Behind Skyrocketing Oil Prices

Yesterday comes the news that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is investigating potential manipulation of the oil trading market.

That’s a good thing, though the CFTC is not exactly the most aggressive regulator around. (Says Judy Dugan of Consumer Watchdog: “On its face, the investigation smacks of the fox investigating a hen shortage in the chicken coop.”)

Market manipulation may be contributing to the recent oil price spike — though even in the worst case, it is only part of the story. The most important factor is supply and demand: supply is having trouble keeping up with unabated demand growth.

Are Wall Street firms and hedge funds in fact manipulating the oil market? Perhaps. There are certainly enough conflicts of interest, and unregulation, to make such activity plausible. These aren’t exactly guys with an honorable track record.

Whether speculation is driving price up is a separate issue from manipulation. Investment dollars are pouring into oil futures, pretty clearly driving up price. This reflects supply and demand for oil futures as an investment tool, more than available supply and demand for actual crude oil. Some nontrivial portion of the recent run-up in price is almost certainly due to this speculative activity, which is fueled by leveraged buying (use of borrowed money).

At the end of 2007, with oil prices around $100 a barrel (a shocking height, just half a year ago), Jennifer Wedekind, my colleague at Multinational Monitor, interviewed roughly a dozen oil analysts about the price of oil. They were divided on the reasons for high oil prices of $100, with some agreeing that speculation — but not manipulation — played a role and others fiercely denying it.

Among those attributing some role to speculation was Linda Rafield, a senior oil analyst, with Platts: “We have seen money market funds and asset managers and portfolio managers definitely putting money to work in the commodities sector, and that certainly has bolstered prices, since most of those people notoriously will trade from the long side.” Against speculation as a factor was Jeff Rubin, chief economist and chief strategist, CIBC World Markets. Asked what factors were driving the price spike, he said, “Certainly not Middle Eastern instability or speculation or so-called geopolitical factors.”

Six months later, it seems like speculation has become increasingly important. It’s just very hard to identify what has happened in the last half year to jump prices by a third.

A second key factor in rising prices is the decline in the value of the dollar. A barrel of oil today is worth a barrel of oil tomorrow. If the dollar is worth less tomorrow than today, then the dollar value of a barrel of oil will be higher tomorrow. Against a basket of currencies, the dollar has fallen by 25 percent since 2003, and considerably more since its peak in 2001.

But, whatever the allocation of blame for today’s price, the most important factor in the big picture is supply and demand.

Global demand is growing at a steady clip, thanks to very rapidly rising oil use in China, India and the Middle East.

Global supply is stretched thin. Some argue this is because the world is at or near “peak oil production,” a tipping point when half the world’s oil has been extracted, and yields begin to decline, with very major price effects.

A different view is uncomfortable with the apocalyptic element of peak oil theory. From this vantage point, more oil — or close substitutes, like tar sands or shale — is available, but it is harder and more expensive to get. This is the preferred view of the oil industry analysts (many of whom note that much oil that is easily attained from a technological standpoint — for example, in Iraq — is hard to reach for political reasons).

Either way, the supply challenges combined with rapidly growing demand means the world is going to see steadily higher prices. Additionally, very tight supplies will inevitably lead to price spikes that appear irrational from a close-up view.

Says Charles Maxwell, senior energy analyst at Weeden & Co: “So long as capacity utilization in the world crude oil producing system is running at 98 percent, which it is today, and so long as perhaps one-and-a-half, 2 percent, that’s excess, is in the form of Saudi heavy, sour crudes, which the typical American refinery can’t use any more of — they use some, but they can’t use any more of because it has very serious effects in pitting the insides of these pipes and then requiring the refinery to shut down for a long time and the redoing of all the pipes — we’re going to have these periodic price rises of this sort.”

Explains Maxwell: “Any system needs to have a little cushion between adversity that strikes — weather factors or cut-offs for political purposes or political struggles from civil wars. We don’t have in this system enough of a cushion. Normally, capacity utilization is considered ideal around 94 to 95 percent. So our 98 percent capacity utilization is well above that and we can’t get it down, because it takes 5 to 7 years to create it and we aren’t spending the money today that would create it 5 to 7 years out.”

So, by all means, forward with a robust investigation of market manipulation, and yes to re-regulating oil markets that are now too financialized and removed from the buying and selling of real oil.

But the supply-demand challenges facing the world are much more serious than the speculative and other factors contributing to the present run-up in price.

