By Mike Whitney
30/05/08 "ICH" -- - The Commodity Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC) is investigating trading in oil futures to determine whether the surge in prices to record levels is the result of manipulation or fraud. They might want to take a look at wheat, rice and corn futures while they're at it. The whole thing is a hoax cooked up by the investment banks and hedge funds who are trying to dig their way out of the trillion dollar mortgage-backed securities (MBS) mess that they created by turning garbage loans into securities. That scam blew up in their face last August and left them scrounging for handouts from the Federal Reserve. Now the billions of dollars they're getting from the Fed is being diverted into commodities which is destabilizing the world economy; driving gas prices to the moon and triggering food riots across the planet.
For months we've been told that the soaring price of oil has been the result of Peak Oil, fighting in Iraq, attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria, labor problems in Norway, and (the all-time favorite)growth in China. It's all baloney. Just like Goldman Sachs prediction of $200 per barrel oil is baloney. If oil is about to skyrocket then why has G-Sax kept a neutral rating on some of its oil holdings like Exxon Mobile? Could it be that they know that oil is just another mega-inflated equity bubble---like housing, corporate bonds and dot.com stocks—that is about to crash to earth as soon as the big players grab a parachute?
There are three things that are driving up the price of oil: the falling dollar, speculation and buying on margin.
The dollar is tanking because of the Federal Reserve's low interest monetary policies have kept interest rates below the rate of inflation for most of the last decade. Add that to the $700 billion current account deficit and a National Debt that has increased from $5.8 trillion when Bush first took office to over $9 trillion today and it's a wonder the dollar hasn't gone “Poof” already.
According to a January 4 editorial in the Wall Street Journal: “If the dollar had remained 'as good as gold' since 2001, oil today would be selling at about $30 per barrel, not $99. (today $126 per barrel) The decline of the dollar against gold and oil suggests a
The price of oil has more than quadrupled since 2001, from roughly $30 per barrel to $126, WITHOUT ANY DISRUPTIONS TO SUPPLY. There's no shortage; it's just gibberish.
As far as “buying on margin” consider this summary from author William Engdahl:
“A conservative calculation is that at least 60% of today’s $128 per barrel price of crude oil comes from unregulated futures speculation by hedge funds, banks and financial groups using the London ICE Futures and New York NYMEX futures exchanges and uncontrolled inter-bank or Over-The-Counter trading to avoid scrutiny.
So the investment banks and their trading partners at the hedge funds can game the system for a mere 8 bucks per barrel or 16 to 1 leverage. Not bad, eh?
Is it possible that gambling on oil futures might be a temptation for banks that are already underwater from a trillion dollars worth of mortgage-related deals that have “gone south” leaving the banking system essentially bankrupt?
And if the banks and hedgies are not playing this game, then where is the money coming from? I have compiled charts and graphs that show that nearly two-thirds of the big investment banks' revenue came from the securitization of commercial and residential real estate loans. That market is frozen. Besides, this is not just a matter of “loan delinquencies” or MBS that have to be written off. The banks are "revenue starved". How are they filling the coffers? They're either neck-deep in interest rate swaps, derivatives trading, or gaming the futures market. Which is it?
Of course, there is one other possibility, but if that possibility turned out to be right than it would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire financial system. In fact, it would prove that the system is being rigged from the top-down by our friends at the Banking Politburo, the Federal Reserve. Here goes:
What if the investment banks are trading their worthless MBS and CDOs at the Fed's auction facilities and using the money ($400 billion) to drive up the price of raw materials like rice, corn, wheat, and oil?
Could it be? Could the Fed really be looking the other way so it can bail out its banking buddies while they drive prices skyward?
If it is true; (and I suspect it is) it hasn't done much good. As the Associated Press reported yesterday:
“The Federal Reserve announced Thursday that it will make a fresh batch of short-term cash loans available to squeezed banks as part of an ongoing effort to ease stressed credit markets. The Fed said it will conduct three auctions in June, with each one making $75 billion available in short-term cash loans. Banks can bid for a slice of the available funds. It would mark the latest round in a program that the Fed launched in December to help banks overcome credit problems so they will keep lending to customers.”
Another $225 billion for the bankers and not a dime for the struggling homeowner! The Fed is bankrupting the country with their permanent rotating loans to keep reckless speculators from going under. So much for moral hazard.
