Gas prices continue to rise, which is finally giving Republicans an issue. Mitt Romney is demanding the president open up more domestic drilling; the super PAC behind Rick Santorum just released a new ad in Louisiana blasting the president on gas prices; and the GOP is attacking the White House on the Keystone XL Pipeline.
But the rise in gas prices has almost nothing to do with energy policy. It has everything to do with America’s continuing failure to adequately regulate Wall Street. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Republicans to tell the truth.
As I’ve noted before, oil supplies aren’t being squeezed. Over 80 percent of America’s energy needs are now being satisfied by domestic supplies. In fact, we’re starting to become an energy exporter. Demand for oil isn’t rising in any event. Demand is down in the U.S. compared to last year at this time, and global demand is still moderate given the economic slowdowns in Europe and China.
But Wall Street is betting on higher oil prices in the future — and that betting is causing prices to rise. The Street is laying odds that unrest in Syria will spill over into other countries or that tensions with Iran will affect the Persian Gulf, and that global demand will pick up as American consumers bounce back to life.
These bets are pushing up oil prices because Wall Street firms and other big financial players now dominate oil trading.
Financial speculators historically accounted for about 30 percent of oil contracts, producers and end users for about 70 percent. But today speculators account for 64 percent of all contracts.
Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — the federal agency that regulates trading in oil futures, among other commodities — warns that too few financial players control too much of the oil market. This allows them to push oil prices higher and higher — not only on the basis of their expectations about the future but also expectations about how high other speculators will drive the price.
In other words, a relatively few players with very deep pockets are placing huge bets on oil — and you’re paying.
Chilton estimates that drivers of small cars like Honda Civics are paying an extra $7.30 every time they fill up — and that money is going into the pockets of Wall Street speculators. Drivers of larger vehicles like the Ford Explorer are paying speculators $10.41 when they fill up.
Funny, but I don’t hear Republicans rail against Wall Street speculators. Could this have anything to do with the fact that hedge funds and money managers are bankrolling the GOP as never before?
Wall Street isn’t bankrolling Democrats nearly as much this time around because the Street is still smarting from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law pushed by the Democrats, and from the president’s offhand remark in 2010 calling the denizens of the Street “fat cats.”
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is trying to limit how much speculators can bet in oil futures — a power it was given by Dodd-Frank. It issued a rule in October, but it won’t take effect for another year.
Meanwhile, Wall Street has gone to court to stop the rule. It’s already won a stay.
As rising gas prices start wagging the election-year dog, the president should let America know what’s really causing prices to rise.
By: Robert Reich, From The Robert Reich Blog, Published in Salon, March 15, 2012
This morning’s Washington Post-ABC poll shows that President Obama’s poll numbers are falling in tandem with rising gas prices. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of how he’s handling the situation at the pump. Could gas prices end up swaying the 2012 election after all?
It’s hard to rule anything out, but evidence remains thin that gasoline will be a determining factor in November. While Americans love to grumble about expensive gasoline — and with good reason — political science research suggests that it’s not the main thing that shifts votes. Nate Silver, for one, has found that “there’s not a lot of evidence that oil prices are all that important” a factor in presidential elections. Nor do gasoline prices necessarily dictate the public’s view of the White House: Back during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was a much-linked graph showing his approval ratings climbing and dipping in lockstep with gas prices. But subsequent analysis by political scientist Brendan Nyhan showed that the correlation was just a “statistical artifact.”
The more severe worry for Obama, at this point, is that soaring gas prices could stomp on the nascent economic recovery. The way this typically happens is that pricey gasoline starts crimping the checkbooks of U.S. consumers, who then have less money to spend on other things. (In the Post-ABC poll, most respondents said they were already feeling the pinch.) That leads to slower growth. And slower growth, political scientists agree, really can sink a presidency. As Silver puts it, “higher gas prices are important to the extent that they affect things like G.D.P., inflation and unemployment. But there isn’t evidence that they matter above and beyond that.”
That said, it’s not yet clear whether oil prices actually will crush the current recovery. There’s certainly reason for concern: James Hamilton, an economist at UC San Diego, has found that most U.S. recessions since World War II have been preceded by a sharp run-up in oil prices. But, oddly enough, one person who isn’t gloomy about our current predicament is Hamilton himself. “I find myself in the unusual position,” he recently wrote, “of being less concerned about the impact of oil prices on the U.S. economy than many other analysts.” Hamilton notes that, for now, oil prices are simply moving back to 2011 levels. And price increases that simply reverse earlier declines are less harmful than historic new highs.
