Gas prices are the first important issue in the 2008 elections. But both parties have been pathetic in their solutions and, one suspects, in their understanding of what is going on.
Democrats call for windfall profits taxes. Bad idea. How can you get oil companies to explore and drill if you tax away their profits? Republicans focus on a gas tax "holiday," an 18-cent palliative to gas prices that now top $4.50.
Fadel Gheit, managing director of oil and gas research for Oppenheimer and Co., and Jim Norman, author of the book The Oil Card, coming out next month, say that speculation is responsible for a huge part of the run-up in prices.
The growing demand for oil by India and China and the instability of oil supplies certainly account for much of the increase. But the recent spike, they say, is equally due to the weakness of the dollar and massive speculation.
They argue that oil prices are, indeed, determined by supply and demand not only the supply and demand for oil, but also the supply and demand for oil futures. (Oil futures are a commitment to buy 1,000 barrels of oil at a certain date at a certain price.)
Formerly, most of the investments in oil futures came from energy companies. The federal Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) sharply limited investments by those outside the business, to prevent precisely the kind of speculation now gripping the market.
But when the stock market slowed down in 2000-2002, outside investors decided to speculate in oil futures.
The new players were institutional investors like corporate and government pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, university endowments and other investors, guided by brokerage firms like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.
To avoid the CFTC caps, these investors moved their operations to London, setting up the International Commodities Exchange. Now they can buy all the oil futures they want.
Michael W. Masters, of Masters Capital Management, told Congress that the volume of investment in commodities futures soared from $13 billion at the end of 2003 to $260 billion by March of 2008.
After a while, the CFTC rescinded its limits on how much speculators could buy as long as they went through special "swap" desks at the major brokerage houses.
You can buy oil futures for only 5 percent down on margin, a bargain considering the 50 percent margin requirement for stock market equity investments. Because the margin requirement on oil futures rises as the due date approaches, few investors actually end up buying the oil; they just roll over their investments.
So the willingness of sellers to unload their oil futures, and of buyers to acquire them, sets up its own market of supply and demand that has more to do with determining the actual price of oil than even the global demand and supply for the product itself.
On May 20 of this year, Masters told Congress: "Commodities futures prices are the benchmark for the prices of actual physical commodities, so when index speculators drive futures prices higher, the effects are felt immediately in spot prices and the real economy. So there is a direct link between commodities futures prices and the prices your constituents are paying for essential goods."
Gheit and Norman suggest that the CFTC regulate the domestic oil futures market (NYMEX) and the participation of U.S. companies in the ICE, restoring the caps on the amount of oil futures speculators can buy. Gheit also urges raising margin requirements for them.
Both worry that the oil futures bubble is going to burst and cost a lot of investors particularly pension funds who channel their investments through the swap desks of the brokerage houses. We don't need another sub-prime or savings-and-loan crisis on our hands right now.
The Senate recently tried to force CFTC regulation of all commodities speculators, but the bill was loaded down with a windfall profits tax, so the Republicans killed it.
John McCain needs to get with this program. In his town hall meeting in New York City last Thursday night, he attacked speculators for driving up oil prices but didn't propose remedies or really explain the problem.
Americans will pay close attention if he does. For McCain, this is the issue and now is the time to use it.