Calling All Conspiracy Theorists!

At Wednesday’s Kudlow & Company, Larry laid down an interesting challenge to me.  "The Dems in D.C. are saying the White House cut oil prices just before the election. What do you think of that?"

My answer was straight forward: "I don’t really believe in conspiracy theories. The White House couldn’t even keep a 2nd rate burglary under wraps. Sure, it was fortuitous timing for the GOP to have Gas prices plummet by a third 6 weeks before elections. But I need to see a market mechanism. We know the Saudis have been pumping all out for 3 years. What made prices go down?"

This was before we went on air, and in the subsequent "Goldilocks" infused adrenal rush, I kinda forgot about it. 

On the train in this morning, I overheard a couple discussing how they tanked up at $2.45, and how much lower gasoline now is.

And it got me thinking:

Yes, the timing is convenient. But so far, there’s nothing more than few funny coincidences. Show me the market mechanism for this, and give me a credible person saying this happened, and I will push it further.

Larry raised this issue, and all I have now are some interesting "coincidences.  So I ask the assmebled multitudes — what proof is there of energy price manipulation?  I don’t want theories or any tin foil hat crowd conspiricies — show me facts data or some evidence, and we will dig deeper into this.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. The Watcher commented on Sep 29

    Truth is stranger than fiction.

  2. Eric commented on Sep 29

    A little thing called the strategic petroleum reserve. Although, I know that the market is bigger than any one player, you can get pretty good odds that the broker with this order is on vacation.

  3. jzeide commented on Sep 29

    Not sure about conspiracies but Hank Paulson probably has some good connections to people who can pull the trigger on a few hundred Billion….what if he called in a few favors…I dont have access to the trades but looking into how much, if any Goldman Sachs lightened up on oil the past month might start you in getting somewhere???????

  4. GerryL commented on Sep 29

    It is my belief that the White House would manipulate the market if they could but it seemed to me that the market was too large to be manipulated. However, I did hear mention today that the government has stopped filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. I don’t think that alone would cause a significant drop in oil prices but it is a start.

  5. BDG123 commented on Sep 29

    Did Bush and Cheney suit up and start trading? How in God’s name do they have any impact on traders or traditional players in the oil markets?

    If I was to believe the Keystone cops could do anything, it wouldn’t be trade oil. But, how about this one? Energy traders in the forms of Wall Street understand this election is very important and if the Dems gain control, there may be additional scrutiny into energy trading, may be a coherent energy policy, etc. So, in order to give their Republican buddies a lift, they back off the accelerator.

    I don’t believe that for a second but ………. it’s more plausible.

  6. Larry O commented on Sep 29

    There is a way that the White House can influence oil prices. Just turn down the rhetoric on Iran for their nuclear activites. This is exactly what has happened in the last few weeks.

  7. wyler commented on Sep 29

    Not sure if this qualifies as a fact or a theory but happened to run across this in my surfing:
    “Goldman Sachs elected in July to arbitrarily game their widely followed commodity index. Illustrating how this can be done, and with no questions asked, they suddenly changed the unleaded gasoline component of the index from 8.45% to 2.30%, right at a point in time when speculative funds were heavily long.”

  8. Heather commented on Sep 29

    Why does the White House have to manipulate it? Why not the oil companies themselves? If you were them, wouldn’t you rather have Repubs in charge than Dems?

  9. Bob A commented on Sep 29

    At high enough prices, people use less, more is available. conspiracy? yes.. of the masses. But wouldn’t the conservatives love to spread the impression that Bush somehow has the ‘power’ to manipulate gas prices? After all he speaks directly to god/God. Of course. And they are. Don’t be a tool.

  10. GerryL commented on Sep 29

    If there is any credibility to the White House manipulating prices it brings up an interesting question. What happens to oil prices after the election and does it make energy stocks a buy?

  11. Trent commented on Sep 29

    Other than to not fill it any further the SPR may not be viable. I believe Congress must approve releases, although I am not sure about that.

    As far as conspiracies, this administration encourages them by being so secretive and so willing to manipulate the constitution to meet their ends.

    As far as whether the govt has much control over oil prices, my answer is a resounding “no.”

    But as far as whether they can pull enough levers – particularly given their close relationships with big oil – to influence the price for a month or three before an election the answer is a resounding “yes.”

    And as to the theories above, the Paulson/Goldman link is my favorite. The timing of his confirmation pretty much coincided with the recent peak in oil prices.

  12. wcw commented on Sep 29

    This is freaking hooey, but I have been battling it all week. My wife heard the rumor first, and now it is all over the blogs.

    Rather than rehash my manifold arguments, let me point out that a) Karl Rove did not tell me to short a refiner on July 7, and b) while the EIA has good commentary (link takes you to the “unusually low levels” quote) and great data, crack spreads are not actually historically high on average.

    Long story short, until I see some evidence, I am chalking this rumor up to the isn’t-that-convenient church-lady crowd.

  13. wcw commented on Sep 29

    Also worth noting: Paulson is a Republican, but Goldman as a whole is the only solidly (D) house on Wall Street.

