I think it would be fair to describe Paul Krugman as frustrated:
Speculative nonsense, once again, by Paul Krugman: OK, one more try. ...[T]he mysticism over how speculation is supposed to drive prices drives me crazy, professionally.
So here's my latest attempt to talk it through.
Imagine that Joe Shmoe and Harriet Who, neither of whom has any direct involvement in the production of oil, make a bet: Joe says oil is going to $150, Harriet says it won't. What direct effect does this have on the spot price of oil - the actual price people pay to have a barrel of black gunk delivered?
The answer, surely, is none. Who cares what bets people not involved in buying or selling the stuff make? And if there are 10 million Joe Shmoes, it still doesn't make any difference.
Well, a futures contract is a bet about the future price. It has no, zero, nada direct effect on the spot price. And that's true no matter how many Joe Shmoes there are, that is, no matter how big the positions are.
Any effect on the spot market has to be indirect: someone who actually has oil to sell decides to sell a futures contract to Joe Shmoe, and holds oil off the market so he can honor that contract when it comes due; this is worth doing if the futures price is sufficiently above the current price to more than make up for the storage and interest costs.
As I've tried to point out, there just isn't any evidence from the inventory data that this is happening.
And here's one more fact: by and large, futures prices over the period of the big price runup have been slightly below spot prices. The figure below shows monthly data from the EIA; as the spot price shot up, the futures price (that's contract 4, the furthest out) actually lagged a bit behind. In other words, there hasn't been any incentive to hoard.
As I've said, I don't have a political dog in this fight. But the nonsense in this debate makes me want to shoot someone in the face.
Update: I see that Michael Masters, about whom I had some flattering things to say a few days ago, is now telling Congress that gasoline will go back to $2 a gallon if we crack down on speculators. He forgot to mention that cold fusion will solve all our energy problems any day now.
Where's the incentive to hoard?
Update: Also see Free Exchange.