For instance, high oil prices have historically inflicted disproportionate harm on the U.S. economy by leading to a cut-back in sales of SUVs and other inefficient vehicles that Detroit has long specialized in. But this time around, he notes, sales are holding steady — perhaps because U.S. automakers have shifted to selling fuel-efficient models. Moreover, low natural gas prices, a warm winter, and improved fuel efficiency have helped insulate U.S. consumers from pricey oil to date. Overall energy expenditures are actually down this year. Americans have been grappling with expensive oil for several years now, and they appear to be adapting.
That should come as a quiet relief to most incumbent politicians. Because the unsatisfying reality is that there’s not a whole lot the White House or Congress can actually do to lower gasoline prices. Oil prices are skyrocketing because global crude supplies remain tight and tensions with Iran are making traders skittish about a possible conflict in a crucial oil-producing region. If Obama could figure out a way to calm down the situation with Iran, that might cause crude prices to settle back down.
But apart from that, options are limited. More domestic drilling won’t bring back $2.50-per-gallon gas, as Newt Gingrich has suggested — oil prices are dictated by the vast world market, of which U.S. production is just a small fraction. The still-in-limbo Keystone XL pipeline is just as likely to raise gasoline prices in the Midwest as anything else. Cracking down on “financial speculators,” as many Democrats have called for, isn’t particularly promising, as many oil traders simply appear to be following fundamentals. And, judging by past experience, releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve won’t offer much more than very short-lived relief. Meanwhile, Americans are becoming significantly more oil efficient, but that’s a slow, painstaking process.
That won’t stop politicians from talking about the issue. And it won’t stop Americans from expressing their disapproval. But those are two very different things from swaying an election.
Update: Here’s another notable aspect of the Post-ABC poll to consider, pointed out to me by Third Way’s Josh Freed. At the moment, 63 percent of Americans say that gas prices are causing them financial hardship, with 36 percent saying the gas squeeze is causing “serious” financial hardship. (See Question 11.) But those are actually the lowest hardship numbers since May of 2008 — and, in fact, it’s virtually identical to what Americans were saying in May of 2004, six months before George W. Bush won re-election.
By: Brad Plumer, The Washington Post, March 12, 2012
Eight months before the fall elections, Republican strategists are in a dour mood.
-The economy has begun to gain traction.
-Their leading candidate for president, Mitt Romney, is universally viewed as an uninspiring poster child for the one percent, with no core values anyone can point to except his own desire to be elected.
-Every time Romney tries to “identify” with ordinary people he says something entirely inappropriate about his wife’s “two Cadillacs,” how much he likes to fire people who provide him services, or how he is a buddy with the people who own NASCAR teams rather than the people who watch them.
-The polls show that the more people learn about Romney, the less they like him. The Republican primary road show doesn’t appear to be coming to a close any time soon.
-Together, Bob Kerrey’s announcement that he will get into the Senate contest in Nebraska and the news that Olympia Snowe is retiring from the Senate in Maine, massively increase Democratic odds of holding onto the control of the Senate.
-The Congress is viewed positively by fewer voters than at any time in modern history — and two-thirds think the Republicans are completely in charge.
-Worse yet, the polling in most presidential battleground states currently gives President Obama leads over Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
The one thing Republican political pros are cheering right now is the rapidly increasing price of gas at the pump and the underlying cost of oil.
The conventional wisdom holds that if gas prices increase, it will inevitably chip away at support for President Obama — and there is a good case to be made. After all, increased gas prices could siphon billions out of the pockets of consumers that they would otherwise spend on the goods and services that could help continue the economic recovery — which is critical to the president’s re-election.
But Republicans shouldn’t be so quick to lick their chops at the prospect of rising gas prices.
1). What you see, everybody sees.
The sight of Republicans rooting against America and hoping that rising gas prices will derail the economic recovery is not pretty.
The fact is that Republicans have done everything in their power to block President Obama’s job-creating proposals in Congress, and they were dragged kicking and screaming to support the extension of the president’s payroll tax holiday that was critical to continuing economic momentum.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell actually announced that his caucus’ number one priority this term was the defeat of President Obama. The sight of Republicans salivating at the prospect of $4-plus per gallon gasoline will not sit well with ordinary voters.
2). Democrats have shown that they are more than willing to make the case about who is actually responsible for rising gas prices — and the culprits’ footprints lead right back to the GOP’s front door.
Who is really to blame for higher gas prices?
-The big oil companies that are doing everything they can to keep oil scarce and the price high;
-Speculators that drive up the price in the short run;
-Foreign conflicts, dictators and cartels — that have been important in driving up prices particularly in the last two months;
-The Republicans who prevent the development of the clean, domestic sources of energy that are necessary to allow America to free itself from the stranglehold of foreign oil — all in order to benefit speculators and oil companies.
The fact is that the world will inevitably experience increasing oil prices over the long run because this finite, non-renewable resource is getting scarcer and scarcer at the same time that demand for energy from the emerging economies like China and India is sky rocketing.
Every voter with a modicum of experience in real-world economics gets that central economic fact.
That would make Republican opposition to the development of renewable energy sources bad enough. But over the last few months the factor chiefly responsible for short-term oil price hikes have been the Arab Spring and Israel’s growing tensions with Iran — all of which are well beyond direct American control.
But with only 2% of the world’s oil reserves, any idiot knows we can’t make ourselves materially more energy independent solely by drilling for more domestic oil. In fact, it is obvious that to have any hope of controlling the prices we pay for energy in the future, we must free ourselves from the dependence on oil in general and foreign oil in particular.
We need an emergency “all of the above” energy independence program that accesses all of the domestic sources of oil that can be developed in an environmentally safe way – plus a major investment in renewable, clean energy sources that free us from dependence on oil – and especially foreign oil.
President Obama has proposed a big first step in exactly that direction, and the Republicans have answered: “Hell no — drill baby drill.”
If they are forcefully challenged by Democrats this year — as I believe they will — that Republican position is simply laughable.
Domestic drilling has increased substantially under President Obama’s administration. And our dependence on foreign oil imports has gone down every year of his presidency. The president has put in place new mileage standards for cars that will save massive amounts of potential oil imports — standards that Republicans have opposed for decades.
But that fact remains, that for all his administration can do on its own to increase energy independence, it is impossible to free America from the stranglehold of foreign oil dependency without the kind of massive national commitment to domestic, renewable energy that must be passed by Congress. The Republicans have said “no” because their biggest energy patrons — the oil companies — oppose a crash program to create renewable energy sources for one simple reason. Every day that we fail to act, the value of their oil goes up — it’s that simple.
If you doubt that Mitt Romney and the Republicans are bought and paid for by Big Oil — just ask the infamous Koch brothers — who finance major Republican “super Pacs” — how much they stand to make personally every time the long-term price of a barrel of oil increases by another dollar.
Simply put, the Republicans have put the profits of their patrons in Big Oil well above the economic and national security interests of the United States of America.
The Republicans even continue to do everything in their power to block the elimination of the astonishing taxpayer subsidy of the oil industry, that continues notwithstanding the fact that big oil companies are more profitable today than any other companies in the history of humanity. And the Republicans do it all the while they blather on about how if we once again install them in the White House, they will bring us $2 a gallon gasoline.
Whoever is pushing those kinds of lines must be studying the techniques of the late, famous circus impresario, P.T. Barnum, who famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
But in fact, polling shows that American voters simply are not so gullible that they buy either of these preposterous positions.
A final contributing factor that has recently amplified increases in gas and oil prices is the role of speculators.
In a purely competitive market, oil prices should settle in the long run at the marginal cost of producing the next barrel of oil — currently between $60 and $70 a barrel. Oil closed last week at about $106 per barrel and ran up to twice the marginal cost of production during the Bush era 2008 oil spike.
Currently about 80% of positions on oil commodity markets are held by “pure speculators” — who bet on changes in oil prices — rather than “end users” who actually consume oil and use the markets to hedge against price increases.
Academic studies have demonstrated that there is a big speculative premium in oil prices, above and beyond any “risk premium” that might normally develop from fear of some immediate, short-term shortage. That speculative premium could be materially dampened if steps were taken to limit the market’s domination by pure speculators.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill — which was opposed by most Republicans in Congress and all of their presidential candidates — allows the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to limit the percentage of market positions held by pure speculators as opposed to end users.
