For once, it is the Democrats who have the right idea ... we can only hope that the Republicans come along.
Senators Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid are pushing legislation to restore the controls over the oil future's market speculation that existed before brokerage houses like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley set up a commodities exchange in London to evade restrictions imposed by the Federal Commodities Trading Corporation.
The FCTC had allowed those in the oil biz to buy and sell oil futures - essentially bets on how the price will change - but restricted investment by speculators. After the brokerage houses went offshore so as to be able to indulge their passion for a quick buck, the total traded in oil futures soared from $13 billion in 2003 to $260 billion now. It is this tail that is wagging the dog in pushing up the price of oil and gas at the pump.
The FCTC regulations remained in effect all through the Reagan and Bush years. Indeed, they were only repealed after they had been obviated by the off shore move so as not to disadvantage domestic commodities exchanges. We realized that oil is too valuable a strategic and economic commodity to permit its price to be determined by gamblers betting on the future price. So the FCTC let those in the industry, like oil companies and airlines, invest in oil futures but stopped outsiders from doing so.
The Democrats are pushing legislation to restore the status quo ante and stop the brokerage firms from playing the oil futures game. Their bill would apply the restrictions on oil futures’ purchases to domestic American companies even if they trade off shore.
If there is any doubt that it is speculation, not the supply and demand for oil, that is driving up the price, look at this week’s history of oil prices. After Bush announced that he was rescinding his father’s executive order and permitting off shore drilling and after OPEC announced a weakening of oil demand, the futures market price dropped $15 per barrel. No new oil gushed through the system. The speculators just switched their bets from up to down. With the Democratic bill, they will just have to double their bets on horse racing and leave oil futures alone!
Some Republicans are reflexively opposing the Democratic proposal, citing the sanctity of free markets. But even Reagan didn’t want to allow unbridled gambling in oil futures. There is nothing wrong with letting the free market in oil determine the price of the product. And there is a lot right with letting it do so. But it is insane to let gamblers magnify the effect of anticipated changes in supply and demand, that may not materialize, by buying and selling oil futures. Oil is just too important strategically and economically to allow that kind of speculation.
Ultimately, the answer to high gas prices is to do everything. We should drill for oil offshore and in Alaska. We should extract it from shale. We need more nuclear power. We have got to expand wind, geothermal, and solar energy. We need more coal, particularly if we can capture and bury the carbon emissions. We need flex fuel cars. We need more ethanol - from domestic production and from imports. We need methanol, which is just like ethanol but comes from inedible parts of the plant. We need everything.
But to those who doubt the efficacy of off shore drilling, just look at how the mere threat to move in that direction sent oil prices crashing. We need more of same.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann