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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Are We Paying for Speculators at the Pump?

According to the Huffington Post, “Oil prices took a nosedive [on May 5, 2011] in a historic selloff, erasing weeks of gains and indicating that the months-long climb in energy prices may have hit a ceiling. Crude oil plunged 10 percent as startled investors unloaded their positions and a weeklong decline accelerated into an outright freefall. The price of U.S. crude went from triple digits to double digits, falling below $100 after opening at close to $110. Brent crude, a European benchmark, lost $12 at one point in a sell-off that exceeded the one following Lehman Brothers' collapse.”  The question, for course, is why, the answer of which can lead us to consider some public policy recommendations. Understanding the previous price rise is a first step both to answering this question and for evaluating public policy solutions.

The price of oil had been increasing, according to the Huffington Post, “as fighting escalated in the Middle East and investors feared a supply shortage.” Even as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was pledging to correct any oil supply disruption, the price of a barrel of crude continued to rise. Before the drop, Brent was up 50 percent compared to the same time the year before. Indeed, the rise could not be explained in terms of actual supply being threatened, as Libya represented only 2 percent of world supply at the time.

The fear was likely of a domino-effect that could potentially compromise even Saudi crude—as if Sunni protesters in Bahrain would spill over into Saudi Arabia (rather than tanks from the latter “spilling over” into Bahrain).  The fear, in other words, may have been exaggerated—even facilitated by speculators taking advantage of the general sense of instability in the Middle East. "Clearly these markets were overblown," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist of IHS Global Insight. "We've been saying all along the fear factor has probably added 10 to 15 dollars to the price of a barrel." The ensuing “freefall” might have been a correction for this “fear factor.”

However, that the oil-price drop was accompanied by other commodities and even stocks could suggest that larger forces were involved. According to Reuters, “World stocks fell and the 19-commodity Reuters-Jefferies CRB index dropped more than 4.9 percent, heading for its biggest weekly decline since December 2008.” An oil-centered drop alone could be expected to result in higher stock prices as expected lower gas prices would be expected to have a stimulating effect on the U.S. economy. So it would appear that broader factors were at play—things that could have triggered the fear-correction.

Reuters reports that “(w)eak economic data from Europe and the United States fed concerns that have battered commodities all week. German industrial orders fell unexpectedly in March while U.S. weekly jobless claims hit eight-month highs, sparking a fourth day of profit taking in early trade. . . . Additional pressure came from news OPEC was considering raising formal output limits when it meets in June to convince oil markets it wants to bring prices down and reverse the impact of fuel inflation on economic growth.” However, it is not clear that the market was being so rational.

"This is just a market that rolled over and started feeding on itself," said John Richards, head of North American strategy for the Royal Bank of Scotland, according to the Huffington Post. "There was no triggering single event of news that would account for this. It's just much more the market's own internal dynamics taking prices down here," Richards added. “Internal dynamics” sounds a lot better than “feeding on itself.” The latter implies a growing disjunction between price and the “underlying” supply and demand for the commodity, whereas the former intimates a self-sustained system tending to equilibrium. 

Broadly speaking, the question may be whether a market for X tends internally to a homeostatic state of equilibrium or a schizogenic condition wherein a maximizing variable breaches any equilibrium-enforcing features. In ecological terms, by analogy, the question is whether a species tends to maximize its growth even at the expense of the overall ecosystem. In terms of the oil commodity market, the question is whether people simply betting on the price without any intended future use effectively divorce the market price from the actual and expected supply and demand. Moreover, does the disjuncture increase such that the betting acts as a maximizing variable at the expense of any equilibrium-tending mechanisms of the market itself?

Even if the “freefall” drop in the price of oil evinces a return to equilibrium closer to supply and demand, the disjuncture itself caused people to put off vacations and spend less on even necessities, and generally feel poorer. There is thus an ethical question regarding the legitimacy of betting on a commodity that people need. This includes not only oil, but food as well. Specifically, is the freedom to bet on necessities (even if necessities in the short run) worth the ensuing harm to consumers? Moreover, is trading on a commodities market inherently intended or designed for bets or, more narrowly, to arrive at a price whereby consumption demand meets supply? What, in other words, if economic liberty undoes the purpose of a market?

