On several occasions in the past few months, I have written about the impact of skyrocketing fuel prices on airline customers – in their daily lives and when they travel (Final Approach May 1 and Final Approach May 28). In the long run, to lower oil prices for all Americans, we need to increase domestic supply, increase exploration, alternative energy sources and conservation. However, one near-term solution to the problem is for government to investigate and rein in oil speculators.
What is the Commodities Market? – Commodities are raw materials purchased by manufacturers of finished products such as food manufacturers, oil refiners or builders. Businesses that are highly dependent on oil – refineries, heating oil dealers, airlines and trucking companies among others – lessen their risk of significant price fluctuations by purchasing future delivery contracts at predetermined prices in what is known as the commodities or futures markets. The two largest U.S. commodities markets or futures exchanges are the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Mercantile Exchange, where people trade standardized futures contracts; that is, a contract to buy specific quantities of a commodity at a specified price with delivery set at a specified time in the future.
What is the Problem with Oil? – There is a significant disconnect between the paper market for oil (speculators) and the physical market for oil (consumers). In recent years, speculators have taken advantage of actual consumers of oil by bidding up the price for futures contracts. If a speculator purchases a contract for delivery of oil at a high price six or 12 months in the future but has no intention of actually taking delivery of the oil in that contract, then a physical customer who needs that oil – to deliver home heating oil, to operate trucks or airplanes, or even to process in a refinery – will be forced to pay the higher price in order to obtain the oil that is needed.
How Do They Get Away with That? – Increasingly, sophisticated institutional investors have managed to manipulate the rules and regulations governing commodities transactions through a series of exemptions and waivers, including the so-called “Enron loophole,” low margin requirements and the dodging of U.S. public disclosure requirements. These complex arrangements have a similar impact: They put people engaged in oil-related businesses at a disadvantage with those who gamble relatively small sums that the price of oil will increase out of proportion to marketplace demands. If that happens, as it has regularly over the past few years, those who need oil for their businesses pay a premium, which is passed on to you – the consumer.
What Can Government Do Now? – In the near term, Congress needs to address the impact of unchecked speculation in the commodities market.
Commodities trading is overseen by a small, but very powerful government agency known as the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Congress can require the CFTC to implement a host of controls such as imposing limits on the quantity of commodities contracts speculators may purchase, closing the loopholes that allow speculators to trade exempt from any government oversight or regulation, and requiring reporting by those who are engaging in speculation.
Experts say that closing regulatory loopholes in the trading of commodity futures will result in a significant reduction in fuel prices.
What’s Next? – Congress is expected to debate some of these issues in the next few weeks and it is urgent that they hear your voice. To facilitate public participation in the debate over speculators, we have launched a broad-based coalition, S.O.S. NOW, that provides a wide array of information on speculation and its impact on the price we all pay for oil. S.O.S. NOW stands for Stop Oil Speculation Now, and we urge you to go to the Web site www.stopoilspeculationnow.com and send a message to Congress about oil speculation.
James C. May
President and CEO
Air Transport Association
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