magic!

In reality it allows a few people exploit everybody else.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2008
Study your economics - supply vs demand...and the so-called "speculators" are part of the equation...or shall we become a state-controlled economy with price controls etc, like the days of Nixon, Stalin (et al), Mao(et al) and Fidel? If you must punish the "Speculators" I suggest you first clearly define them instead of run amok with generalities.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2008
Gregori there is nothing magical about the consumer/supplier relationship. To tell you the truth we are probably lucky that we are in an election year and nobody wants to go across the aisle to undermine his/her party. This way they have been stopped in their tracks trying to make hasty laws and regulations. Gas has skyrocketed, the people who make cars are hurting and forced to get off their lazy asses and actually do some R&D, to give choosy spenders something they now demand. That is how free market works there, no leprechauns needed! In the end everyone will be doing business better, and more cost efficient.
4 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2008
speculators my ass. They follow. The net effect of what they do is lend nothing but extra randomness to the market. Let's not confuse sentiment and speculation. Speculation is betting on trends. Sentiment manifests itself in trends. The lead is consumption offset by the rate coming in. When analysts perceive the rate flowing out is greater then the rate flowing in, the commodity price should increase. The best way to drive up the price is to airbrush missiles into pictures of your daytime sky pointing at Israel, meahwhile taking long positions in the oil and gas futures markets. Or kidnap some British sailors. Or whatever the state sponsored insolance du jour is. IF YOU WANT TO STABILIZE ENERGY PRICES STOP DOING BUSINESS WITH THE CHILDREN IN THE MIDDLE EAST. No mysterious evil for the paranoid in that. Muhwhuhahaha.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.