Want Cheaper Oil? Support Speculation, Don't Curtail It

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have issued irresponsible statements regarding speculation.

Speculation on regulated exchanges is a necessary part of the oil market and provides a valuable function with excellent oversight. Advocates of curtailing, or worse eliminating, speculation are unenlightened or do not understand how markets function. Let's separate the myths from the facts.

Myth: Speculators are bad for markets.

Fact: Many statistics have been thrown around about oil speculation. Airlines claim speculation is driving prices higher because speculators trade 66% of all the futures contracts. This is likely a correct statistic. Speculators do the bulk of trading volume because they buy and sell the market. Speculation is the grease, called liquidity, which makes the market engine function. High levels of liquidity mean the market is more competitive and gives participants a tighter bid/ask spread. This makes transaction costs cheaper, and it's much easier for consumers (airlines) or producers (oil companies) to hedge business risks. For every buyer (long), there is a seller (short). It is a zero-sum game. Speculators can lose money. Amaranth Trading lost billions in 2006 because they were wrong. The volatility of the market makes it a very risky way to make a living.

Myth: No one is watching speculators.

Fact: Sufficient checks and balances already exist for oil market participants. Speculators deposit margin money to trade and hold positions. Margins are based on volatility, dynamically set by exchanges, and overseen by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is overseen by Congress. Exchanges use a sophisticated algorithm to establish margins. It calculates the volatility, position concentration, and liquidity in the market, and comes up with a margin dollar number. Traders that cannot meet margins have their positions liquidated by clearing firms. Regulated markets are transparent and "marked to market" every day. Mark to market means that every trading account is margined and debited or credited each and every day according to a settlement price set by the market. Higher margin requirements will decrease volume. Decreased volume means less liquidity and more volatility, which means higher oil prices for consumers. Margins should be set neither high nor low, but appropriate for how the market is trading. Higher margins will limit the ability for businesses to hedge their risk because it will tie up additional capital. If low margins are indeed the reason for high oil prices, then we could manipulate the market and set very high margins on buying of crude, and low ones for selling. The market will reflect the headline price airlines desire, but it won't be the true economic cost of the commodity. There is no need to politicize the process of margins with more government; regulated exchanges do a good job of setting appropriate margins today.