  14. Al K. commented on Sep 29

    I read the same article Aaron is referring to and found it to be very interesting. It is worth a read.
    Also, I find it interesting that this whole market seems to be moving up because of the excitement over the Dow. As you pointed out, the Dow’s big raise was caused by just ten stocks. Let me see, if I wanted to bring the market up and I had big money, I would tell the stock market writers to push big caps then I would put big money in ten or so Dow stocks, moving the Dow up. If things worked out, the Dow would go up and the excitement would bring the rest of the market up just in time for the election. After the election, I would dump the Dow stocks and make a lot of money. NOW there is a conspiracy for you. Are you ready to write the book?

  15. michael commented on Sep 29

    I am not a big conspiracy buff either, but I do recall during the last presidential election, that it seemed odd to me that oil could be at an all time high while gas prices weren’t nearly as high. I will see if I can’t dig up some numbers to support this.

    And a note to wyler, even if the oil companies are making the decision to keep prices down without any input from the White House, that is still collusion, and it is still illegal.

  16. Greg commented on Sep 29

    Personally, I don’t think these guys are smart enough to pull off such a conspiracy. And a note to michael, oil companies deciding to lower prices to help the republicans is not collusion, or illegal. It’s only collusion if they get together and collectively decide to lower prices to help republicans, which is both unlikely and unnecessary.

    And I do find wyler’s suggestion that the oil companies lowered prices to help the republicans both possible and plausible – far more likely than a white house conspiracy.

  17. Paul Stiles commented on Sep 29

    Larry O hit the nail on the head!

    “There is a way that the White House can influence oil prices. Just turn down the rhetoric on Iran for their nuclear activites. This is exactly what has happened in the last few weeks.”

  18. blam commented on Sep 29

    To me the timimg is a side issue. The bigger issue, and every comment posted here tacitly admits it, is that commodity prices are being determined by forces other than supply and demand.

    That is the really big issue which calls into question the entire structure of the futures market. Financial entities can and are cornering commodity markets using synthetic script and extorting above market rent from the American people.

    Jim Hamilton at Econbrowser, a died in the wool efficient market academic, is on the verge of an epiphany concerning commodity market manipulation. His reasoning is impeccable.

    This is a big deal. Free and honest price dicovery is the foundation of our markets. Legalized extortion of the American consumer on this scale by a financial mob is untenable.

  19. jjr commented on Sep 29

    This is more from the tin foil crowd, but the best suggestion I’ve read for how the Executive Branch can temporarily influence the price of oil is via the military. Since the US military consumes scads of oil, there is no doubt that they have an effect on demand. What if the military were to cut back on filling up reserves, or to run down storage? Would that influence the price of oil, if it were done in a coordinated manner? Seems possible, but that’s all I can say.

    p.s. the idea came from discussion over on

  20. Alaskan Pete commented on Sep 29

    Look, this is REAL simple.

    Goldman changed the composition of their GSCI commodity index to hold less unleaded gasoline. Thus, funds tracking the GSCI sold large portions of their unleaded gas futures.

    At the same time, the Cheney administration shut the hell up about blowing Iran to pieces and the SPR has not been refilled since the drawdown after Katrina/Rita.

    It doesn’t take a “Ocean’s 11” style complicated subterfuge to manipulate prices. And while I agree that this bungling band of idiots currently occupying the White House can barely wipe their own asses without screwing up, it doesn’t exactly seem like a tinfoil theory when presidential approval ratings are very closely tied to gas prices.

  21. Craig commented on Sep 29

    So the answer is yes? A curious person should wonder.

    I can’t say with certainty one way or the other, but I did find it interesting how we suddenly had so much inventory that the BP pipeline debacle and subsequent loss of 400,000 BPD, then 200,000 BPD had zero effect. Concurrent with the pipeline issue we had stories of excess crude inventory being held-up in tankers at sea and how the pipelines held so much more. I live in the Pacific NW and we didn’t see any price fluctuation based on possible shortfalls from Alaska. We were almost immediately awash in crude.

    As an oil investor I did notice the sudden easing of rhetoric with Iran from the WH right about the time of all the suddenly found inventory.

    And finally, if the partisan leaning of the supposed neutral “media” is any example, favortism and manipulation by much more powerful primates is almost a behavioral certainty. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when watching CNBC to remember I’m NOT watching FOX. One can only imagine what the Pres of BP or XOM could accomplish with a similar motivation.

    Notice they swore in those horrible liberal type HP liars, but the OIL liars were spared that inconvenience by Senator “Bridge to Nowhere” Stevens? Anyone hear anymore outrage about that pipeline maintenance???? I wonder why…….?

    The mechanisms to lower prices would be inventory, even temporary increases, and decreased political tensions, which are directly within WH control.

    When I think conspiracy theory is a bit crazy, I remember…..they lied us into a longtime losing war with at least six different and unrelated manipulated reasons, all completely stupid, yet here we are. Could they push inventories with the help of friends for long enough to have a short term effect? Probably. And inventories/demand will equalize “seasonally” in the “normal” manner in November. After the election.

    Let’s keep track.

  22. alexd commented on Sep 29

    Dear Anon,

    First please notice that I make myself available. Anyone here can and is encouraged to voice their opinion about anything I type because I could be wrong or incomplete in my thoughts about any given subject. Somehow I can live with the idea that I will never know everything, even about a subject I am conversant in. It is inevitable because that is the nature of the universe. In the late 1800s the head of the patent office suggested the closing of that office due to the fact that everything had already been invented. Perhaps he was premature.

