Correction to This Article
This article about the extent of oil speculation said the InterContinental Exchange opened a trading platform in London, allowing its founders to trade "vast quantitites of U.S. oil overseas without being subject to regulation." Such trading could occur without being subject to U.S. regulation, but the exchange is subject to British regulation.
Clarification to This Article
Also, this article said that the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission reported that financial firms speculating for their clients or themselves accounted for about 81 percent of the oil contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The CFTC did not itself use the 81 percent figure. The CFTC reported data that shows that financial firms speculating for their clients or themselves accounted for about 81 percent of the oil contracts on the NYMEX.
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A Few Speculators Dominate Vast Market for Oil Trading

Using swap dealers as middlemen, investment funds have poured into the commodity markets, raising their holdings to $260 billion this year from $13 billion in 2003. During that same period, the price of crude oil rose unabated every year.

CFTC data show that at the end of July, just four swap dealers held one-third of all NYMEX oil contracts that bet prices would increase. Dealers make trades that forecast prices will either rise or fall. Energy analysts say these data are evidence of the concentration of power in the markets.

CFTC leaders have argued that speculators are not influencing commodities' prices. If any new information arises during the agency's examination of swap dealer activity, officials said they would report it to Congress.

"To date, the CFTC has found that supply and demand fundamentals offer the best explanation for the systematic rise in oil prices," CFTC spokesman R. David Gary said, reading a statement that had been crafted by agency officials. "Regardless of their classification . . . the CFTC's market surveillance group scrutinizes daily the positions of all large traders, both commercial and non-commercial, to guard against market manipulation."

Victoria Dix, a spokeswoman for Vitol, declined to answer questions. The firm, through Dix, released a statement that stated only that it had not been contacted by the CFTC about the reclassification of its business and that its trading status remained unchanged. CFTC officials said they do not typically contact firms that are reclassified.

On its Web site, the firm says it has $100 billion a year in revenue and describes its thriving global energy-trading business.

For most of the past century, regulators put limits on financial actors to prevent them from dominating commodity exchanges, which were much smaller than the bond or stock markets. Only commercial operations, such as farms, airlines, manufacturers and the middlemen that handle their trading activities, were allowed to buy nearly unlimited quantities. The goal was to allow these businesses to minimize the effect of price swings.

The first major change to this regulatory framework occurred in 1991, when Goldman Sachs, through a subsidiary called J. Aron, argued that it should be granted the same exemption given to commercial traders because its business of buying commodities on behalf of investors was similar to the middlemen who broker commodity transactions for commercial firms.

The CFTC granted this request. More exemptions soon followed, including one to the Houston-based energy trader Enron.

"When the CFTC granted the 1991 hedging exemption to J. Aron (a division of Goldman Sachs), it signaled a major shift that has since allowed investors to accumulate enormous positions for purely speculative purposes," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) Now, he added, "legitimate businesses that hedge and take physical delivery of oil are being trampled by the speculators who are in the market purely to make profit."

A second turning point came when Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. The law formally allowed investors to trade energy commodities on private electronic platforms outside the purview of regulators. Critics have called this piece of legislation the "Enron loophole," saying Enron played a role in crafting it.

In the months after the act was passed, private electronic trading platforms sprang up across the country, challenging the dominance of NYMEX.


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