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Oil price gouging: From Enron with love

By David Usher
web posted June 11, 2007

Remember what Enron did to California and millions of investors? It took advantage of deregulation in California, manipulating electricity prices by raiding the futures market, overscheduling power lines, and creating fears about shortages. PG&E went bankrupt because it could not raise rates to customers. The whole thing unraveled, and Enron went down in flames in the biggest bankruptcy in American history.

Enron was a clumsy corporate attempt to raid a captive energy market. It was also a proving grounds testing how much monkey business a single corporation can get away with. Savvy investment firms and avaricious lawyers analyzed the Enron case – realizing they could turn a huge buck on oil futures – so long as they tacitly let oil companies constrain the oil supply without manipulating the supply directly themselves.

Giant speculative investment funds and oil companies now make tremendous profits raiding the oil spot-market, playing seemingly separate but implicitly cooperative roles serving up the same end-effect as Enron wreaked on California. But this time, the victim is the American consumer, not energy producers and distributors.

Federal and state politicians in both parties have failed to address this "Enroning of America" because government is on the take too. Taxes rise with gasoline prices, fattening political contributions while feeding slush budgets and pork barrels at both the state and federal levels.

Oil companies grin like Howard Stern on satellite because outrageous spot market prices drive windfall profits. Record oil-company windfall profits are derived from gross internal company book-value transfers of oil products made between offshore divisions to U.S. operations – the value differential pegged to spot market prices – which also has the concurrent effect of exporting tax liabilities overseas.

Fears of global warming, fears of shortages due to weather or minor refinery disruptions, Middle-East stability, and consumption in China have turned high gasoline prices into an honorable predation in service of imaginary higher moral and political purposes.

National Public Radio first documented this problem in its story "Analyst: Blame Investors for High Gas Prices". The story revealed a truth: "Investment banks from Morgan Stanley to Goldman Sachs are making so much money from oil futures that they've become a hot investment for all sorts of big-money players." Ben Dell, an oil analyst and Sanford Bernstein calls it correctly, if not conservatively: "pension funds and other investors are buying oil to remove it from the market -- which can help drive up demand -- before selling it for a profit some months later":

"I think if you saw all the pension funds walk away you'd probably see a $20 drop in the crude price."

Dell thinks that mass speculation will end when production capacity meets demand. This is a backwards analysis. Production capacity will never meet demand so long as mass speculation makes unproductivity immensely profitable. According to the International Monetary fund (IMF), oil companies have not invested in additional production capacity – thus intentionally maintaining record oil company profits. Oil companies are negatively motivated to increase capacity in the speculatively-manipulated market because they reap tremendous profits by sitting on their thumbs.

Gouging by playing "Fear Factor"

Oil companies normally buy some spot oil futures against excess production by other oil companies to make sure they will have enough crude. In this legitimate market, there are only so many dollars chasing so many excess barrels of future oil.

Pension and other large speculative bank-owned investors discovered they could manipulate the market out of sheer size. By making huge purchases of futures, they could accelerate fears, take oil offline, drive the price up even more – and make handsome profits in just a few weeks or months. The spot market is now distorted – too many dollars chasing around the same amount spot oil. Minor fluctuations in gas prices became wide swings. The word "hurricane" is all it takes to provide cover for raiders to buy in. Over time, the constant pressure to maintain futures profits has caused steep, consistent rises in baseline crude and refined prices over the past five years.

Analyzing the roughly 566% increase of crude oil prices since 1995, accompanied by a parallel rise in refined-gasoline prices, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) admits that fear is the major factor driving oil price gouging:

"Naturally, given the tightness in the oil market and uncertainties about demand and supply, factors such as geopolitical developments, fears of potential supply disruptions, and speculation have also all played a part in price movements, but largely through their impact on expectations regarding future fundamentals."

After identifying fear as the major factor, the IMF absolved its institutional friends manipulating those fears, suggesting the effect of entry into the market by Hedge and pension funds merely adds "diversity" to the market that can "be a source of liquidity and price discovery". Read between the lines, America: the IMF just admitted that banks and pension funds are "discovering" new oil prices by flooding a brittle market with paper purchases, and laughing all the way back to the bank.

Is There Really an Oil Shortage?

In 1978, I flew to Europe to visit a college friend who worked in London. An oil-trader friend of his from Paris flew in for a weekend restaurant tour with us. When I asked the man what he did for a living, he replied confidently "I f*** the world". I was shocked then, and even more-so today.

If data by the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA) is reliable, there is no actual shortage of either oil or production capacity in relation to consumption.

Between 1980 and 2004, world consumption increased by 30.8%, while U.S. consumption increased only 21.5%. World production increased 23.2%, but U.S. production actually decreased by 40.3%.

In terms of world static supply and demand, in 2004 73,387 thousand barrels/day (TBD) of oil were produced, against demand of 82,594 TBD consumed. This would leave a 12% structural deficit. However, looking at 1980 world data, we also see a 5.7% deficit: 59,557 TBD were produced against consumption of 63,113 TBD.

The EIA data suggests a long-term physical impossibility: world consumption has been actually outstripping world production for many years. I conclude there is data missing from EIA reports. This could consist of under-reporting of production, over-reporting of consumption, or perhaps both.

