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Wikileaks: Speculators Helped Cause Oil Bubble

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Saudi King Abdullah and President Bush at the King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, May 16, 2008.
Saudi King Abdullah and President Bush at the King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh, May 16, 2008.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

When oil prices surged to a ridiculous $147 a barrel in the summer of 2008, conventional wisdom held that normal supply and demand issues were the cause. Both the Bush administration (in the form of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission) and most of Wall Street (through both media figures and market analysts) blamed such factors as increases in oil demand from the Chinese industrial machine, and the failure of Americans to conserve, for the surge in crude prices.

Goldman Sachs, while outrageously predicting a "super spike" that might cause oil to reach as high as $200 a barrel, blamed piggish American consumers and preached conservation as a bulwark against oil supply disruptions. The bank's "Oracle of Oil," Arjun Murti, even broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars.

Well, thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that when the Bush administration reached out to the Saudis in the summer of '08 to ask them to increase oil production to lower prices, the Saudis responded by saying they were having a hard time finding buyers for their oil as it was, and instead asked the Bush administration to rein in Wall Street speculators.

According to the McClatchy report, the Wiki cables show that Saudi ministers repeatedly told Bush administration officials that increasing production might be counterproductive.

The cables show that at the height of the bubble, in May 2008, U.S. officials met in Riyadh with the Saudi assistant petroleum minister, Prince Abdulazziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who told the U.S. he was "extremely worried" that high prices would destroy the demand for crude.

"Aramco is trying to sell more, but frankly there are no buyers," he reportedly said, referring to the Saudi state oil company. "We are discounting buyers."

The issue here, which I covered somewhat in Griftopia and in "The Great American Bubble Machine," revolves around the influx of speculative money into the commodities markets. Because of various changes to the way commodities were traded -- including a series of semi-secret exemptions handed out to commodities speculators, allowing companies like Goldman Sachs to popularize commodities speculation -- there was, by the summer of 2008, a cascade of investor money pouring into commodities, mostly all betting on a rise of commodity prices. Much of this might have been due to money flowing out of mortgages and into the "safe" haven of commodities, with exploding energy prices being an unwelcome side effect. While there was less than $20 billion of speculative activity in commodities in the early 2000s, by 2008 that number had jumped up to well over $200 billion, with virtually all that money being "long" money, i.e. bets on a rise in prices. All of that new money turned into a battering ram pushing prices through the roof. We are seeing the same phenomenon this year.

The Wiki documents show that the Saudis had long ago concluded that this increased investor flow was a threat to disrupt the markets. An embassy cable from 2007 recounted a meeting U.S. officials had with Yasser Mufti, an Aramco planner. "The Saudi analysts indicated a link between higher oil prices and the influx of investor funds into the oil markets," it read.

The cables also show that the Saudis urged the Americans to enact reforms to rein in Wall Street, calling for speculative limits and other changes. It also showed that some Saudi officials believed that speculation added as much as $40 to the oil price during the height of the bubble.

All of this is significant because both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have denied this narrative to various degrees. The CFTC only recently admitted that speculation played a role in the 2008 mess, having originally (and stubbornly) blamed supply and demand issues. Subsequent analyses have shown that the Saudi position, that worldwide demand for oil never increased nearly enough to account for the gigantic 2008 price spike, was almost certainly correct.

More on this to come later. Given the surge in commodities prices in the last year (which may in part have caused the rise in food prices that led to disturbances in the Middle East) and the Obama administration's seeming reluctance still to rein in speculators, it's remarkable that this issue doesn't get more press. It'll be interesting to see how much ink these Wiki cables get.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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