Last week, President Obama announced the creation of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, a working group designed to root out illegal speculation oil markets. The announcement came one week after Goldman Sachs estimated that speculation may account for up to one-fifth of oil prices.
The task force will be conducted by the Department of Justice and will "evaluate developments in commodities markets including an examination of investor practices, supply and demand factors, and the role of speculators and index traders in oil futures markets," according to a DOJ memorandum. At this point, there is no hard evidence that illegal speculation is taking place.
But while protecting consumers and the economy from illicit trading is important, there is disagreement that such a task force will solve the fundamental problem of speculating. The problem is that skyrocketing prices are driven by excessive speculation that is perfectly legal, says Tyson Slocum, director Public Citizen Energy Program, Public Citizen, and member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee.
"We still have deregulated energy trading markets that provide all sort of incentives to engage in this excessive speculation," Slocum said. "I think it is good for the DOJ to do this, but I would be surprised if the bulk of this price increase was because of illegal trading."
Data from the CFTC shows that non-commercial players, such as banks and financial firms, are playing a bigger role in the market than in the past. The CFTC, under the Dodd-Frank Act, is working toward proposing new position limits to stem speculation. The first comment period ended April 25, and the CFTC is gathering more data with which to create firm regulations. Slocum said another comment period is scheduled to open in the fall, but he complains they are dragging their feet.
"That is too much time," said Slocum. "Consumers continue to get hit, and the fragile economy continues to be threatened."