Oil Speculators: The Damage Is Real

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Let's be clear on something: It's not a conspiracy theory. A good portion of the pain that consumers are feeling at the gas pump is indeed caused by speculators. This isn't some half-baked Internet meme, or somebody babbling on a Yahoo message board. It's a fact.

Just look at this study by the staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which found that speculation "played a significant role in the oil price increase between 2004 and 2008 and its subsequent collapse." Last year, a Goldman Sachs study found that every 10 million contracts traded by speculators adds 10 cents to the price of a barrel of oil. That translates to as much as $23 a barrel, when you consider that speculative futures contracts have been the equivalent of 230 million barrels of oil.

Now that we've settled that, let's relax -- unless your broker talked you into buying some oil or gas futures contracts, in which case you have a reasonable chance of being screwed. The reason is that there are signs that gas prices are peaking. If so, then the same speculation that is pushing up prices is likely to go into reverse, causing prices to right back down again.

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To be sure, my whole market-is-peaking scenario may unravel if (among other things) there's more saber-rattling by or against Iran -- and especially if Israel decides, God forbid, that the time has come to put the kibosh on Iran's nuclear plants. But short of something horrifying along those lines, we may be seeing declines in gas prices that are as sharp as the increases that motorist have been experiencing.

On Monday, the Lundberg Survey of gas prices indicated that gas prices may have already peaked at just short of $4 a gallon -- nationwide, that is. In pricier markets they've already climbed toward $5. In the crucial market of Los Angeles, the survey showed that prices have actually begun to decline . Just over half of analysts are predicting an oil price decline -- which is, I guess, a contrary indicator. But not to worry. This time they may be right.

I think a decline in gas prices is unsurprising for a number of reasons:

  • Consumers are getting fed up . Energy Department data show that demand for gasoline in the four weeks that ended March 30 was 3.8% below the level a year ago, as prices climbed toward that sticker-shocking four bucks. Bloomberg reports, citing another survey, that fuel use over that same period was 5.9% lower than a year earlier -- a record 54th consecutive decline. The market is beginning to flex its muscles, and may even contributing to the easing in gas prices.
  • Supplies are rising . Last week, the Energy Information Agency reported that crude oil inventories showed an unexpected rise of 9 million barrels, a 2.5% gain, to their highest level since mid-2011. Sure, you can't pick up a newspaper without reading about Iran's customers being muscled to cut their purchases, which is the primary geopolitcal reason that oil prices are increasing. But the Saudis are cooperating , and will increase their production to offset any loss of production by Iran. That is not charity, of course, but simple self-interest by a country that hates and fears Iran almost as much as Israel does.
  • The elections . President Obama can't be blamed for the increase in gas prices, but that hasn't kept it from being used against him by the Republicans. So there is an excellent chance that Obama will tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- and that Britain and France will take similar measures -- if prices don't fall of their own accord. Obama may have many shortcomings as a president, but he's still a Chicago pol. Chicago pols have been known to recruit voters from the cemeteries when it has meant the difference between victory and defeat. Tapping into the SPR is child's play by comparison.
  • Beyond 2012