There's more of it today than there ever was this summer. And this time around, it really is making oil more expensive.
With oil now at $50 a barrel, you no longer hear Congress complaining about oil speculators. The irony is there's probably more real speculation going on today than there ever was back in June and July.
I'm talking about the type of speculation that involves hoarding oil today so it can be sold for more down the road. Today's speculators are actually buying oil. They're not merely flipping futures contracts without taking delivery - which is what hedge funds and commodities index funds were doing when they were in the crosshairs of Congress this summer. As I've argued before, investors who trade futures but never take delivery of actual oil can't have a material impact on oil prices because their trading affects neither supply nor demand.
What's different now is the structure of the futures market, which is giving big investors an incentive to buy and hold huge sums of crude. Specifically, the November 2009 price of oil is considerably higher ($12 a barrel higher, to be precise) than the spot price - a scenario futures traders call a "contango" market. (The opposite scenario - spot prices higher than futures prices - is known as "backwardation.")
"The steepening of the contango has opened up carry-trade arbitrage opportunities that are slow to be closed due to constrained credit conditions," Goldman Sachs wrote in a recent research report. Translation: this is a great time for investors to be hoarding oil....MORE