"Corporatist" Obama Administration Sues Oil Futures Traders

Ack! There goes the "corporatist" Obama administration again - this time trying to hold oil futures traders accountable! First, this "corporatist" administration comes into office and passes unprecedented measures to protect consumers from corporate malfeasance like a patient's bill of rights on steroid in health reform, the most significant re-regulation of Wall Street since the 1930s, student loan reform, and credit card reform. And now, this! Outrageous!

Even under the convoluted legal morass that derivatives and futures tradings operated under under before President Obama's Wall Street reform was signed into law, CFTC has found a way to hold at least some wild-marketeers accountable and is suing oil traders for manipulating the market in 2008 (and there might be more to come in the pipeline).
The suit says that in early 2008 they tried to hoard nearly two-thirds of the available supply of a crucial American market for crude oil, then abruptly dumped it and improperly pocketed $50 million.

The regulators from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission would not say whether the agency was conducting any other investigations into oil speculation. With oil prices climbing again this year, President Obama has asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to set up a working group to look into fraud in oil and gas markets and “safeguard against unlawful consumer harm.”
If the CFTC wins the lawsuit, they will not only win that $50 million, but may also be awarded an additional $150 million in penalties.

There is a factor outside of supply and demand that controls the price of gas is oil trading. That's right - gasoline is not like any other consumer product the price of which is determined by us mere mortals buying and selling it for the purpose of its use. No, the prices are often affected, and sometimes manipulated by traders on Wall Street. And just like most other things on Wall Street, the traders set the price not based on current supply and demand but the price speculated on some future date - hence referred to as oil futures trading. This is a crude representation of course, and in technical terms, the prices are those of a contract to buy and deliver control of oil in bulk (it's a derivative product). Because these are futures trading, the trades are regulated by the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). And when traders abuse the system, CFTC can hold them accountable.

According to the complaint, the traders basically gamed the system (surprised?). After they purchased the oil futures, they bought up physical crude oil in Cushing, OK, one of our largest oil delivery sites, creating the impression of a shortage, thus driving up the prices of the futures they had just purchased. To give you an idea how insane this type of trading is, from the NY Times report:
At one point they had such a dominant position that they owned about 4.6 million barrels of crude oil, estimating that this represented two-thirds of the seven million barrels of excess oil then available at Cushing, according to lawsuits.
The traders simply bought up millions of barrels of oil, held it and made it look like there was a shortage in the market, driving up both your prices at the pump and their profits in the futures market.

But of course, according to the complaint, they weren't simply satisfied by driving up the price of the futures. They sold their futures in July of 2008, and then bet that futures prices were going to fall (how convenient, now that they no longer owned them). To give that "bet" completion, they then dumped the physical crude oil they had bought up earlier in the market. Suddenly all that extra oil created a downward pressure on oil prices and on futures prices, and the traders won their "bet." So they manipulated the market to go up, and then go back down, and made out like bandits on both ends, according to the complaint. What did you get? You got a lousy gas bill.


And they were planning to do it again, until regulators got curious:
The traders repeated the buying and selling in March 2008, and were preparing to do it again in April but stopped when investigators contacted them for information, the suit says.

Hmm...

In all seriousness, the Obama administration has been a fierce advocate for consumer protections and making sure that we have a free market system, not a wild gambling market system. And they have not stopped at mere advocacy. They have taken it to action. President Obama's leadership has ensured that we have turned back the insane deregulation mess of Reaganomics, and transformed the paradigm from whether regulations are good to which regulations are good. And as we see in this case, they have used legal instruments available to them to hold corporate thieves accountable. Anyone accusing the President of being in cahoots with corporate abuses is either not paying attention or flat out lying.