House approves anti-speculation measures

September 18, 2008 1:41:33 PM PDT
Ignoring a presidential veto threat, the House on Thursday approved measures aimed at curbing speculation in oil and other commodity markets. It said federal regulators now don't have the tools or manpower to track trading abuses. The bill, passed by a vote of 283-133 and sent to the Senate, is aimed at certain hedge-fund and large institutional investors as well as electronic trading through overseas entities that avoid U.S. government scrutiny.

It would give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission authority for more staff and for limiting the stake traders hold in certain markets. It also would require new reporting and other limits on traders including the foreign trading boards.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is grappling with broader energy legislation focused on offshore oil drilling and it's not certain whether the speculation issue will be wrapped into that effort, or even if an energy package will be passed before Congress leaves town, perhaps as early as the end of next week.

And the likelihood of the anti-speculation measure becoming law is anything but certain.

The White House said in advance of the House vote that President Bush is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

There "is no verifiable evidence to conclude that oil speculators were behind the rise in oil prices ... (or) were behind its recent decline," said the White House in a message to lawmakers.

But the speculation bill got bipartisan support even as Republicans continued to hammer Democratic leaders on broader energy issues.

"This bill will not reduce the price of oil or ease the burden faced at the gas pump," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., "It's not what the American people want and need when it comes to energy." He said a bill with stronger oil drilling provisions than a Democratic bill that passed the House on Tuesday is needed.

Goodlatte, nevertheless, said he supported the anti-speculation measures because it would allow the trading commission "to remain vigilant ... so there is no excessive speculation."

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., said the new authorities for the trading commission and additional staff are needed "to make sure we have referees on the field" when it comes to the oil and other commodity markets.

Democrats in both the House and Senate have argued for months that abusive speculation in the oil markets was a major reason for the driving up of oil prices from $95 a barrel at the start of the year to a high more than $147 a barrel this summer - and to the recent rapid decline.

Oil prices the New York Mercantile Exchange slipped above $100 a barrel Thursday as investors sought a haven from the financial sector's turmoil, after recently dropping as low as $91 a barrel.

A recent report by the trading commission said while investigators could not determine for certain how much speculation there has been in oil markets, there is evidence that it likely was not a major factor in determining prices. For example, as oil prices soared in the first six months of the year, the number of "long" positions - those expecting prices to rise - held by commodity index traders declined by 11 percent.

A Senate hearing earlier this week produced contradictory views on the role of market speculators.

A report presented by Masters Capital Management said the role of speculators was clear as investors poured $60 billion into oil futures markets during the first five months of the year as oil prices soared and pulled out $39 billion since July as prices dropped.

Analyst Fadel Gheit of Oppenheimer & Company Inc. said the "unprecedented 150 percent surge in crude oil prices between Jan. 2007 and July 2008 was in our opinion more a result of excessive speculation than due to strong market fundamentals" though he acknowledged that oil demand in most regions of the world during the period.

But Lawrence Eagles, global head of commodity research for JPMorgan Chase Co., said "fundamentally ... high energy prices are a result of supply and demand, not excessive speculation."

On Thursday, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who held the hearing, questioned Eagles' assessment saying that a JPMorgan e-mail to clients provided a contradictory view. It cited "an enormous amount of speculation pent up in energy markets" for the high prices and not "just the supply-demand equation."

Dorgan has demanded an explanation from the company for the discrepancy.


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