Already the CTFC has position limits on the percentage of positions that can be held by individual companies or investors to prevent one from cornering the market. Many economists have proposed imposing similar position limits on pure speculators as a class.
Ordinary voters don’t like speculators. But far from supporting limits on speculation, Mitt Romney wants to go back to the “good old days of yesteryear” where wild, unbridled speculation led to the worst economic collapse in 60 years and costs eight million Americans their jobs.
None of this is good politics for Republicans.
Voters don’t want to be held hostage by the big oil companies or foreign oil. They don’t want to have their pockets picked by oil market speculators. They understand that when world oil prices go up, it benefits oil-state dictators: it’s like allowing Iran’s Ahmadinejad to levy a tax on American consumers. And voters sure as hell don’t want to pay a taxpayer subsidy to oil companies like Exxon that made more in profits in one minute last year (about $85,000) than the average American worker earns all year long.
If Republican strategists think they can reverse their fortunes by focusing on the gas price debate, the odds are good they will be wrong.
By: Robert Creamer, The Huffington Post, March 6, 2012
I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theorist as it is not my inclination to see evil lurking behind every bush (no pun intended.) More times than not, things are—for the most part—pretty much as they appear to be.
However, there is a strange anomaly occurring on the highways of America and in the boardrooms of some of our largest investment institutions that has caused me to consider whether a plan is afoot that, if successful, could represent the best possible strategy for ending the presidency of Barack Obama.
According to the Automobile Club of America, gasoline prices have risen, on average, 13.1 cents in the past month—despite the fact that gas prices traditionally fall in the month of February as people drive fewer miles during the wintery month.
What’s more, virtually every projection out there suggests that gas prices are about to make a dramatic rise to, potentially, record levels with some suggesting that $5.00 a gallon gas or more —double the prices of just a few months ago—could very well be in our future.
This becomes a particularly odd statistic when one considers that Americans are using less gasoline than they have at any time in the last fifteen years. Currently, we burn up 8 percent less gas than we did during the peak year of 2006 while most experts expect the trend to continue to where we will be using 20 percent less gasoline by 2030.
Says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service,
Strangely, the current run-up in prices comes despite sinking demand in the U.S. Petrol demand is as low as it’s been since April 1997. People are properly puzzled by the fact that we’re using less gas than we have in years, yet we’re paying more.
How can this be explained?
Certainly, concerns of a potential conflict in Iran, and the impact such an event would have on the world oil market, would drive prices up. Adding fuel to this gasoline fire are the seeds of uprising that are ripening in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia where most of the nation’s oil reserves are located.
And, to be sure, an improving domestic economy typically results in higher oil prices as demand begins to rise. However, experts seem to agree that even this will not return us to our high’s of 2006.
Experts agree that even when the economy rebounds from the recession, gasoline usage will remain below the 2006 figure, which should remain forever untouched barring any massive economic boom periods or drastic fuel price cuts. That reduction can be attributed to a number of factors such as higher fuel efficiency fleet figures for manufacturers, a higher use of hybrids, an increase in bio-fuels like bio-diesel and ethanol, and continued high gas prices, among other factors.
There has to be something else at work here.
According to Kloza, a healthy percentage of the increase is the result of speculative money flowing into gasoline futures contracts since the beginning of the year, mostly coming from hedge fund and big money mangers. “We’ve seen about $11 billion of speculative money come in on the long side of gas futures,” Kloza says. “Each of the last three weeks we’ve seen a record net long position being taken.”
These record positions that are driving up prices could certainly be the result of speculators’ legitimate belief that Middle Eastern instability and an improving economy at home make higher prices a good bet.
And yet, Middle Eastern instability is nothing particularly new. Even if speculators see an Iranian crisis putting more pressure on the oil markets than in days gone by, it is difficult to rationalize how this would result in a 100 percent increase in prices at the pump, particularly in view of the fact that we use less gasoline today than at other times of crisis.
While Wall Street’s ‘priority one’ is to make money, it is clear that, for this year, priority two is the destruction of Barack Obama’s presidency. Accordingly, from a Wall Street point of view, it certainly is a happy coincidence that that priority one, making big money on oil speculation, could directly lead to accomplishing their second highest mission.