As far as speculation, there is ample evidence that the system is being manipulated. According to MarketWatch:
“Speculative activity in commodity markets has grown "enormously" over the past several years, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said in a news release. It pointed out that in five years, from 2003 to 2008, investment in the index funds tied to commodities has grown by 20-fold -- to $260 billion from $13 billion.”
And here's a revealing clip from the testimony of Michael W. Masters of Masters Capital Management, LLC, who addressed the issue of “Commodities Speculation” before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs this week:
“Today, Index Speculators are pouring billions of dollars into the commodities futures
markets, speculating that commodity prices will increase. ...In the popular press the explanation given most often for rising oil prices is the increased demand for oil from
Index Speculators have now stockpiled, via the futures market, the equivalent of 1.1 billion barrels of petroleum, effectively adding eight times as much oil to their own stockpile as the
Today, in many commodities futures markets, they are the single largest force.15 The huge growth in their demand has gone virtually undetected by classically-trained economists who almost never analyze demand in futures markets.
As money pours into the markets, two things happen concurrently: the markets expand and prices rise. One particularly troubling aspect of Index Speculator demand is that it actually increases the more prices increase. This explains the accelerating rate at which commodity futures prices (and actual commodity prices) are increasing. The CFTC has taken deliberate steps to allow CERTAIN SPECULATORS VIRTUALLY UNLIMITED ACCESS TO THE COMMODITIES FUTURES MARKETS. The CFTC has granted Wall Street banks an exemption from speculative position limits when these banks hedge over-the-counter swaps transactions. This has effectively opened a loophole for unlimited speculation. When Index Speculators enter into commodity index swaps, which 85-90% of them do, they face no speculative position limits.... The result is a gross distortion in data that effectively hides the full impact of Index Speculation.” (Thanks to Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis; the one “indispensable” financial blog on the Internet)
Masters adds that the CFTC is pressing to make “Index Speculators exempt from all position limits” so they can make “unlimited” bets on the futures which are wreaking havoc on the global economy and pushing millions towards starvation. Of course, these things pale in comparison to the higher priority of fatting the bottom line of the parasitic investor class.
Brimming oil tankers are presently sitting off the coasts of
“At a time when gas prices are at an all-time high, Americans have curtailed their driving at a historic rate. The Department of Transportation said figures from March show the steepest decrease in driving ever recorded. Compared with March a year earlier, Americans drove an estimated 4.3 percent less -- that's 11 billion fewer miles, the DOT's Federal Highway Administration said Monday, calling it "the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history." (CNN)
The great oil crunch is another fabricated crisis; another "smoke and mirrors" fiasco; another Enron-type shell-game engineered by banksters and hedge fund managers. Once again, the bloody footprints can be traced right back to the front door of the Federal Reserve. Don't expect help from the regulators either; they've all been replaced with business reps like Harvey Pitt or Hank Paulson. The only time anyone in the Bush administration finds their conscience is when they're offered a multi-million dollar “tell all” book deal.
Can you hear me, Scotty?
“I would tell audiences that we were facing not a bubble but a froth – lots of small, local bubbles that never grew to a scale that could threaten the health of the overall economy.” Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence.
That used to be Mr Greenspan’s view of the US housing bubble. He was wrong, alas. So how bad might this downturn get? To answer this question we should ask a true bear. My favourite one is Nouriel Roubini of New York University’s Stern School of Business, founder of RGE monitor.
Recently, Professor Roubini’s scenarios have been dire enough to make the flesh creep. But his thinking deserves to be taken seriously. He first predicted a US recession in July 2006*. At that time, his view was extremely controversial. It is so no longer. Now he states that there is “a rising probability of a ‘catastrophic’ financial and economic outcome”**. The characteristics of this scenario are, he argues: “A vicious circle where a deep recession makes the financial losses more severe and where, in turn, large and growing financial losses and a financial meltdown make the recession even more severe.”
Prof Roubini is even fonder of lists than I am. Here are his 12 – yes, 12 – steps to financial disaster.
Step one is the worst housing recession in US history. House prices will, he says, fall by 20 to 30 per cent from their peak, which would wipe out between $4,000bn and $6,000bn in household wealth. Ten million households will end up with negative equity and so with a huge incentive to put the house keys in the post and depart for greener fields. Many more home-builders will be bankrupted.