According to Bart Chilton, a top regulator at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the number of speculative bets on oil and food were at record levels at the time of the price increases in both oil and food. President Barack Obama created an oil market fraud group in April to provide enhanced regulatory scrutiny of potential fraud and manipulation in the oil futures and derivatives markets, but most speculation was perfectly legal at the time so the reach of the group was rather limited in comparison to the problem.

Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, wrote in a letter to the group, "Of course, there are lawful market forces that lead to price fluctuations and to differences between wholesale and retail price trends in these markets.” He urged the group “to identify whether fraud or manipulation played any role in the wholesale and retail markets as prices increased. If wholesale prices continue to decrease, fraud or manipulation must not be allowed to prevent price decreases from being passed on to consumers at the pump." However, manipulation in the form of betting was legal at the time. Even so, the financial reform bill passed in 2010 requires the CFTC to craft rules reining in excessive speculation. Nevertheless, citing inadequate market data, the agency failed to meet a key deadline on those rules in early 2011.

Accordingly, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) sent a letter to President Obama on the day of the “freefall” urging that regulators impose limits on oil speculation. “There is mounting evidence that the skyrocketing price of gas and oil has nothing to do with the fundamentals of supply and demand, and has everything to do with Wall Street firms that are artificially jacking up the price of oil in the energy futures markets,” Sanders wrote. “In other words, the same Wall Street speculators that caused the worst financial crisis since the 1930s through their greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior are ripping off the American people again by gambling that the price of oil and gas will continue to go up.” The question is whether “artificially jacking up” prices of commodities that people need ought to be illegal, and, if so, whether such a law could even be enforced.

Should futures traders be required to take delivery and use the commodity they have purchased? If so, people seeking to hedge risk may not be able to do so. Is not the “too big to fail” story about too much risk? Perhaps other means of hedging could be used. Furthermore, it may be that the government officials were not going far enough structurally. Were they to have incorporated anti-trust law, applying it strictly, perhaps a more competitive oil market would obviate the baleful effects of speculators. Even if there would be some opportunity costs in the reduced economies of scale enjoyed by oil companies (and gas stations), a market mechanism running on more competition would be worth that cost to the particular firms. The common good outweighs that of individual companies.

In going after “excessive” speculation or oligopolies, the devil may be in the details. For example, regulation may be difficult to write—assuming the corporate lobbyists do not obstruct it from even getting to that point (e.g., the failure of the CFTC to issue regulations)—not to mention enforcement. In a system of corporate capitalism, moreover, representative democracy may not be able to provide a homeostatic remedy after the horse has run out of the barn.


Matthew Robinson, “Oil Crashes 10 Percent in Record Rout,” Reuters, May 5, 2011.

William Alden, “Oil Prices Plunge in Record Sell-Off,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2011.

Zack Carter, “Eric Holder to Fraud Squad: Oil Price Plunge Should Benefit Consumers,” The Huffington Post, May 6, 2011.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

When the Campaign Eclipses Governing: A Matter of Values

In the mix of politics and government in any republic, stretches of governance are marked off by much shorter electoral seasons.  As decision-points, election campaigns are not designed to be of a considerable duration, particularly relative to that of governing.  In other words, the point of elections is governance, whereas the objective of governance is not (and thus should not be) elections. The reason is that the function of elected representatives is to govern rather than to run yet again. When the interstices become the long lines, and the long lines are reduced to interstices, one can expect popular fatigue from incessant fighting and frustration from a lack of attention on governing.

