Senate told speculators causing oil madness

Committee hears about the 'runaway train' that has driven up fuel prices
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WASHINGTON - One is a billionaire financier and the other operates seven gas stations and convenience stores in a farming community of 7,000 in eastern Washington state.

But George Soros and Gerry Ramm joined others in delivering the same message last week to the Senate Commerce Committee. Rampant speculation has helped spur out-of-control crude oil prices, which neared $140 a barrel Friday.

In the measured tones of high finance, Soros, whose hedge fund by some accounts made $3 billion last year, talked about a ''speculative excess'' and warned that the run-up in oil prices could drag the United States into a recession.

''It is intellectually dishonest, potentially destabilizing and distinctly harmful in its economic consequences,'' he said.

Ramm, the president of the Inland Oil Co. of Ephrata, Wash., was a bit more plain-spoken.

''Excessive speculation on energy trading is the fuel that is driving this runaway train in crude oil prices.''

Others testifying said speculation by investment banks, hedge funds, institutional investors and others may be responsible for more than half of the skyrocketing price of crude oil. The Federal Trade Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, they said, have failed to investigate.

Gasoline should cost about $2.25 a gallon, and everything above that is ''funny money'' largely tacked on by speculation and manipulation, testified Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America.

''The speculative bubble in energy commodities has cost households about $1,500 over the past two years in increased costs for gasoline and natural gas,'' said Cooper, estimating that the total cost to the U.S. economy has been more than half a trillion dollars.

As retail gas prices have reached record highs for nearly 30 consecutive days, Cooper said the recent $120-$130 price for a barrel of crude oil could be split into thirds - about $40 for the true economic cost, $40 added by OPEC and $40 because of speculators.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chaired the hearing, was especially critical of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for deciding that regulators in London and Dubai should patrol international crude-oil markets rather than doing so itself.

The International Petroleum Exchange is in London but is owned by an Atlanta exchange; the oil trading exchange in Dubai is connected with the New York Mercantile Exchange. In addition, West Texas Intermediate Crude is the benchmark used on most international oil markets.

Cantwell said that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission had oversight authority over international exchanges but so far had refused to act. Speculators are taking advantage of the situation, she said.

''This is no different than when U.S. businesses take out a post office box in the Cayman Islands to avoid U.S. business laws,'' Cantwell said. The commission, so far, has ''abdicated its oversight responsibility.''

Even as speculators and others are getting rich, the retail side of the industry is getting squeezed, Ramm said.

''Last year, gasoline dealers and heating oil retailers saw profit margins from fuel sales fall to their lowest point in decades,'' he said, adding that most station owners make their profits by selling drinks and snacks.

Ramm, representing the Petroleum Marketers of America, said retailers were near the limits on their lines of credit because of the high petroleum prices.

Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor, said that not only were speculators playing the markets, they also were starting to take delivery of the petroleum products. As they drive prices higher, they then can sell their products for even more. Greenberger said that one investment company was the largest owner of heating oil in New England, where oil heats 80 percent of homes.

Soros said there are real economic reasons for oil prices to be going up. First, there is ''the increasing cost of discovering and developing new reserves and the accelerating depletion of existing oil fields as they age.'' Second, oil-producing countries have less incentive to sell their oil reserves - which are gaining in value - for dollars, which have lost value in recent months.

Third, countries where demand is growing fastest, such as China, are keeping energy prices artificially low for their domestic consumers by providing subsidies.

But Soros said speculation is also artificially increasing oil prices, which have risen by more than 40 percent in the past six months.