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How Wall Street Drives Up Gas Prices -- Ripping Us Off and Killing Jobs

Next time you fill up your tank, remember that $10 to $25 is going right from your pocket to the financial sector.

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  • The St. Louis Federal Reserve (not exactly a Marxist institution) claims that 15 percent of the rise in gasoline prices is due to Wall Street speculation ( PDF).

  • A report from the House Committee on Government Oversight claims that up to 30 percent of the rise may be due to speculators.

  • Even experts at Goldman Sachs, of all places, say that “excessive speculation is causing oil prices to spike by up to 40%.”

  • And Saudi Arabia, ”the largest exporter of oil in the world, told the Bush administration back in 2008, during the last major spike in oil prices, that speculation was responsible for about $40 of a barrel of oil.”

This flip in the balance of real economic activity and speculation is precisely what John Maynard Keynes warned us about more than 75 years ago:

"Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. The measure of success attained by Wall Street, regarded as an institution of which the proper social purpose is to direct new investment into the most profitable channels in terms of future yield, cannot be claimed as one of the outstanding triumphs of laissez-faire capitalism…."

Who are the speculators?

Senator Bernie Sanders released classified documents revealing the names of the largest speculators in the oil markets as of 2008.

A look at the top 20 speculators reveals that only five are actually involved in producing, shipping, refining and consuming oil (Vitol, CMA, ENA, Semgroup and Emirates Oil). The other 15 are banks and investment houses – a virtual who’s who of Wall Street firms that puffed up the housing bubble and took down the economy. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup -- they all make the list.

A tale of two casinos

It’s stunning to compare the similarities between the housing bubble and the rise in oil prices. Just take a look at the two charts below. The first shows the price of a barrel of oil after eliminating the impact of inflation. You can see the price spike in the 1970s during the Iranian oil boycott, and then in the 1990s during the Persian Gulf War. Clearly, those significant geopolitical events disrupted supplies and had a real impact on the price of oil.

But look what happened when the Wall Street big boys jumped into the oil speculative business right around 2002-'03. The price of oil went bonkers. The gyrations were far more extreme than any of the previous geopolitical events. There is no rational supply-and-demand explanation that accounts for that dramatic rise. Sure, after the economy crashed in 2008 prices declined. That makes sense. But up again goes the price of oil even though we’re facing nothing like the supply and demand shifts caused by oil boycotts and wars. Then again, maybe it does indicate a new war – Wall Street versus the rest of us.

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Now take a look at the housing bubble graph – similar shape, similar timing. And that’s no coincidence. When Wall Street turns a market into an enormous casino, prices skyrocket and the economy is threatened. Wall Street did it to housing and now they’re doing it again to commodities -- especially oil.

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(click for larger version)

Wall Street oil speculators kill jobs

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