    For you the argument seems to be political rather than whether the argument was plausable. If you can prove the argument is implausable than you can win the argument without name calling.

    Your thinking seems a little short sided to me. If I owned an oil company, I could live with super duper godzilla sized profits (without doing anything that was more productive to justify those profits!) for a long period of time and then reduce those profits to simply damm good for a few months in order to payback the very people who gave our industry tax breaks worth 18 billion dollars and did what it could not to increase cafe standards. Follow the money.
    Somebody asked me why gas prices were so high and I said because the market was short one barrel of oil. A bit of an exageration but you see the point. It does not take too much oil being delayed from going on the market to cause traders to believe that shortages are going to persist.

    So is it plausable?

    On calling anyone commies. Lets see who is the major trading partner who owes so much of our debt that they can actually controll aspects of our trade and military policies. Lets see we cannot trade with the tiny island of Cuba cause they are communists but we can trade with China and Vietnam w/o a problem. How does that work? We help the commies make money! If you are going to bandy cold war name calling about you might be seen as being a bit retro.

    Enjoy your weekend anon.

  23. wally commented on Sep 30

    No conspiracy… such a thing is not possible.
    The lower price of oil is simple: there is less demand.

    Consider that economic stats showing a slowdown must, by definition, show up after the slowdown has begun – but the guys selling oil are at the balanced edge and they know it immediately.

  24. wcw commented on Sep 30

    In re Goldman, it bears repeating (apparently several times until it sinks in): Goldman is the one Democratic shop on Wall Street. Paulson was an exception, and now he and his little black book are gone. Rubin was the quintessential Goldman man — brilliant, flawed, and an Eisenhower Republican, which is to say these days, a Democrat.

    FD: my politics lie way, way to the left of all these guys.

  25. laffingstock commented on Sep 30

    It’s so obvious, it’s all in the name, the GOP, now many believe it is the grand old party.
    But listen to Bush, or any other Texan say their favorite word, and you will realize it is
    truly known as the Grand Oil Party, and I think Heather said it best, Why not the ‘ole companies themselves? They know what side their bread is buttered on.
    And can you really, I mean really think that Chaney didn’t make a few calls?
    How about that announcement of the big discovery in the gulf, at just the right time!
    Proof, probably never happen.
    By the way, where is Chaney these days?

  26. financialrx commented on Sep 30

    It’s a trick question.

    Market manipulation happens every single day right under our noses. In plain sight. In fact it is reported extensively in the mainstream media. Not to mention this, say, “mechanism” issues statements, and even the minutes of their meetings.

    This manipulative bunch employ legions of economists that study the markets, as well as the effect of their own activities of the markets. And then they put those mountains of paper on the web for everyone to see.

    Not to mention the pseudo-government agencies like Fannie and Freddie.

    Is it believable that there could be something going on with oil, gasoline, or even the stock market?

    Sure it is. In fact it is logical.

    After all, once you’ve decided you *should* play God with where interest rates cross (and that it’s normal for God to change His mind on a regular basis), how much of a stretch is it to believe it happens in other markets?

    Funny so many get uptight about whether or not someone is manipulating oil or stock prices… yet ignore the blatant stuff going on at our friendly central bank.

  27. me2200 commented on Sep 30

    There is no conspiracy. Crude has been way over priced for over a year now. Without a hurricane and without sanctions against IRAN, there is very little fear left in the market at the inventory levels are absurd ! Gasoline is about 10% higher than a year ago, which was already high and heating oil is +15%.

    The build in crude products this week was outrageous. Almost 9M barrels between gasoline and heating oil. WOW. And the bottom has already fallen out of natgas because companies are running out of places to store the stuff ! We are literally swimming in hydrocarbons. What really happened in the last few weeks is that we ran out of hope that the situation would reverse !

    Just wait, its going to get worse. If we don’t get a cold winter and lots of consumption, the bottom is going to fall out of the crude market. Mark my words.

  28. brion commented on Sep 30

    “Why not the oil companies themselves? If you were them, wouldn’t you rather have Repubs in charge than Dems?”

    Heather nailed this one. Oil Co’s give something like 80/20 to Repubs vs. Dems. They can cause the pump price to explode on rumors of war and supply disruption. They can let those same prices slowly linger in the absence of dire geopolitical market expectations. They can derail any congressional nonsense about “windfall profits” taxes (Dem instigated) and with record profits under their belts, yes, help engineer the re-election of their symbiotic political brethren, the Republicans. And they have the most plausible rationale for every single move they make.

    Big oil- the big lube that greases the skids of democracy

  29. brion commented on Sep 30

    one other thing…The single biggest factor in the polling fortunes of incurious george? not katrina,iraq,deficits,torture, toxic partisanship, domestic spying, using the Constitution as his own personal snot rag or the 10,000th linkage of the words terror and freedom,….it is….the pump price of a freakin’ gallon of gas.
    America deserves gw bush.

  30. Humbug commented on Sep 30

    Yup. The oil companies themselves seem to be the biggest suspect here. When oil companies give incumbent politicians millions, no one bats an eye. When the same companies give the same incumbents the equivalent of *multiple* millions by lowering gas prices shortly before an election, everyone thinks “No way!”

