Blaming speculators for high oil prices is a way to avoid facing the reality that things will have to change:
Fuels on the Hill, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Congress has always had a soft spot for “experts” who tell members what they want to hear, whether it’s supply-side economists declaring that tax cuts increase revenue or climate-change skeptics insisting that global warming is a myth.
Right now, the welcome mat is out for analysts who claim that out-of-control speculators are responsible for $4-a-gallon gas.
Back in May, Michael Masters, a hedge fund manager, made a big splash when he told a Senate committee that speculation is the main cause of rising prices for oil and other raw materials. ...
Many economists scoffed: Mr. Masters was making the bizarre claim that betting on a higher price of oil ... is equivalent to actually burning the stuff.
But members of Congress liked what they heard, and ... much of Capitol Hill has jumped on the blame-the-speculators bandwagon.
Somewhat surprisingly, Republicans have been at least as willing as Democrats to denounce evil speculators. But it turns out that conservative faith in free markets somehow evaporates when it comes to oil. For example, National Review has been publishing articles blaming speculators for high oil prices for years...
And it was John McCain, not Barack Obama, who recently said this: “While a few reckless speculators are counting their paper profits, most Americans are coming up on the short end...”
Why are politicians so eager to pin the blame for oil prices on speculators? Because it lets them believe that we don’t have to adapt to a world of expensive gas.
Indeed, this past Monday Mr. Masters assured a House subcommittee that ..[i]f Congress passed legislation restricting speculation,... gasoline prices would fall almost 50 percent in a matter of weeks.
O.K., let’s talk about the reality.
Is speculation playing a role in high oil prices? It’s not out of the question... Whether that’s happening now is a subject of highly technical dispute. (Readers who want to wonk themselves out can go to my blog and follow the links.) Suffice it to say that some economists, myself included, make much of the fact that the usual telltale signs of a speculative price boom are missing. But other economists argue, in effect, that absence of evidence isn’t solid evidence of absence.
What about those who argue that speculative excess is the only way to explain the speed with which oil prices have risen? Well, I have two words for them: iron ore.
You see,... its price is set in direct deals between producers and consumers. So there’s no easy way to speculate on ore prices. Yet the price of iron ore, like that of oil, has surged over the past year. In particular, the price Chinese steel makers pay to Australian mines has just jumped 96 percent. This suggests that growing demand from emerging economies, not speculation, is the real story...
In any case, one thing is clear: the hyperventilation over oil-market speculation is distracting us from the real issues.
Regulating futures markets more tightly isn’t a bad idea, but it won’t bring back the days of cheap oil. Nothing will. Oil prices will fluctuate in the coming years ... but the long-term trend is surely up.
Most of the adjustment to higher oil prices will take place through private initiative, but the government can help the private sector in a variety of ways, such as helping develop alternative-energy technologies and new methods of conservation and expanding the availability of public transit.
But we won’t have even the beginnings of a rational energy policy if we listen to people who assure us that we can just wish high oil prices away.