It’s hard to imagine why the United States — or the world — would need more incentive than responding to climate change to invest in renewables, mandate much tougher efficiency standards for cars and a switch away from the internal combustion engine, and massively scale up public transportation. But climate change doomsday scenarios have, so far, not proven enough. Perhaps the prospect of $200/barrel oil will.

What To Do About the Price of Oil

Is Big Oil ripping off consumers? Are Wall Street speculators manipulating oil markets? What should be done?

Whether or not Big Oil is improperly restricting refinery capacity, whether or not Wall Street traders are driving up the traded price of oil to heights completely disconnected from supply-and-demand fundamentals, a few things are clear about gas prices — and so is the most appropriate, immediate policy response.

Current pricing arrangements are generating profit gushers for the large, integrated oil companies — ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and the like. While the price of oil is going up, these companies’ drilling expenses are not. Oil can trade at $40 a barrel, $90 a barrel, or $130 a barrel. It still costs ExxonMobil and the rest of Big Oil only about $20 to get a barrel of oil out of the ground.

The oil companies’ staggering profits are a windfall of the purest sort (Websters’ definition: “an unexpected, unearned, or sudden gain or advantage”). This is not a moral judgment about the oil companies, it is just a description of what’s happening.

A windfall profits tax could generate substantial government revenues. Allocated to investment in renewable energy, it could significantly increase funds directed to renewables, and be a small but important down payment on the massive investment needed in mass transit, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Beyond the immediate future, it is important to get a better fix on energy markets. What’s clear now is that the U.S. refining market is very concentrated, thanks to a series of mergers permitted by antitrust authorities; and that oil and energy futures markets are dangerously unregulated.

Just five large oil refiners now control over half of the U.S. market, and the top 10 control over 80 percent, according to Public Citizen. There is very good evidence that the refiners have worked in the past to limit supply and drive up price. Whether this is an ongoing issue is perhaps less clear, given that independent refiners are now facing profit squeezes.

Still, for the medium term, either the government needs to scutinize refinery activity much more closely, adopt new regulatory authority and aggressively enforce antitrust laws, or it must intervene to deconcentrate the market.

Meanwhile, oil and energy markets have mutated in dangerous fashion over the last decade. At Enron’s instigation, these markets have become largely deregulated in the United States. Leading Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs have subsequently bought up oil transport and storage operations — not because they are looking for new business outlets, but because they want insider knowledge about oil and gasoline markets. Meanwhile, investors large and small are pouring money into oil as a tradable commodity.

Are these markets being manipulated? Perhaps. But even with no manipulation, the intensified financialization of oil trading subjects the market to speculative frenzies characterized by sudden and severe price fluctuations. These prices swings have real impacts at the pump and in the overall economy (and much more ominous impacts for oil-importing developing countries than rich nations).

Re-regulating energy markets, imposing margin requirements and lessening investors’ ability to trade with borrowed money, and cracking down on market manipulation will all slow the Wall Street frenzy and limit price spikes.

For the long term, however, oil demand will continue to shoot up — though higher prices and the U.S. recession will moderate this tendency — and supply cannot keep up. Ultimately, new sources of oil may become available, including from deep water sites and tar sands and shale, but these will be more expensive to obtain.

The world is likely witnessing a long-term, steady (if bumpy) and permanent rise in oil prices. (More on the causes of oil price increases tomorrow.) This price increase will impose major economic hardships, unless there is a massive effort to shift to oil-displacing technologies and renewable energy.

That exactly this shift is needed to address the even more pressing threat of climate change, makes it all the more urgent that Washington adopt a windfall profits tax (and end governmental subsidies for Big Oil) and invest the proceeds in renewables. This is very unlikely for 2008. Will things be different in 2009?

Pharmaceutical Payola — Drug Marketing to Doctors

Last week, a Congressional committee properly raked Big Pharma over the coals for misleading advertising of pharmaceuticals.

A hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight subcommittee focused on advertising campaigns for three drugs, including the remarkable case of Robert Jarvik. Jarvik is featured in endlessly re-run ads for Pfizer’s blockbuster cholesterol drug Lipitor. Known as the inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart, he is not a cardiologist, not a licensed medical doctor and not authorized to prescribe pharmaceuticals. He’s shown in the ads engaged in vigorous rowing activity, but in fact he doesn’t row. Pfizer pulled the ads in February after controversy started brewing.

