Outside editorial: Rein in speculators

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2008

Congress has a chance to deliver some needed relief at the gas pump before taking its August vacation.

A worthy bill introduced in the Senate would limit the rampant speculation in oil futures that has contributed to excessive spikes in fuel prices.

The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Democrats, would give regulators more authority to prevent and punish price manipulation in commodities markets.

While ordinary market forces have caused oil prices to rise, many analysts also believe that speculation by investors has added from $30 to $60 to the price of a barrel. Increased demand alone doesn't explain a one-day price jump of $10 per barrel, as happened last month.

Commodities markets serve an important purpose, allowing commercial buyers of goods such as corn or energy products to lock in a price now for delivery later.

But in the current unregulated environment, speculators are treating commodities like stocks. They don't want to take delivery of the oil after they "buy" it; they're just betting that the price will rise by the time they re-sell it.

And you pay at the pump for their "success." As speculators invest more money in oil, they are creating artificial demand for the commodity, driving up the price.

In addition to blowing up family budgets, the high cost of fuel is hurting virtually every sector of the economy.

Senate Democrats hope to get the anti-energy speculation bill approved quickly, but GOP lawmakers are trying to add amendments that would spur offshore oil exploration, a move Reid opposes.

There's no doubting the need for more domestic oil production, but authorizing more exploration now wouldn't affect prices for several years.

The bill to regulate investor speculation could have an instant impact.

Financial industry executives are trying to combat Reid's bill, warning that it could further unsettle markets.

But the legislation gives regulators at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission discretion to step only as needed, and not to punish with too broad a brush.

There isn't very much Congress can do to affect oil prices, but this bill is one step that's worth taking.

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