Sebastian Mallaby provides a clear exposition of what might be considered the mainstream economics story of why “speculation” is not to blame for the current high level of oil prices.
[A] speculator can buy paper oil only if someone else sells to him. For every trader who bets on a price rise, there must be another who bets the opposite. So an increase in the number of speculative players does not show whether prices will move up or down….
What matters is who those players are: Will they aggressively push the ball up the field, or will they retreat? Sometimes the bulls are more eager than the bears, and prices spiral upward. But this is not some autonomous force that comes out of nowhere. If the bulls have the upper hand, it’s generally because supply and demand favor higher prices. The fundamentals of physical oil drive the psychology around paper oil more than vice versa.
… The uncertain connection between speculation and price trends is clear in recent history. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission reports how much paper oil is bought and sold by commercial users — oil companies, refiners — and how much is bought and sold by speculators. During the first seven months of 2007, speculators as a group tripled the amount of paper oil they owned, buying it from commercial players. But since last August, speculators as a group have not added to their positions — yet this was when oil prices went skyward.
It would be too much to claim that futures prices don’t influence players in the physical market. But to the limited extent that speculators’ influence is real, this is probably a good thing. If speculators see that oil suppliers are headed for trouble and that oil demand is trending up, they express their expectation of a higher price via the futures market. This can deliver a valuable message: Governments and consumers had better adjust before shortages get even nastier.
Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has also been addressing oil prices, most recently seeking to reconcile current high oil prices with a belief in the overall correctness of the Julian Simon view that resource prices would continue to fall in the long run. I don’t find my position listed among Tyler’s list of possibilities – I’m closer to Alex Tabarrok’s view expressed last week: “Finally, on oil – who really cares what the price is? The issue is energy, not oil. I am confident that the long run price of energy will fall.”
Well, many of us care about the price of oil in the short to medium term, after all we have assets (i.e. automobiles, pipelines, refineries, oil rigs, factories) with usefulness tied to the price of oil. But in the long run, as Alex says, it is energy, not oil.