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March 15, 2012

Obama's Oil Market Fraud Squad May Miss Wall Street Abuses

On Thursday, President Obama unveiled a new working group to combat any fraud or manipulation in the oil and energy markets that may be contributing to near-record gas prices. But some economists and market experts worry that by focusing on criminal activity, Obama is shrugging off a much bigger problem: rampant Wall Street speculation in commodities markets that has helped drive up food and energy prices in the past.

“If prices start moving quickly up, you can get a side effect … that people might try to play [fraudulent] games of one sort or another,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist John Parsons. “But it wouldn’t be central to the price movement” currently being seen in the market, he said.

“What the administration and others should do, which they have the power to do quickly, is impose position limits, which would stop excessive speculation now,” said Dennis Kelleher, a former securities lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who now heads the financial reform advocacy group Better Markets. “An investigation into criminal acts is not likely to lead to much.”

Commodities markets work well when around 30 percent of the market is dedicated to speculation, According to Kelleher. But since the mid-2000s, the share of speculators in commodity market activity has increased to about 70 percent, Kelleher says, in part driven by new commodities “index funds,” which allow investors to bet on the price of several commodities at once.The size of those funds expanded from about $15 billion in 2003 to $200 billion in 2008, and are currently valued at over $250 billion, according to Barclays Capital. The explosion in the over-the-counter derivatives market has also contributed significantly to oil price increases, according to Kelleher, by allowing investors to place huge bets on commodities without either regulatory oversight or market scrutiny. The derivatives market for commodities grew from about $674 billion in 2001 to $13.2 trillion by June 2008, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

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