Step two would be further losses, beyond the $250bn-$300bn now estimated, for subprime mortgages. About 60 per cent of all mortgage origination between 2005 and 2007 had “reckless or toxic features”, argues Prof Roubini. Goldman Sachs estimates mortgage losses at $400bn. But if home prices fell by more than 20 per cent, losses would be bigger. That would further impair the banks’ ability to offer credit.
Step three would be big losses on unsecured consumer debt: credit cards, auto loans, student loans and so forth. The “credit crunch” would then spread from mortgages to a wide range of consumer credit.
Step four would be the downgrading of the monoline insurers, which do not deserve the AAA rating on which their business depends. A further $150bn writedown of asset-backed securities would then ensue.
Step five would be the meltdown of the commercial property market, while step six would be bankruptcy of a large regional or national bank.
Step seven would be big losses on reckless leveraged buy-outs. Hundreds of billions of dollars of such loans are now stuck on the balance sheets of financial institutions.
Step eight would be a wave of corporate defaults. On average, US companies are in decent shape, but a “fat tail” of companies has low profitability and heavy debt. Such defaults would spread losses in “credit default swaps”, which insure such debt. The losses could be $250bn. Some insurers might go bankrupt.
Step nine would be a meltdown in the “shadow financial system”. Dealing with the distress of hedge funds, special investment vehicles and so forth will be made more difficult by the fact that they have no direct access to lending from central banks.
Step 10 would be a further collapse in stock prices. Failures of hedge funds, margin calls and shorting could lead to cascading falls in prices.
Step 11 would be a drying-up of liquidity in a range of financial markets, including interbank and money markets. Behind this would be a jump in concerns about solvency.
Step 12 would be “a vicious circle of losses, capital reduction, credit contraction, forced liquidation and fire sales of assets at below fundamental prices”.
These, then, are 12 steps to meltdown. In all, argues Prof Roubini: “Total losses in the financial system will add up to more than $1,000bn and the economic recession will become deeper more protracted and severe.” This, he suggests, is the “nightmare scenario” keeping Ben Bernanke and colleagues at the US Federal Reserve awake. It explains why, having failed to appreciate the dangers for so long, the Fed has lowered rates by 200 basis points this year. This is insurance against a financial meltdown.
Is this kind of scenario at least plausible? It is. Furthermore, we can be confident that it would, if it came to pass, end all stories about “decoupling”. If it lasts six quarters, as Prof Roubini warns, offsetting policy action in the rest of the world would be too little, too late.
Can the Fed head this danger off? In a subsequent piece, Prof Roubini gives eight reasons why it cannot***. (He really loves lists!) These are, in brief: US monetary easing is constrained by risks to the dollar and inflation; aggressive easing deals only with illiquidity, not insolvency; the monoline insurers will lose their credit ratings, with dire consequences; overall losses will be too large for sovereign wealth funds to deal with; public intervention is too small to stabilise housing losses; the Fed cannot address the problems of the shadow financial system; regulators cannot find a good middle way between transparency over losses and regulatory forbearance, both of which are needed; and, finally, the transactions-oriented financial system is itself in deep crisis.
The risks are indeed high and the ability of the authorities to deal with them more limited than most people hope. This is not to suggest that there are no ways out. Unfortunately, they are poisonous ones. In the last resort, governments resolve financial crises. This is an iron law. Rescues can occur via overt government assumption of bad debt, inflation, or both. Japan chose the first, much to the distaste of its ministry of finance. But Japan is a creditor country whose savers have complete confidence in the solvency of their government. The US, however, is a debtor. It must keep the trust of foreigners. Should it fail to do so, the inflationary solution becomes probable. This is quite enough to explain why gold costs $920 an ounce.
The connection between the bursting of the housing bubble and the fragility of the financial system has created huge dangers, for the US and the rest of the world. The US public sector is now coming to the rescue, led by the Fed. In the end, they will succeed. But the journey is likely to be wretchedly uncomfortable.
*A Coming Recession in the US Economy? July 17 2006, www.rgemonitor.com; **The Rising Risk of a Systemic Financial Meltdown, February 5 2008; ***Can the Fed and Policy Makers Avoid a Systemic Financial Meltdown? Most Likely Not, February 8 2008