World distillation capacity rose 81% from 47,049 TBD in 1970, to 85,304 TBD in 2007. However, distillation capacity increased only 6.7% between 1980 and 2007. It is interesting to note that the EIA reports 2007 distillation capacity of 85,304 TBD, which factoring-in demand growth, is roughly in-line with 2004 consumption of 82,594 TBD (post-2004 consumption data is not available yet.

In the United States, distillation capacity actually decreased from 17,988 TBD in 1980 to 17,397 TBD in 2007. The lowest point in U.S. distillation capacity occurred in 1994, when capacity was only 15,034 TBD.

Proven reserve data suggests a very positive future outlook. Proven U.S. reserves rose 734% from 29.81 billion barrels in 1980 to 213.32 billion barrels in 2004. Proven world reserves grew 204% from 644.93 billion barrels in 1980 to 1,317.44 billion barrels in 2007.

Now, we look at spot-market oil prices. In 1974, oil cost about $5 per barrel. By January, 1980 oil nearly quintupled to $24 per barrel. It dropped to a low point of $9.50 in 1999, skyrocketed to $58 per barrel in 2005, peaking at $69.52 in August, 2006.

We see that oil prices exploded 173% between 1999 to August, 2006. This is a breathtaking change for a necessary commodity.

Is there really a shortage? We can say conclusively that we have not seen gas lines in any free world country. This suggests there is no actual shortage in either the United States or the world.

Here is what we can take away from the above information:

  • U.S. oil companies cut back U.S. distillation capacity substantially between 1980 and 2004. This seeded fears. Spot market prices rose tremendously, thus increasing profits to oil companies.
  • U.S. oil companies decreased stateside production 40.3% between 1980 and 2004, driving fears about dependence on foreign oil, and creating an illusion that shortages were imminent.
  • These two items, in conjunction with speculative manipulation of the spot market by banks and pension funds, caused oil company profits to soar. The world's three largest oil companies netted profits of $172,000 per minute during the second quarter of 2006. Profits going forward look similarly bullish.

The Effects of Inflated Energy Costs

Enronesque oil speculation disproportionately affects low-income Americans to the immediate benefit of oil companies, governmental bodies, and upper-class investors. The poorest Americans can least afford transportation, thus marginalizing them.

Economists believe that maximizing private retirement funds will result in lower demands on Social Security as baby-boomers retire. However, the high present-day cost of oil decreases what individuals can afford to contribute to their retirement funds – perhaps taking marginal investors out of the contemporary investment picture entirely.

Robbing the bank today to save the bank tomorrow is a zero-sum game. When low-income Americans can no longer afford to drive longer distances getting to work, they settle for lower wages available close to home. In inner-city and remote rural locations, where employment opportunities are scarce or non-existent, employment may no longer even be feasible. Present-day welfare demands can be predicted to rise, and social security contributions predicted to fall.

This problem is not limited to oil markets. In the name of "deregulation", investors are now raiding electricity markets nationwide. This is driving up home energy costs for everyone, causing utility companies to defer lifecycle replacement of end-of-life equipment, resulting in massive power outages caused by wet or cold weather failures of antiquated step-down equipment never before experienced by customers.

For example, several extended power outages in Missouri affecting over ½ million customers each can be attributed to failure of Ameren U.E. to proactively replace old step-down transformers, which explode when rusting enclosures permit moisture entry during inclement weather. Here is proof: this past February, I counted seven step-down transformer explosions, on one day, within earshot of my home after a large wet snowstorm.

Clearly, constraints must be applied to all energy markets to ensure free resource exchanges within markets undistorted by giant speculative investors.

High energy costs make international outsourcing of manufacturing and exportable service industries attractive in countries where workers commonly walk, use public transportation, ride bicycles, or live in corporate dormitories. High energy costs also raise the bar at which Americans will work, making illegal immigration more attractive to foreigners and American businesses.

The Answer

The U.S. House of Representative recently passed oil price-gouging legislation that would force the major oil companies to break up. This feel-good legislation will not fix the problem because it does not change the passive but orchestrated role played by oil producers and speculators profiting from the gouging game.

For many years, Presidents and politicians have repeatedly promised actions to reduce dependence on foreign oil, while knowingly permitting oil companies to decrease stateside production capacity and increase our dependence on foreign oil. The jig is up. No politician can survive without taking decisive action to end the "Enroning Of America". This must be one of the leading issues in upcoming Congressional and Presidential races.

Five things should be done. A free market will not exist until speculative investing is fully disallowed for critical energy commodities including oil and electricity:

Small investors holding retirement accounts should boycott investment firms and mutual funds that tout or place any of their funds in spot market futures. You do not gain by paying outrageous gas prices now only to be paid back in cheaper dollars later.

Consumer class-action lawsuits, perhaps invoking RICO should be filed against oil producers and investment firms, to recover illicit profits and return them to consumers. Governmental bodies who received windfall taxes should also be named and forced to return the taxes. With a case like this, it won't be necessary to shop the case out to the corrupt the corrupt bench in Madison County, Illinois.

Speculation must not be permitted in mission-critical markets. Congress must enact Federal legislation limiting spot-market trading in oil and utilities to companies that directly produce, refine, or sell oil. Congressional hearings must be had to interview executives in both industries and discover the extent of monopolistic collaboration.

If information discovered in Congressional hearings and class-action suits warrants, criminal charges should be filed against executives in both industries who have knowingly collaborated to gouge the American consumer. ESR

David R. Usher is Senior Policy Analyst for the True Equality Network and President of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Missouri Coalition.


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