I am left to wonder whether this is a happy Wall Street coincidence or a clever strategy that could pay off big-time come November.
Gasoline prices have a ‘real time’ impact on middle-class voters. Can you imagine a better way to make voters good and angry than to insure that they are paying five bucks a gallon for the gasoline that will be powering them to the voting booth in November? And if you subscribe to the theory that the President’s opponents would like to keep economic growth down until the election is over, what better way to accomplish such a goal than to force a precipitous rise in gas prices?
Maybe what we are seeing is nothing more than the natural and completely explainable reaction to events in oil producing countries and the promise of an improving domestic economy.
However, when you consider that we’ve faced these uncertainties more than once in the past fifteen years, and combine that with the understanding that we are currently consuming less oil products than at any time during that period, it is difficult to come up with a rational explanation as to why gas prices would nearly double in so short a period under these circumstances.
Am I simply getting paranoid as the election season is upon us?
Maybe. But there is no disputing that the higher gasoline prices go, the lower the odds that President Obama will be returned to office for a second term.
So, I’m just saying’…..
As a result of what is coming, it might be a good idea for the Obama Administration to start talking about the reasons for rising gas prices and I’d start talking about it now. This is one instance where silence is anything but golden and without a plausible explanation as to why the Administration is not responsible for what might be a dramatic rise in gas prices, it may be Pesident Obama who is left holding the pump nozzle come December.
By: Rick Ungar, Washington Monthly, February 17, 2012
When Eric Cantor shut down debt ceiling negotiations last week, it did more than just rekindle fears that the U.S. government might soon default on its debt obligations — it also brought him closer to reaping a small financial windfall from his investment in a mutual fund whose performance is directly affected by debt ceiling brinkmanship.
Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, had between $1,000 and $15,000 invested in ProShares Trust Ultrashort 20+ Year Treasury EFT. The fund aggressively “shorts” long-term U.S. Treasury bonds, meaning that it performs well when U.S. debt is undesirable. (A short is when the trader hopes to profit from the decline in the value of an asset.)
According to his latest financial disclosure statement, which covers the year 2010 and has been publicly available since this spring, Cantor still has up to $15,000 in the same fund. Contacted by Salon this week, Cantor’s office gave no indication that the Virginia Republican, who has played a leading role in the debt ceiling negotiations, has divested himself of these holdings since his last filing. Unless an agreement can be reached, the U.S. could begin defaulting on its debt payments on Aug. 2. If that happens and Cantor is still invested in the fund, the value of his holdings would skyrocket.
“If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, investors would start fleeing U.S. Treasuries,” said Matt Koppenheffer, who writes for the investment website the Motley Fool. “Yields would rise, prices would fall, and the Proshares ETF should do very well. It would spike.”
The fund hasn’t significantly spiked yet because many investors believe Congress will eventually raise the debt ceiling. However, since Cantor abruptly called off debt ceiling negotiations last Thursday, the fund is up 3.3 percent. Even if an agreement is ultimately reached before Aug. 2, the fund could continue to benefit between now and then from the uncertainty. (One tactic some speculators are using is to “trade the debt ceiling debate” — that is, to place short-term bets on prices as they fluctuate with the news out of Washington.)
Salon’s Andrew Leonard calls the debt ceiling negotiations “Washington’s titanic game of chicken,” and the longer the game goes on, the more skittish the bond markets will become.
“Cantor’s involvement in the fund and negotiations is not ideal,” Koppenheffer said. “I don’t think someone negotiating the debt ceiling should be invested in this kind of an ultra-short. We can only guess how much he understands what’s in his portfolio, but you’d think a politician would know better. It looks pretty bad.”
Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring noted that U.S. Treasury bonds make up a large portion of the congressman’s pension, and said investment in ProShares ETF serves to balance that investment and to diversify his portfolio. Disclosure forms indicate that Cantor has considerable personal assets, including real estate in Virginia worth up to $1 million, and a number of six- and seven-figure loans to private entities and limited liability companies. So his investment in ProShares ETF represents only a small portion of his overall portfolio — but that share could grow a little larger just over a month from now.
By: Jonathan Easley, Editorial Fellow, Salo, June 27, 2011