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Where’s Leadership on Oil Speculation?

In the July 12, 2008 Wichita Eagle, Kenneth James Crist of Wichita blames oil speculators for ruining the U.S. Economy, writing that politicians should “do something positive to halt the rampant speculation in the stock market and oil futures that is really driving these runaway prices. All it really amounts to is tremendous greed on the part of a few, at the expense of the many.”

I wish that Mr. Crist had read Futures Markets by the economist Walter E. Williams before writing this letter. In this article we learn this:

The futures market, which takes into account both the present and the future availability of goods, is a vital part of a smoothly functioning economy. Unfortunately, that fact provides little comfort to people frustrated over the high prices of food and fuel. As such, it provides fodder for political demagogues, charlatans and quacks who rush in with blame and prepare “solutions” for the problems they themselves have created — the high prices for food and fuel are directly linked to the policies of the White House and Congress.

That’s right. Futures markets — that’s where speculators buy and sell — provide a valuable service by assuming risk that others are not willing to take on, and by smoothing the price of commodities over time. Speculators assume risk. That is their essence. They may make huge profits in their leveraged trades, but they also bear the risk of, and the actual realization of, equally huge losses when their guesses are wrong.

That illustrates an often overlooked property of futures markets. For one person — the “evil” speculator — to bet on the price of oil going up, someone has to take the opposite position, betting that the price will fall. Both can’t be right. One wins and the other loses. Is there sympathy for these speculators that lose in these trades?

The action of a speculator taking a “long” position in markets is to buy low and sell high. This benefits consumers in the long run. By buying when prices are low, the speculator does cause prices to rise and be higher that they would be without the speculator’s buying. Then, selling when the price is higher, the speculator causes the prices to be lower than it would be if not for his selling. This is how the speculator smooths prices and assumes risk.

Speculators can’t wait too long, either. From Greedy Speculators? published at the Cato Institute:

The current political charge is, “the speculators are driving up the price of oil.” But think about it for a moment. If the price of oil is being driven above the market clearing price where supply equals demand, demand will fall and the speculators will be stuck holding huge, unintended stocks of oil. Holding oil in tanks and ships is costly, and speculators will not incur these costs for long, so the price will drop.

We need to recognize the valuable role that speculators play in our economy. By focusing on an easy target, we fail to look elsewhere to find the true causes of our problems.

For more information on the valuable role that speculators play in the economy, see chapter 22 of Walter Block’s book Defending the Undefendable.

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