It isn't Enron this time, but there are hands in American consumers' pockets as gasoline prices keep rising.
While politicians argue about offshore drilling, miracle batteries and the health benefits of bicycling, at least half of the increase is going to "petro- manipulators," as Timothy Egan dubs them in his New York Times blog, citing the phony energy crisis of seven summers ago:
"The price of energy spiked--tenfold, a hundredfold-- despite low demand. Californians became the most efficient users of power in the nation, and still suffered through dozens of rolling blackouts...caused by manipulation by Enron and other speculators who gamed a faulty system, sticking it to Grandma Millie while laughing at how easy it was to rob 40 million people."
Parallels to today? "Take away the excess speculators who are in the market purely for the ride, and oil prices could drop by half. That’s the view of Michael W. Masters, a hedge fund manager who’s been advising Congress this year.
“'There are no lines at the gas pumps and there is plenty of food on the shelves,' said Masters, whose testimony has been widely discussed in financial circles but rarely in the political realm. What has changed, he said, is the presence of big speculators making futures bets."
On the PBS News Hour this week, oil experts compared energy-price ballooning to the earlier dot.com market bubble, attributing half of it to hedge funds as well as "the doctor, the lawyer that has the disposable income that's plowing money into the index funds."
Without the commodities casino, one pointed out, Wall Street in December was forecasting oil in 2008 at $85 to $95 a barrel rather than the $135-plus of today. The difference is essentially a "speculative bubble."
As the White House and presidential candidates cluck about our pain at the pump and offer economic aspirins to ease it, voters should know where and how most of the real injury is being inflicted