The Universal Notebook: Speculating on high gas prices

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When I’m driving around town these days I keep my eye out for the cheapest gas prices. Not $3.85. Not $3.82. Can anyone beat $3.79? Buy. Buy. Buy.

As a good liberal with a bad conscience, I admit I am of two minds about the steep increase in gas prices. On the conservation side, I’m thinking higher gas prices will force us to be more prudent consumers. On the consumer side, I start cursing when the price to fill my 30-mpg car passes $40 and heads to $50.

And who am I cursing? Oil companies, yes. But mostly commodities index speculators who drive up the cost of gas artificially and unnecessarily. Oh, you thought gas was getting so darn expensive because of the law of supply and demand? No way. There’s plenty of gas. The U.S. has more oil in its strategic reserves than ever. President Obama has not shut down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. And events in North Africa and the Middle East have not stemmed the flow of oil. It’s those G%^#@* speculators.

Bart Chilton, a member of the Commodities Future Trade Commission, warned in a recent editorial that, “Speculative dollars are coming into energy markets at a blistering pace. In fact, speculative positions in energy contracts have increased 64 percent since we last saw such high prices in 2008. Every time folks fill up their tanks these days, they can expect several dollars are due to the Wall Street speculative premium.”

Until the wild and woolly deregulated 1990s, most of the investors in the commodities markets were actually buying wheat, corn, soybeans, gas and oil. Now the vast majority (some say 80 percent or more) of the commodities index market is made up of speculators who wouldn’t know a barrel of West Texas Crude from a barrel of barbecue sauce if you poured it over their heads.

In the short term, what is needed are strict position limits on speculative investing, no more than 15 percent of the market at best. Congress gave the Commodities Future Trading Commission the authority to do just that last year, but so far they haven’t done it. Unless we want $5 a gallon gas this year, regulators need to tie speculative investors up in knots so they have to raise their hands if they want to relieve themselves.

No doubt ExxonMobil will report record profits again this year, and it’ll have investment firms like Goldman Sachs, the firm that essentially created the commodities index market, to thank.

In the long term, what is needed is a paradigm shift in our whole concept of investing. We seem to have this strange idea that investors and entrepreneurs are entitled to make obscene profits because they take huge financial risks. That’s just plain ridiculous. Investing is not work. Risk is just gambling.

We get up on our moralistic high horses about slot machines and casino gambling, but we treat people who hit it big on the stock market as though they have accomplished something wonderful and worthy. There’s no reason in this world that people who put up huge sums of money in hopes of making even larger sums of money should be rewarded or respected.

Inheritance and unearned investment income are key contributors to the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The concentration of wealth in this country is such that the top 20 percent of U.S. families own upwards of 80 percent of the wealth. Bill Gates alone holds more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of American families. He knows that’s not right. That’s why he’s giving his billions away.

So, Tex, if you’re making a fat living investing in gas and oil futures, shame on you. You’re driving the price of gas up for all the rest of us. Do something productive. Get a real job. Invest in pork bellies.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.