    Why not? The current administration is an energy producer’s dream. Tax cuts (what corporate taxes?), lack of oversight, relaxing environmental and corporate rules, record profits. For an energy producer, what’s not to like?

    Sure, energy companies probably can’t just push a button and make prices go up or down. They certainly can heavily influence prices.. increasing them by performing “routine maintenance” at inopportune times, for example. Who’s to say these multinationals don’t redirect oil shipments from some other area just a bit in order to increase the supply for a few months before an American election?

  31. brion commented on Sep 30

    “so, when oil prices are up, republicans are evil – and when oil prices are down, republicans are evil?”

    Yes anon. You have it exactly right.

  32. Ryan commented on Sep 30

    Is the small change in the price of gas really enough to change an election result? If so, the American public is pretty fickle.

  33. Steven commented on Sep 30

    I’m not in the conspiracy camp..
    They tried to build a police training college in Baghdad but had to condemn most of the facility after construction because Iraqis were complaining about “feces dripping down from the ceilings”.

    Now what would happen when George tries to manipulate world oil markets?

    I chalk this one up to George’s dumb luck. Hooray for Georgie!@

  34. Ryan commented on Sep 30

    Now if there’s an Osama tape 3 days before the election again, I might have to believe that something is up

  35. mackalope commented on Sep 30

    I made a mistake in the above comment:

    Goldman Sachs did it!! NOT “Morgan Stanley”.


  36. Barry Ritholtz commented on Sep 30

    A few good tidbits above, and I will pursue them further.

    The GSCI is the best lead.

    Here are the 2 big questions:

    1) What funds track this? We know with the S&P500, there is several trillion dollars tied to tracking it precisely. Any announced changes in the SPX is immediately aped by the indexed funds. Are there GSCI linked funds?

    2) How much money tracks the GSCI? What size is the total Commodites market relative to equities? Do funds explicitely follow GSCI, and how much cash is involved.

    That’s a market mechanism which is quite interesting, could and the earliest mention of it I could find was by Bill King (King Report).

  37. The Hube commented on Sep 30

    I remember reading somewhere a few years ago (think it was at time of Clinton reelection) that the Saudis always pump extra oil in the couple of months before an election to get the party in power reelected because they prefer the devil they know to the unknown.
    In this case I think it is because parabolic prices tend to come down quickly once a tipping point has been reached. The timing is fortuitous for the repubs, but I doubt they have the power to affect the worldwide price of oil. When oil prices naturally go back up in six or eight months is when you will really hear the conspiracy nuts come out of the woodwork.

  38. Eclectic commented on Sep 30

    A true economic definition of a “commodity” – such as oil is a commodity – is an item produced by a theoretically unlimited number of producers and sold to a theoretically unlimited number of buyers.

    When those conditions hold, no single buyer or group of buyers, nor any single producer or group of producers, can have any independent effect on the price. When those conditions hold, it is also much more difficult for futures speculations to alter the forward pricing in a manner not purely coincident with the absolute anticipation of supply and demand.

    For example: a drought in the Great Plains will cause the anticipation of a lower corn yield and thus drive corn prices up. No single corn buyer or seller can prevent the change in price, whether they intend to or not.

    However, as the number of producers decreases or the number of buyers decreases, the economic dynamic that contols price begins to take on more and more potential for single or grouped buyers or sellers to have an independent effect on price.

    For example: Diamonds are true commodities, but they are not produced by a theoretically unlimited number of producers. Therefore, the price (at least in the producer market) is often set by a limited number of producers exercising something like a monopoly dynamic.

    In this case, a single producer may have a dramatic effect on price, whether intentional or not. For example: a producer may intend to restrict supply inventory, or, conversely, the supply inventory may be restricted by an accident to a production facility. The question would then arise as to motivations; is the intention to raise the price, or did the price rise unintentionally?

    A diamond producer will benefit in either case, but they may not wish to experience an accident at a production facility in order to accomplish an increased price.

    Considering oil: Are the oil companies merely the grateful beneficiaries of a higher price, such that inventory has moved through their possession simultaneously as its price has risen?

    I think that is the case, but let’s take a closer look. Were you to own a small convenience store, can you understand that if you, one day, stock you gasoline tanks with gasoline purchased from a local distributor (who has done the same), and, then, over the coming days you sell the gasoline at higher prices than when you’d stocked it… you’ll reap a much greater profit?

    Will you be grateful for the profit?… Will you feel guilty for the profit?… Will you forego the profit and sell the gasoline at a lower cost?… Would you off-sell it at a lower cost to your customers if you knew they were simply re-selling it at its current price?…

    Of course not. The commodity nature of gasoline dictates its price, regardless of any foolish intentions toward altruism that might be experienced in your community. There’s always a local group of vocal, possibly well-intentioned yet uninformed people who begin to promote the “restrictions to local buying of gasoline.”

    “We’ll fix’em, just don’t buy!” they’ll claim. Meanwhile the tanks are draining rapidly at the convenience store, and Lowes and Home Depot are already on their third ordering of 5-gas gas cans.