In April of 2011, American news networks were claiming, “2012 has officially begun.” There was a conflict of interest in the assertion because the media stood to gain viewers from brewing controversies among the candidates for president. Both the candidates and the journalists stood to gain from the increased attention.  In early May, for example, the Huffington Post attempted to turn the story of Obama’s killing of Osama into one of electoral politics in the “upcoming” 2012 election. According to the Post, “The daring nighttime raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan draws a sharp contrast between President Barack Obama and a field of potential Republican challengers who have comparatively scant foreign policy experience.” The key word here is potential. Might it be more prudent to wait for the challengers to officially announce and start actively campaigning before analysis of a “determined” set of candidates is commenced?

Moreover, the attempt to steer the foreign policy story into the field of electoral politics implicitly suffers the opportunity cost of attention being diverted from other foreign policy questions that are related to the death of bin Laden, such as whether Pakistan knew of his compound and whether U.S. foreign aid should continue. The otherwise greater intensity of coverage on Pakistan's role might have made the difference in upping the pressure to the point at which someone in Pakistan with the inside scoop would have cracked and spilled the beans on what Pakistani government officials had really known.  

One of the few downsides of a free society is that media distractions can run far and wide--even snowballing without taking root. To the extent that representatives are either behind such distractions or are pressured to join them, a republic is vulnerable to excessive democracy (the bad side of the demos identified by Plato and Aristotle with the mob). The American citizenry may be too prone to vicariously enjoy the fights of a campaign (the modern day version of going to the statium to watch the gladiators?) while finding the civic responsibility of keeping attuned to the governing (or at least letting the representatives govern in peace) too boring and banal--not sufficiently stimulating in an age of "reality" shows playing out on television. Must the lowest denominator rule in a republic?

As another example of campaigning eclipsing governing in the context of governance, the health-insurance reform in 2009 and 2010 can be cited. The question of whether there should be a government alternative to private health insurance companies quickly gave rise to health-insurance-company-sourced talking points on death-panels thrown to partisans like Sarah Palin, who was not involved in the governing. Also, whether Barak Obama was a socialist was staged as a sideshow oriented to the campaigning realm. For whatever reason, it was difficult for the media (and presumably the viewers) to stay on point even when policy makers were trying to determine the merits of a public option.  In other words, even having representatives oriented to policy discussions may not be sufficient to keep a restless media and citizenry attuned. However, even some of those representatives might have believed their policy positions to be strengthened from a campaign-oriented digression. In an open society, multiple entrance points exist for self-interested distractions.

To be sure, citizen participation during the intervals of governance is not necessary in a republic; the problem is when citizens’ diversions enabled by the media (and/or government officials) eventuate in the governors turning to campaigning even without an election in sight. A crucial difference between representative and direct democracy is that in a republic governance is delegated to representatives. In other words, the citizenry is not obliged to remain engaged once governance again takes over after an election. This does not mean, however, that the citizenry must take the bait when some representatives are tempted to divert from governance by starting the next election cycle too early. Nor does it mean that elected representatives must take the bait from some journalists who suspect a wider viewership (or readership) could be obtained from stirring up campaign controversies even years before the next election.

Perhaps the underlying question is whether a representative democracy necessarily succumbs to the lowest common denominator, or whether a citizenry has the requisite impulse control to maintain the viability of the political system by refusing to distract the governors from their governing (or to take the bait from bored or campaign-oriented officials). It is essentially a matter of what the citizenry values: the duration wherein representatives govern or the titillating excitement of a childish fight at the expense of governing. The funny thing about a republic is that what we observe in our representatives can be a reflection of ourselves.  We blame them exclusively at our own folly. In other words, it takes two to tangle. If there is an adult in the house, perhaps we could get on with governing.


Charles Babington, “GOP Presidential Field For 2012 Maintains Foreign Policy Void,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2011.

Jeff Zelleny, “Obama Will Move Political Operations to Chicago,” The New York Times, January 20, 2011.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Osama Killed by Obama: What Does American Patriotism Stand For?

