Monday, June 30, 2008

Oil Futures and the Folly of Price Controls.

Richard Nixon's early-1970s price controls were a disaster. Administering the controls on energy alone took an estimated 5 million man-hours per year and punished motorists with gas lines. Repeating this experiment by clamping down on oil trading is like burning your hand on a gas stove and then sitting on a barbecue.

Would-be Nixons argue that hedge funds and their ilk are piling into oil futures, driving prices above "reasonable" levels. They note that in 2000, speculators owned just over a third of the "paper oil" traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange but now own more than two-thirds. This buying pressure on paper oil is said to be pushing physical oil up. Stop the speculation, they say, and prices would revert to normal.

The most basic problem with this claim is that a speculator can buy paper oil only if someone else sells to him. For every trader who bets on a price rise, there must be another who bets the opposite. So an increase in the number of speculative players does not show whether prices will move up or down. Think of a youth soccer team: If it adds two extra players it doesn't become more likely to win, because its opponents will add two players as well.

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