    No, oil (and gasoline) are commodity items, yes, but the world has changed a bit. We now have a limited number of ‘sources’ of supply, if not a limited number of producers. For example: the Gulf of Mexico is a producer area… the Middle-East is… Russia is… Alaska is… and there are a not-unlimited number of other areas, world-wide, and generally there are a limited number of producers that produce in those areas.

    It’s not a monopoly however, but it has grown much closer to being an oligopoly:

    With an oligopoly, no single producer has a monopoly control over price, but the member producers of the oligopoly each can have a significant effect on price, either intentionally or unintentionally. However, they would not intend to restrict supply independently by incurring great costs associated with the restriction. For example: Ford has decided to restrict production of F-150 pickups, their most successful economic units, but not simply to raise prices of remaining inventory (it may have that effect), but rather to avoid great costs from excessive production.

    They would not refuse the higher prices that may result from subsequent sales of pickups, nor would their competitors refuse higher prices either.

    If a hurricane sweeps through a producing area… or if a pipeline is suddenly and unexpectedly threatened with downage… or if a rebellion arises in some other producing area, world-wide… or if a war is begun in an area of great abundance of supply… the impacts of these events will happen to a limited number of producers, and at the same time the psychological effects of anticipated future supply will impact the purchasing habits of buyers, and speculators. Often these effects lead to hoarding, and in the financial markets they lead to great speculation that affects futures pricing and they immediately affect spot pricing.

    Meanwhile, prices rise and specific producers, whether the negative effects of a special event impact them directly or not, will benefit from selling inventory acquired at much lower prices. The opposite can and does result when prices fall. Distributors and convenience store owners lose as fast as they’d gained when their higher priced inventory is sold at lower and lower prices.

    Could there ever be a conspiracy to raise prices?… No, never in the core traditional sense of economics.

    Near-oligopolistic competitiors would cut their own throats in the attempt. However, should one wish to ponder conspiracy, the pondering would have to be concerned with the decision criteria applied to actions that affect a relatively few producing areas and their limited numbers of producers.

    Then the question would be: Is it possible to influence a hurricane, or a pipeline breakdown… or a war… or the timing of news, strategy or decisions that affect the psychology of buyers or speculators?

    Obviously the anser to some of those items is ‘no,’ and to others it’s possibly ‘yes.’

    Disproving the potential for any ‘yes’ answers is within the scope of political science, but it does not reside in pure economics.

  39. bdg123 commented on Sep 30

    While I generally agree with you on most issues, including the misfits in Washington, it is highly improbably a change in the GS commodities index caused a $20 drop in oil. The oil markets are way too wide and deep for that. Nickel? Yes. Oil? No.

    The markets were signalling a peak was forming for months.

  40. Fullcarry commented on Sep 30

    One thing no one has been talking about is the term structure of future prices. With one year out futures prices 7% higher than current prices one has to wonder what motivates producers to add to current production.

    I find it hard to believe that producers can get better than 7% by swapping their oil for dollars. Obviously the better strategy for them would be to leave their Oil in the ground and sell a One year out futures contract.

  41. jj commented on Sep 30

    So , it’s good to manipulate Oil prices so that Big Oil gains ….. while putting the Airlines and Autos into bankruptcy …. great conspiracy ….. I think some people need to see a Psychiatrist ….. has this site become the 9/11 Conspiracy site ???? Does anyone here have any understanding at all about economics or finance , and clearly have any clue about how markets work

  42. zell commented on Sep 30

    Toned down Iran rhetoric -Straits of Hormuz – tipping point.All other factors were already in play and ready to cascade.

  43. me commented on Sep 30

    Oil dropped 10 bucks a barrel and yet gasoline dropped a buck a gallon. Someone pointed out to me that a $10 drop in a barre;; of oil is about $.24 a gallon. So, where does the other $.76 a gallon come from? Maybe not the WH, but you can bet big oil is sacrificing profits to try and keep regpus in office rather than face up to global warming, conservation, efficiency, and increasing CAFE, something 6 years of repugs have ignored.

  44. me commented on Sep 30

    And if you don’t believe in corporate shenanigans, just look at HP, even after Enron, Worldcom etc. These guys cannot be trusted.

  45. wcw commented on Sep 30

    me, the other $.75 drop came from shrinking crack spreads. Read up the comments thread to my first post and click through the “not actually historically high” link. For that matter, click through to the EIA comments and read those, too. Average spreads have dropped maybe $10. At 15 mmb/d production, that results in a loss to refiners pushing $10 billion in profits over the last three months.

    I trust the oil industry as far as my 94-year-old grandmother can throw them, but they don’t forego $10 billion just in case it helps keep their party in office. They don’t have to. Elections are cheap — the entire 2004 cycle cost maybe $4 billion. As with the argument “Goldman did it,” in which you have to believe that the only culturally Democratic investment bank in Manhattan decided to keep the other party in power, this one just doesn’t make sense.

    Fullcarry, contango does not shutter production, it increases storage (oil fields do not switch on and off like lights, treating them thus is bad for their long-term health). Morgan Stanley believes this and the attendant increase in crude and distillate inventories is a rational response to global uncertainty. I am not sure I disagree, but I do think rising inventories indicate that current spot prices are still not market-clearing. That is to say, oil is not low, but still high enough the market does not demand all crude, gasoline and distillate currently being produced.

