Yesterday a friend sent me a copy of an email letter she had received from an airline on which she is a frequent flyer. It made an urgent plea for public support to rein in oil market speculation, which it blamed for between $30 and $60 per barrel of the current oil price, which has been ruinous for the airline industry. Millions of Americans received the same letter--apparently I haven't flown enough, lately, to merit one--with a link to the "Stop Speculation Now" campaign website. Congress and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have been grappling with this issue, and new energy futures market regulations should be forthcoming shortly. However, I hope that the chiefs of America's airlines are not banking on a speedy return to sub-$100 oil, and the $1.00 or more per gallon this would subtract from their jet fuel bills. Even if all speculation were eliminated tomorrow, the combination of a weak supply response and the low price elasticity of demand for oil make it unlikely that prices would quickly revert to last fall's $80-$95 per barrel price range.
For the last year, I have discussed the potential impact of speculation on oil prices. Investment in oil futures, options and derivatives as a new asset class has affected the market in ways that traditional speculation by financial players--a key ingredient of market liquidity--didn't. Even if these investors never take delivery of a single barrel of oil, they constitute a new segment of demand for oil futures and exert upward pressure on the market. I have also described at length the mechanism by which the resulting higher futures prices affect the prices that refineries pay for the physical barrels of oil they process, and why in that margin-based business, resistance to higher prices is likelier to come from end users, rather than refiners. But none of this alters the main facts governing the price of oil: The growth of global demand over the last five years has consumed most of the existing spare production capacity, and restrictions on access to resources--within OPEC and the US--combined with the time-lags inherent in bringing new supplies online have left the market balanced on a knife edge, setting up the conditions without which asset-class investments in oil futures would just be another complicated way to lose money, which may still be the ultimate result for many.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Martin Feldstein, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, provided an exceptionally clear explanation of how small changes in supply and demand can translate into large price movements for commodities with very low short-term price elasticity, or sensitivity, of demand. Yesterday I discussed the recent demand response in the US. It took $4 per gallon pricing to halt the steady year-on-year rise of US gasoline consumption, a trend that was unbroken since 1991. And in the absence of serious refining problems, the only two paths to $4 gasoline were $130 oil or the imposition of a $1.00 per gallon surtax when oil was still under $100/bbl. Constraining the futures market now might provide some temporary relief, but it won't resolve the underlying problems that brought us to this point.
I don't blame the CEOs of the airlines for grasping at this straw. The signatories to the letter include my former boss at Texaco, Glenn Tilton, who understands the oil and airline businesses better than most. These executives know that a commercial aviation industry built on cheap fuel will emerge from a long period of sustained high oil prices as transformed as if it had been re-regulated, and that the mass access to cheap and convenient air travel that we have taken for granted could disappear. Their effort here may even pay off, but as I noted recently, the exact form of any new regulations on energy trading matters greatly, if the cure is not to be worse than the disease.