WASHINGTON — Feel like you're being robbed every time you fill the gas tank? Not sure who to blame? Try Wall Street.
That's not the conventional explanation, but it's the one the facts point to. Usually analysts say today's high prices stem simply from "supply and demand." They mean demand for oil and gas is rising and supplies aren't keeping up, so people bid up their price. But global and U.S. supplies are plentiful and demand is stable, so that's not it.
Then the analysts say it's because the market's afraid Middle East turmoil will interrupt oil supplies, so nervous buyers are bidding up prices to ensure they lock in a contract for oil now, just in case it's scarce later. There's probably some truth to that, but after five months of turmoil, there's been no significant impact on Middle East oil supplies, even as prices have seesawed, so that's not credible either.
Here's what's credible: Some 70 percent of contracts for future oil delivery are now bought by financial speculators — largely big investment banks and hedge funds — who never take control of the oil. They just flip the contract for a quick profit.
Only about 30 percent of oil contracts are bought by a purchaser that actually intends to use the oil, such as an airline. That's according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates trade in those contracts.
"I'm convinced ... that speculators are actively manipulating (prices)," said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who in the 1990s headed the CFTC's trading division.
"It's harder and harder for any reasonable observer to dismiss the role of excessive speculation in this market," said Michael Masters, a professional Wall Street investor who knows how this game works. He's testified before Congress repeatedly that speculators are pushing prices up well beyond what supply and demand would warrant.
They both point to a $15 weekly swing in oil prices in early May and $5-a-barrel moves on oil prices in a single day — with no obvious change to supply or demand.
Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson noted Thursday in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee that this year's oil prices don't make any economic sense, though that's not quite how he put it. He said current fundamentals and production costs would dictate oil in the range of $60 to $70 a barrel. That's at least $43 cheaper than this year's highs of $113 a barrel reached on April 29 and May 2.
Hundreds of billions of dollars are being made through this speculation — both in the regulated futures market and on the larger unregulated over-the-counter swaps market, where private bets about the movement of oil prices take place. It's producing lots of new billionaires on Wall Street and driving oil company profits through the roof.
And it's punishing everyone who drives.
"The sheer volume of new capital coming from hedge funds, financial traders and other long-term passive investors — interests that mostly buy oil futures to turn a quick profit — is creating artificial demand and driving up the price for consumers," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a statement accompanying a letter she and 16 other U.S. senators issued Thursday. They, like Greenberger and Masters, urge the CFTC to impose rules limiting speculators' ability to do this.
Masters and Greenberger advocate a return to limits that prevailed for much of the past century. Those limits effectively restricted speculation to about 30 percent of the oil market.
"We need some speculation. We need enough to provide grease for the wheels of the hedgers, but not so much that they drive price formation," Masters said.