    If the gasoline price were being manipulated down, shouldn’t volumes demanded be rising rather than dropping?

  46. Peter Pavlog commented on Sep 30

    I used to believe that conspiracy theorists were nut-jobs.

    I have changed my view after seeing (or hearing on tape) the irrefutable evidence that Enron’s traders were able to manipulate energy markets.

  47. Jon H commented on Sep 30

    I filled up at $2.19 in Cambridge, MA.

    What makes me suspicious is that retail gas prices don’t usually fall this far this quickly, even if oil has dropped.

    There’s usually a lag.

  48. Jon H commented on Sep 30

    “Show me the market mechanism for this”

    If one GOP-connected gas company cuts their price, pretty much everyone will follow.

  49. Fullcarry commented on Sep 30

    wcw –

    “Fullcarry, contango does not shutter production, it increases storage (oil fields do not switch on and off like lights, treating them thus is bad for their long-term health). ”

    Your argument doesn’t seem too convincing in light of the many international producers (esp Saudi Arabia) struggling to maintain production. It would be obviously rational for many marginal producers to stop producing right now.

    Also overproduction could be as harmful to oil fields as turning them on and off especially since the oil contract contango has been in effect for a while.

  50. Chibi commented on Sep 30

    If I were to pursue a conspiracy in this area, it would be around Exxon. They’ve been a big behind-the-scenes player in the propaganda war against Al Gore/Global Warming/etc. Look it up! Seems like there’s motive there. I can’t give you anything more concrete there, though. At least not today.

  51. roscoe ii commented on Sep 30

    Barry, go to
    Graph shows gasoline prices over year, with blip up as Congress mandated ending MTBE just at the start of driving season replacing it with non-pipeliable ethanol. It took 3-4 months for distribution to adjust, with the Northeast being the most affected. So if you want a conspiarcy theory, perhaps the Democrats were behind this? Lookat Bush’s approval ratings vs. gasoline prices, and the Dems got it correct. They just under-estimated market forces.

  52. wcw commented on Sep 30

    Fullcarry, you’re absolutely right: overproduction can be as harmful as underproduction. The former seems to have taken place not by the Saudis but at its worst by pre-Gulf-War-II Iraqis. Under other circumstances, this would have been the limiting factor in returning Iraqi production to potential, but US postinvasion incompetence has made security the bottleneck instead.

    The Saudis aren’t struggling to produce, their crude is just sour and contaminated. That’s why they keep expanding their sour-crude and -gas operations, viz the Fujian venture signed last year. They figure if the market demands a discount for their output, they’ll refine it themselves.

    Contango has indeed been in place for some time and inventories have been rising versus recent normal range over the last year.

  53. Estragon commented on Sep 30

    Coincidence? If gasoline prices are going to fall, it will most likely happen at the end of the summer driving season. There’s an election every second year, so there’s a 50% chance that a random price drop will happen in an election year.

    I’m not sure I see any funny coincidences, let alone a need for any conspiracies to explain them.

    The question about the relative impact of the benchmark index weight change is worth exploring on its own merits though.

  54. Johnny V. commented on Sep 30

    A source I trust says he saw Karl Rove talking to Clarence Beeks in hushed tones right before prices went down. Thus there is obviously a GOP conspiracy afoot…if the dems can stop Beeks then Billary in ’08 is a shoe-in.

    Winthorpe and Valentine still have time to get Rove’s secret plan…provided the Dukes don’t beat them to it.

    Egg nog anyone?

  55. wunsacon commented on Sep 30

    The phrase “manipulate” often reflects a value judgment by the observer. In part, the use of the term might reflect the observer’s perception over the appropriateness or sustainability of the options empoyed. But, any US president wants to reduce gas prices, especially around election time. If he believes in the importance and goodness of his party’s platform, he is not going to willingly risk losing power over an apparent statistical linkage between prices and popularity. So, there is motivation. The question is about options.

    Here are the president’s options (as mentioned by other posters):

    – reduce talk of attacking Iran (reduces the $15/barrel war threat premium)

    – call Saudi friends and tell them not to cut production (storage at 5-year highs)

    – relax refining enviro standards (increase refinery utilization, to make sure the increased supply of crude gets into the consumer’s hands)

    – ask Goldman to reformulate index (to force well-timed, short-term selling of the most consumer-visible of commodities)

    – stop filling the SPR and/or ask other countries (e.g., China) not to fill SPR now (so that widely-reported US figures show “glut”)

    That’s not to say these other non-controlled factors were also at work:
    – expected hurricanes did not materialize
    – more production by private oil co’s
    – more production by Venezuela (recovering from oil co union strikes in 2003 that hobbled production)

    But, none of these factors are mutually exclusive. Thus, we can speak of “election-time manipulation” even in the presence of these uncontrollable factors.

    >> Personally, I don’t think these guys are smart enough to pull off such a conspiracy.

    I think they’re “smart” enough to try. They’re smart enough to win two elections and miminize the political damage of moderate Republicans who leave the administration but write tell-all books saying how batty they are. Smart enough to rise to CEO of Halliburton.

    I don’t think W is “smart”. (He was smart enough to get into Yale. But, he killed too many brain cells over 10 years of abusing whatever substance he doesn’t want to admit to.) But, I do think he has some smart, albeit hubris-afflicted, advisors.

