07 Jan 2009

MasterResource Post on Oil Speculation

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Over at MasterResource I make another guest blog post, this time tackling Robert Bryce’s possibly premature concession on whether speculators were driving oil prices. I don’t really take a stand but just try to clarify the debate:

In the broadest sense, any price is caused by “supply and demand.” The prices for Las Vegas real estate in 2006, as well as for Dutch tulip bulbs in 1637, balanced the quantity demanded with the quantity supplied. Even at the height of a speculative bubble, sellers can only receive what buyers are willing to pay.

In the present context, however, it is common for people to contrast “the fundamentals” from mere “speculative demand.” In the case of oil, if demand has increased because factories need to run their machines harder or because refiners expect motorists to buy more gasoline, then that is deemed a legitimate, fundamental driver of higher oil prices. On the other hand, if hedge fund managers invest in oil futures contracts not because they forecast higher fundamental demand, but rather because they are simply betting that the market value of the contracts will appreciate, allowing the hedge fund to unload the contract before physical delivery, then that is considered pure speculation.

Incidentally, I knew when I wrote it that that last sentence was a bit long. But man, that last sentence is a bit long.

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