On the day after Osama was killed by Obama, people in the American states were united in a feeling of pride for their union. Midway through a run at sunset, I paused beneath an American flag. I was caught not out of breath but by the distinct snapping sound of lazy flapping noises as the flag rolled in the light breeze. I looked up and stared at the red, white and blue performing its series of rolls. The fabric was much more alive than that stiff, wired flag still on the surface of the moon. A flag is meant to be alive—literally carried along as troops advance on a battlefield. Today’s flags hanging off still poles next to restaurants and car dealerships can hardly capture the dynamic energy of victory. To be sure, such victory was hinted at the night before as people ran hither and dither carrying flags in celebration outside the White House. It had struck me in watching the joyous scene how rare such clear-cut victories are.  It is a pity that some enemy must die for such clarity to be celebrated in a spirit of unity.

Looking up at sunset at the American flag—a symbol that has seemingly always been around—I wondered what it really stands for. What values cling most firmly to it?—nevermind the principles that are formally entailed in it. Turning to look at the auto business sponsoring the flag, I noticed a large sign displayed high up across one of the building’s walls above the repair garage: “Free Courtesy Cars for Customers with Select Insurance Companies.” My mind instantly leapt to “Free health-care for citizens with select health insurance only”—the others don’t get any. Is monetary-based exclusion the American way? What does that flag say about those who are not among the select? Is the red, white and blue referring to people living here who have money—the others just sort of existing here as though permanent aliens?

As my eyes were about to go back up the flag pole, I noticed that between tree trunks the naked sun was just about to touch the ground. Heaven would meet earth for a split-second before the ground ate into the perfect circle. I thought of Ben Franklin’s comment at the end of the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787 as he was wondering aloud whether the sun painted on the back of the presider’s chair was rising or setting. It would be ironic if on the day after a great military victory I associated the setting orange disc with the bright colors waving above me; something about the “select insurance companies” wording on the wall of the sponsoring company was giving me a proclivity to do just that, even as I felt a sense of pride in my eyes being drawn to the power in the movements of the giant fabric above me.

After my run, I briefly spoke with an auto-plant worker visiting from Michigan. He had been watching the Detroit Tigers play the Yankees.  He was disappointed in his team because even with a $200 million payroll, they had lost to Minnesota (I think). Of course, the Yankee organization knew how to put out the money to buy talent. The Tiger fan put it more bluntly. “The Yankees buy championships.” For a fan to reduce baseball teams to their payrolls seemed odd to me. Do fans in other regions of the world reduce sport to money, or is there something distinctly American about it? Whereas in Europe player captains receive championship trophies, team owners tend to get the honor in America. Clearly, a subtle difference in the value of wealth (and money as a motivator) distinguishes the United States from the European Union. Might wealth itself be what America is known for as a society?—a people obsessed with valuing money?

Can we go so far, moreover, as to conclude that the American flag stands for money? If so, did the patriotism evinced in the wake of Osama’s death reduce to dollars and cents? The political uncertainty that comes with terrorism is unquestionably bad for business. Even so, the sense of justice achieved through the execution—we could not even risk a trial—stood on the principle of an eye for an eye. Money, it could be said, was put in the service of a normative debt to be paid for the loss of innocent lives even though they could never be retrieved. However, it is difficult to see how the patriotism evinced reduces to greed.

So what does the American flag really exude? Patriotic confidence? An in-crowd based on wealth? Perhaps some other set of values that can only be observed from a distance? What does the diverse empire of fifty republics united in an extended republic stand for? Is there a common denominator or is the patriotism of victory an artificial construction based on convenience?  I suspect that these questions will go unanswered until or unless Americans are called on to sacrifice, for it may be that the value of self-denial is too far removed from what the flag has come to represent.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Leadership at Lehman: On the Failure of Richard Fuld

The failure of Lehman Brother suggests that too much power may go with formal position while non-positional leadership in organizations is not given enough of a chance to check the excesses of office. Richard Fuld could take advantage of much having to do with his formal position so he would not have to lead. In contrast, a competent subordinate, Mike Gelband, faced a considerable headwind in trying to lead through persuasion without the benefit of a position trumping Fuld’s own.

The full essay is in Essays on the Financial Crisis, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.