    >> “I don’t really believe in conspiracy theories.

    Please say you believe in some but disbelieve others, all on a case-by-case basis.

    A conspiracy is an agreement by two or more people to some end. Thanks to disclosures 25, 50, and 75 years after the “event”, we know the executive branch of our government (like any government) conspires to do many things of significant import without the oversight of judges, lawmakers, and the public if they believe (a) the objective is important enough and (b) the overseers “might not understand” the policy enough to support it. Has human behavior changed in the past 25 years? No, we just have an explicit information gap. In the presence of this gap, it’s the *duty* of all citizens to engage in reasoned *but imaginative* discussion of what might really be happening now.

    That’s the same kind of exercise people on this board do on a daily basis about market news. (“Hey! Would you look at those misleading figures on *X* ??!”) The more time spent reading politics, history, the more we can “read between the lines” on political news, too.

    >> The White House couldn’t even keep a 2nd rate burglary under wraps.

    I recognize you were speaking off-the-cuff. But, please consider:

    – Don’t draw too strong a conclusion from one data point. Some conspiracies have been much more “successful”. (Iran coup, tobacco misinformation campaigns)

    – Sometimes “being found out” doesn’t matter. Notice that a third of the nation continued to support Nixon afterwards. There’s such a thing as “open secrets” (e.g., PNAC, Downing Street Memos) where the information is available but ignored. (The phrase “it doesn’t matter until it matters” can apply to politics, too. Not just to the effects of the housing bust and “no more MEW” on the economy.)

    – Even if there’s a possibility of being found out, people will still try, especially if they believe it is necessary.

  56. Web Guy Delurking commented on Sep 30

    Is the small change in the price of gas really enough to change an election result? If so, the American public is pretty fickle.


    Judge for yourself – link below is to a graph which maps President Bush’s approval rating vs. the price of gasoline. I’m not arguing causation, but the correlation is pretty striking. FWIW.

  57. Zephyr commented on Oct 1

    As I recall, we had some hurricane damage to refining capacity last year. The return of that capacity should cause gasoline prices to fall.

    Expectations/fear of potential hurricane damage to the system again this year would have kept prices for oil and refined products artificially high until the fear subsides – as we pass through the hurricane season with no damage the fear premium is being removed from refined products.

    As happens in all cycles the oil prices reached unsustainable levels and are finally moderating. This should also contribute to falling gas prices.

    People hoarded product as the prices rose. Now we have too much inventory and prices are declining. This puts further downward pressure on prices as the reason for hoarding is reversed.

    And finally, demand for gasoline always declines at the end of the summer, and gas prices fall.

    Combine all these things together at the same time and you get the decline we are seeing.

    I think it is safe to put the tin hats away now.

  58. me commented on Oct 1

    Right, and Diebold voting machines can’t be easily hacked.

  59. conspriacy nut commented on Oct 1

    the reason that oil went up and then went down to the day was a increase in the solar wind to climatic proportions and its consequent precipitous decline. its facinating, watch the values and compare to the price of oil, an “emotionally traded” commodity. Magnetic flux effects peoples emotions and consequently their outlook and trading behaviour.

    I, though, like many others, always enjoy a good conspiracy! Its human nature to look for a reason to rationalize our world. When it thunders, its because the gods are angry…..hmmmmmm, sounds pausible….

  60. joe commented on Oct 1

    So, all you “believers” in this thread, why participate in the markets at all? If forces so powerful and nefarious are at work, how can you, the “little guy”, expect to get a fair shot. Or are you so smart that you can figure out the manipulation and thus profit, or at least stand aside?

    Markets move away from fair value all the time in the short run for all sorts of reasons. Trying to divine the reason leads to the inductive fallacy of believing that a limited sample of data can lead to broader conclusions (In this case, oil prices down in the short run leads to all sorts of “explanations”, when the reality is surely more complex than any one, two or even three variables)

    If this is how you want to spend your precious time, so be it. But my calculation of the money value of my time tells me to spend it researching investable ideas.

  61. whipsaw commented on Oct 1

    What BR is asking for is basically a theory of forensic financial analysis that might explain this, ahem, unusual market behavior. I think it’s dangerously naive for anyone to believe that the corporate feudal state could not, let alone would not, run prices up or down at will even when incompetent clowns are its nominal leaders. Did they do it, how and why?

    The first question remains to be seen, but I’ve found that Occam’s Razor is a real time saver and is valid 80% of the time, so my answer is yes. How? You drive prices down the same way you drive prices up- you run the stops. The mechanics of that would be to first launder bizillions in govt credits to an offshore hedge fund via one of the many houses that is utterly unbound by moral considerations (as was rumored to have happened in June), then have the fund begin massive buys in the futures market (as was rumored to have happened in July). Then when the memo came down from HQ along with the specifics about stops that were not supposed to be disclosed, start dumping and stage some fills that gap well below outstanding orders to get the train rolling. Create a few limitdown days to scare the crap out of longs and keep the stop information flowing and it doesn’t take much to crash prices. Take care of your buddies with oblique hints before the process begins, but screw everybody else.

