A Further Perspective

Speculators and Manipulators

Obama's latest blame game contestants.

By 5.3.12

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Other than killing Osama bin Laden, President Obama seems incapable of taking responsibility for anything. Blaming speculators is the latest iteration in his ongoing crusade to escape responsibility and to change the subject. He has added speculators to a long list that includes George Bush, insurance companies, greedy physicians, big oil companies, "fair share" fugitives, and Republicans in Congress. He should change his name to Barack Oblama.

Obama's specific charge is that speculators are the reason for rising gasoline prices. Robert Reich, who for some unknown reason claims to be an economist, says that "speculation by U.S. index fund traders has been raising prices by up to $1 per gallon."

Speculation can mean many things and take many forms. Basically, it is the attempt to profit from price changes.

Confusion about the role and impact of speculation has been common and recurring throughout history. Take, for example, the accusation that speculators artificially increase the price of the commodity in question.

It's true, of course, that speculators can contribute to an increase in the market price of something by adding to the demand for it. What's important to keep in mind, however, is that's only half the picture. A speculator cannot make a profit by simply buying something. There's no profit in hoarding. There has to be a round trip of both buying and selling. The main objective is to buy at one price, and then to sell at a higher price.

The impact of buying pushes prices up, the impact of selling pushes prices down. There is absolutely no reason to assume that speculators permanently increase the price of anything.

Speculation can benefit the economy in a number of ways, one of which is to allocate resources between time periods. An economy, like everything else, exists in time and space. The value and usefulness of something can be increased by changing the time and/or location it's made available to users.

The supply of no commodity is constant over time. Prices tend to be low when supply is abundant and high when it's not. The supply of corn is highest right after harvest time. If all of that corn were dumped on the market at the same time the price would be extremely low. The incentive to use it efficiently would be weak. Months later we could expect a shortage of corn and the price would spike. Speculators anticipate this dynamic. They buy when the supply is abundant and the price low, pushing up the price, and sell when the supply is low, pushing down the price. The net result is that both market prices and available supply are moderated.

Speculators, as such, are not philanthropists. They don't wake up in the morning asking themselves, "How can I benefit humanity by stabilizing prices and supply over time?" Their actions are motivated by self-interest and profits. In the words of Adam Smith, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." The societal and economic value of speculators is not as obvious as for butchers, brewers, and bakers, but it can be every bit as real.

The information and incentives provided by the price system are crucial to the efficiency of how and when resources are employed. Speculation helps short-term prices conform to long-term realities. The economy functions best when we don't allow temporary abundance to give false signals about what will be true in the long run.

Speculation is one of the factors that lead to what economists call "price efficiency," meaning prices that reflect all available information. Such information includes expectations about future conditions. For example, if a stock's price is expected to be higher tomorrow, it will be higher today.

Speculators assume the risk other economic players would rather avoid. A farmer can sell his crop even before he plants it. The farmer essentially transfers the risk (uncertainty) of price fluctuations to someone else. He can focus his efforts on farming and not worry about the vicissitudes of the market.

Speculators usually face intense competition with other speculators. The current price will be bid up until the anticipated profit is roughly equal to the average of other investment alternatives. At a minimum, the expected price change has to cover the costs of storage if they are to make a profit. Furthermore, speculators are not assured a profit. When their predictions are wrong, they lose.

Blaming speculation for high prices reflects the rawest kind of economic ignorance. I couldn't begin to count the number of times I have been stunned by the utter lack of economic understanding demonstrated by Barack Obama.

Obama and his ilk are willingly and deliberately ignorant of economics and economic realities. Economics is an annoying impediment to their utopian belief system and their political objectives. Obama doesn't understand how a market economy works, and doesn't want to know. If he could he would criminalize the free market. He is as clueless as the worst economics student I ever taught, even at the beginning of the class. Obama never lets ignorance slow him down and we all suffer as a result.

Regulations against market "manipulation" already exist and are enforced by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. President Obama has recommended increasing fines tenfold to a maximum of $10 million per violation, as well as more enforcement funding for the CFTC. According to the Wall Street Journal, "In the past 35 years, the CFTC has brought dozens of cases of manipulation in energy markets. It was successful in proving only one in court." Besides prohibitions on manipulation, the regulations also prohibit "recklessness" and the creation of prices that are "artificial" (in contrast to being determined by supply and demand). The CFTC has the all but impossible task of proving that one firm has the ability to affect prices on the multi-billion-dollar commodities markets. No wonder the agency has such an atrocious track record.

More regulations and more bureaucracy will not stop imaginary problems that are impossible to define or enforce. They may help Barack Obama distract attention from his disastrous first term, but otherwise they are a counterproductive waste of time and resources.

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