Among industrialized countries, only the United States and New Zealand permit drug companies to market directly to consumers. It’s a bad idea, it drives bad medicine, and it should be banned.

But although it has the highest profile, direct-to-consumer advertising is a small part of Pharma’s marketing machine.

Researchers Marc-André Gagnon and Joel Lexchin conclude in a recent issue of the journal PLOS Medicine that direct-to-consumer ads make up less than a tenth of industry marketing expenditures ($4 billion of $57.5 billion in 2004). And Gagnon and Lexchin’s estimate of $57.5 billion on marketing excludes many industry expenditures that are really driven by marketing, including clinical trials conducted for marketing purposes.

The bulk of the industry marketing effort — more than 70 percent by Gagnon and Lexchin’s calculation — is directed at doctors.


Because it works.

The companies spend huge amounts paying firms that carefully track what doctors prescribe, and then they use the information to tailor messages to doctors, distribute samples and develop continuing medical education programs.

Gagnon and Lexchin report that Pharma spends more than $20 billion a year on “detailers” — the pharma reps that knock on doctor doors, ply the staff with free coffee and lunches, distribute samples ($16 billion worth), and prod docs to prescribe their drugs.

This is complemented by a host of tactics that in other circumstances might be called bribes.

“Virtually all physicians in America take cash or gifts from the drug companies,” says Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs, and a former New York Times reporter. “A recent survey said 94 percent of physicians took something of value from the drug companies. Some doctors take hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from these companies, and there’s no law that says they can’t.”

Petersen says she “had no idea this was so extensive until one day I was writing a story about Celebrex and Vioxx — this was before Vioxx was taken off the market. The story was about the marketing battle between these two pain drugs. I called one of the large societies of rheumatologists and asked for an expert on arthritis. I specifically said I needed an expert who was not being paid as a consultant to one of the manufacturers of these drugs. A staff person said, ‘We have lots of people you can talk to, but all of these doctors are consultants to one or both of the drug companies.'”

Drug companies hire doctors to give lectures, and they hire other doctors as “consultants” to go to fancy dinners and listen to the lectures. “There are more than 500,000 of these dinners or events in America every year,” Petersen says.

The drug companies weave these diverse strategems into an elaborate tapestry — not infrequently to push drugs for inappropriate purposes. One eye-opening case that Petersen details in Our Daily Meds concerns Neurontin, a mediocre drug for epilepsy that Warner-Lambert illegally peddled as an unapproved treatment for bipolar disorder, migraines, attention deficit disorder in children and other conditions. The drug does not work for most of these conditions. Many persons were injured by taking excessive doses of Neurontin, and many others wasted money and emotional energy on hopeless Neurontin treatment strategies. Warner-Lambert ultimately paid $430 million to settle criminal and civil charges related to Neurontin marketing, but Petersen says that, even so, the illegal marketing scheme was clearly profitable for Warner-Lambert (and Pfizer, which acquired Warner-Lambert in 2000).

Petersen’s account of the Neurontin nightmare draws heavily on a whistleblower, David Franklin. She summarizes the central theme of the story Franklin revealed: “The company got doctors to prescribe the drug for all these experimental uses by paying them. They paid physicians to give speeches to other physicians at restaurants or hotels or resorts. The doctors not only enjoyed a nice meal or a weekend vacation, they often also received a $500 check for attending. The physicians giving lectures at these parties were often trained by the drug company’s ad firm to describe how Neurontin could work for conditions like bipolar. … The company tracked the doctors’ prescriptions before and after these dinners or weekend retreats. The executives saw how well it worked.”

Which raises an interesting question: How is that industry can so effectively manipulate highly trained doctors?

Answers Adriane Fugh-Berman, a doctor and Georgetown University professor who runs PharmedOut, a project that focuses on how pharmaceutical companies influence prescribing decisions and encourages physicians to educate themselves from non-industry sources: “Physicians are trained in medicine, not psychological manipulation. Every bit of flattery, friendship and information offered by reps is aimed at selling drugs.”

There is no simple solution to these problems, though ending patent-based marketing monopolies would transform pharmaceutical marketing practices and likely eliminate most abuses.

In the meantime, a ban on Pharma gifts to doctors would be a modest step forward. In the United States, notes Petersen, “radio disc jockeys can’t take cash from music companies. But when it comes to something like medicines — which mean life or death for people — doctors can take as much money as they want from the drug companies. We need a law to stop that.”

Note: I serve as managing director for Commercial Alert, which advocates for elimination of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.