As Energy Speculation Hits An All-Time High, CFTC Tries To Fend Off Budget Cuts

The price of oil closed yesterday at $101.19 per barrel, and analysts have been predicting that rising gas prices may stunt America’s slow economic recovery and cause the loss of as many as 600,000 jobs. Unrest in the Middle East is just one of many factors behind the recent rapid rise in oil prices.

But as ThinkProgress’ George Zornick pointed out last week, “one question remains unanswered — to what extent are commodity traders influencing these high gas prices?” Many experts point to speculative trading, not simple supply and demand, as one of the causes of the 2008 spike in oil prices. And today, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — which is responsible for policing energy markets — said that energy speculation is at an all-time high:

Hedge funds and other speculators have increased their positions in energy markets by 64 percent since June 2008 to the highest level on record, according to data released by U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commissioner Bart Chilton. Speculative positions accounted for more than one million energy futures equivalent contracts as of January, according to the data.

CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton said in a speech today that high speculation is skewing prices. “We could have helpful limits in place that could guard against markets being adversely impacted by excessive speculation. We could do that now if we wanted. And, as you can tell, I want,” Chilton said.

The CFTC was given the power to restrict speculation in the oil market by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. But the agency has yet to implement the regulations, with its two Republican commissioners and one Democrat, Michael Dunn, expressing reservations. The CFTC actually missed the January 13 deadline to put speculation limits into place. As Zornick reported, Dunn’s term is ending this summer, giving the Obama administration an opportunity to appoint someone ready to fully implement the speculation restrictions included in Dodd-Frank.

However, even assuming the CFTC follows through with implementing the law, it will be hard pressed to enforce any limits if the budgets cuts envisioned by House Republicans are actually enacted. H.R. 1, the House Republican approved spending plan for the remainder of 2011, includes a nearly one-third cut in the CFTC’s budget. Such a draconian cut would require the CFTC to lay off more than 30 percent of its staff. “We’d have to have significant curtailment of our staff and resources,” CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler said. “We would not be able to police…or ensure transparent markets in futures or swaps.”