    But what about losses incurred in this exercise? Who cares, it’s just helicopter money that never existed to begin with. Which leads us to why do this? Because it’s all about power, not money, at least as far as the Bushists are concerned. They are scared to death that they will lose one or both houses of congress and will face real investigations of what they’ve been up to in a dozen areas, so loss of absolute power is unthinkable.

    But the actual execution doesn’t have to be idealogical or even concerned with the motives- the players who do the work are narrowly focused on stuffing their pockets by front running the move up and the move down with no trading risk. Sweet work if you can get it.

    So that’s my scenario. Is there any evidence to support this? I don’t know, it isn’t my week to keep an eye on them. But if oil isn’t over $80 by the end of the year, I will be astounded.

  62. Zephyr commented on Oct 1

    Good points on how the Bushists caused all this. I never realized they were so amazingly competent. I’m still curious as to how they caused the hurricanes last season to set the stage for this complex sequence of events.

  63. Zephyr commented on Oct 1

    BTW, there are $billions in hedge funds always at the ready to exploit any market mispricing that would result from the types of trades that would be needed to execute these tin hat conspiracies.

    The market would soon wash away the actions of the conspirators like the tide washes the sand on the beach.

    Anyone seen Evlis lately?

  64. whipsaw commented on Oct 1

    per Zephyr:
    “BTW, there are $billions in hedge funds always at the ready to exploit any market mispricing that would result from the types of trades that would be needed to execute these tin hat conspiracies.”

    You apparently missed the part about continuing to run stops- how many times do you think that these parasites would try to exploit “mispricing” if they got stopped out the next hour time after time? That would leave it up to people like Amaranth who apparently did not believe in stops or even hedges for that matter. Heheheh.

  65. Zephyr commented on Oct 1

    I saw your claim. However, you severely underestime the size of the international markets for petroleum products. The natural tide would soon push back the other way.

    Markets tend to go past the natural level on both the rise and decline. What we are seeing now is a natural and past due correction. Or do you think that prices can only go up? …and therefore any decline must be caused by a conspiracy!

  66. Zephyr commented on Oct 1

    sb “underestimate”

  67. whipsaw commented on Oct 1

    Zephyr, you severely underestimate the power of a sovereign in any so-called free market. I’ve seen the BoJ run the stops in the forex market, along with the Russians and Chinese from time to time. And when gold and silver crashed in April(?), the word was that bids were pulled for over an hour to accomodate the Chinese who had gotten themselves into a mess with short positions. The point is that none of this is about capitalism, it’s about mercantilism and printing money as needed, as well as pulling levers behind the curtain.

    And since you brought it up, manipulation isn’t a unidirectional pasttime, in fact it usually occurs to drive prices higher. But the mechanism is the same when a sovereign does it- run the stops- unless there is a more sublime method available like having Bush, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, etc. talk up a crisis.

    Sorry but I do not share your belief in the magic market that makes crime impossible for more than a few days. If that was true, there wouldn’t have been any reason to regulate it (such as that is) to begin with.

  68. conspriacy nut commented on Oct 1

    the reason that oil went up and then went down to the day was a increase in the solar wind to climatic proportions and its consequent precipitous decline. its facinating, watch the values and compare to the price of oil, an “emotionally traded” commodity. Magnetic flux effects peoples emotions and consequently their outlook and trading behaviour.

    I, though, like many others, always enjoy a good conspiracy! Its human nature to look for a reason to rationalize our world. When it thunders, its because the gods are angry…..hmmmmmm, sounds pausible….

  69. Zephyr commented on Oct 1

    Whipsaw, the recent market moves fit with what many have expected based on the natural fundamentals. Any attempted manipulation in the same direction would be irrelevant in power and thus pointless.

    Believe whatever you want.

  70. wcw commented on Oct 2

    I think it is time to stop arguing and put money on it.

    To the $80-by-year-end crowd, Jan-07 crude has to be a bargain at $65.37. That contract (if I read this right; I don’t trade CL) requires just $3,375 initial margin. Let us say you are right, and you close CLF07 out at $80 on the last day of trading, December 19. You’ll make $14,000+ per contract.

    Be my guest, but don’t say I didn’t warn you to consider the risks.

  71. laffingstock commented on Oct 2

    Posted on Briefing late this afternoon…

    ‘US Energy Dept to delay buying through winter 11 mln bbls replacement oil for strategic oil reserve- Reserve’
    What the heck are they waiting for, why I remember
    when Bush refused to release any.
    Must be the mild weather, on the other hand I’ve
    heard it said,”you don’t have to be a weatherman
    to know which way the wind blows”

  72. whipsaw commented on Oct 2

    per wcw:
    “I think it is time to stop arguing and put money on it.”

    Already there, but via cheap long XLE calls. For those of you who expect energy to either stay about the same or actually drop after the erection, you should be writing naked calls against XLE or your favorite member of the oil plutocracy. Eeeeasy money!

  73. wunsacon commented on Oct 31

    On my comment that “call Saudi friends and tell them not to cut production (storage at 5-year highs)”, remember that the Saudi royals:

    – rely on our military hardware to stay in power and

    – rely on us not to spend too tax money developing a national infrastructure for alternative energy.

    For them, it’s better for Bush to stay in power.

    Heck, another leadership (even a change within the GOP) might even take them to task over their human rights. (E.g., I’ve heard the birth of women is not even recorded.)

Posted Under