Watch for Yourself: 60 Minutes Oil Story Was Spot On

Includes: BCS, DBO, GS, JPM, MS, OIL, USO
by: Allen Phatimer

Everyone seems to be bashing the 60 Minutes story about speculation causing oil to surge to $147. After reading the articles published here; I felt compelled to see how bad this segment was, so I went to the 60 minutes website to take a look see. I expected to see a chop job; but what I saw was an excellent laymen's explanation of how speculators and investors with fiduciary duties turned speculators contributed to a bubble which helped send billions of Americans' hard earned money to Saudis, Iranians, Venezuelans and others who laughed all the way to the bank.

These CBS bashers here either have no idea how energy markets work or are spinning the truth because they have an axe to grind with CBS. It's a shame, because for people that have a cursory interest, these clowns just effectively made a very enlightening report questionable to those honestly uninformed who would like to understand the issue better. And all they say to support their position is that the EIA has a graph that sort of makes it look like price tracks demand very closely. The truth is EIA estimates change with the wind - if your memory is that short you too should check the record. The EIA makes intermediate and long term energy supply and demand estimates that are awful - they failed to anticipate the CYCLICAL market tightness and failed to anticipate the cyclical downswing.

One of the first lines in the report asserted that the oil price spike was not caused by oil company CEOs or sheiks but speculators and other so called institutional investors like Hedge Funds (like Citadel, Amaranth and Ospraie), Commodity Traders in Chicago and Europe, Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), J.P. Morgan (NYSE:JPM), Barclays (NYSE:BCS), Sovereign Wealth Funds, Yale, Harvard, as well as Pension Funds like CALPERS and others. That this is debatable is crazy. It is a FACT that these entities entered the oil market in a big way during the bull market in oil. The story asserted that over a 5 year period the amount of energy futures traded went from $13B to $300B - this too is a fact. It is a fact that Enron lobbied aggressively for changing the rules so they could control the market more and got what they wanted. It is a fact that Morgan Stanley owns more pipeline, storage, production and refined product than most oil & gas companies; this wasn't the case in past cycles.

You don't have to be a forensic scientist to understand they did it because the asset class was going up for a long time. You can delude yourself with rationalizations if you please but this is no different than what pension funds did when they doubled and tripled their allocations to unseasoned and excessively leveraged "alternative investment" strategies. Yale did it first and looked like a genius, everyone else felt either inadequate or couldn't deal with missing out. It really is that simple. Allocations to commodities increased because they did well for a long time. MBAs, CFAs and Quants everywhere fabricated a few correlations graphs and an articulate pitch and presto, the blind followed the blind.

The story mentioned that there is very little physical demand in the futures market relative to the total, and by far more than there has ever been. This too is a fact, bearish oil analysts which had seen a cycle before pointed this out many times. Sell side Wall Street analysts talked about this in research reports, Barron's did stories about it, analysts from Sanford Bernstein, Oppenheimer and ISI pointed this out at congressional hearings on the subject. A J.P. Morgan official denied speculation played any part at the same hearing, claiming it was pure supply and demand while another JPM strategist spoke about speculation taking over the energy markets in an email the same day. 60 Minutes had the email and showed it. It was obvious to anyone who bothered to check.

The 60 Minutes story asserted that there were 27 barrels worth of futures contracts traded for every barrel of physical demand and a fraction of those ever took delivery. This too is a FACT - 60-70% of the futures contracts which were (as the story indicated) initially created to help users hedge were held by either small or large specs - I.e. CTAs, hedge funds commodity day traders. You can look at commercials as a percentage of open interest and see how bullishly involved speculators were. Not unlike the real estate market, easy money (institutions that could borrow easily and lever themselves up 20 to 1) and a market that never seemed to go down sucked the suckers in and they got what they deserved.

People told me I was crazy when I told them that demand destruction was already taking hold and the economy was already slowing so it was a matter of time till oil collapsed. I looked like an idiot as I told my friends that I thought we'd fizzle a little past par; figuring that oil would look like it lost momentum near $100, suck some premature shorts in and then proceed to spank us on a move to $110. So I got cute and shorted some black gold at $109 and covered at $117. I got lucky there as I should have also known that we'd go parabolic before the collapse. I could have easily got smoked. But that's another story. $25/bbl increase in a day on NO significant news? $10 moves in each direction? That's not the sort of volatility you see in the middle of moves but rather at tops and bottoms of speculative exhaustion. It seems to always happen that way. Markets that go parabolic are almost always driven by speculation. Permanent supply and demand shocks are rare.

My message is that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and acts like a duck, don't let some clown who can't or won't deal with the facts tell you different. If you didn't watch the story, go see it for yourself. If we were running out of oil or couldn't produce enough to meet demand, you would see the kind of lines and rationing we saw in the 70s. Anyone who was around back then recalls what shortages look like - people waiting for an hour or more in line at gas stations and couldn't even fill up. To even suggest it was all supply and demand is laughable. The crash is proof in and of itself - markets driven by fundamentals do better to sustain price advances.

Nothing in the 60 Minutes story was news to anyone with a clue. I'm really shocked at how it came across and appalled at how some "professional money managers" writing here spun it - super weak arguments that by and large missed the point. So I felt compelled to try to set the record straight so others less versed wouldn't get bamboozled.

The fact is that no one really knows when the world will run out of oil. Many factors influence energy prices over the long run, including production costs, the dollar, supply, demand and competition from alternatives, etc. But bubbles are usually borne of cyclical (and ALWAYS temporary) supply/demand imbalances exacerbated by analysts and pundits who con otherwise unsuspecting investors and traders with new paradigm type stories. There's a saying in the commodity markets that goes "price cures price", in other words, high prices are the cure for high prices. This has been and always will be true because of the economic sensitivity of commodities and the ability of commodity producers to always race to make hay while the sun shines. OPEC didn't cut production while prices surged, so thankfully we don't have to hear the blame thrusted at OPEC which surely would have been the case. That's all some would need to hear. The laws of supply and demand are called laws for good reason but much more than that affects all markets.

Disclosure: no positions