In Sprecher We Trust. Hopefully.

Jeffrey Sprecher built a better mousetrap. But a mousetrap big enough to catch a whale? Apparently so.

Jeffrey Sprecher built a better mousetrap. But a mousetrap big enough to catch a whale? Apparently so. Sprecher is the founder and president of the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) based in Atlanta. For all practical purposes he is the poster-boy of electronic trading and the man responsible for the meteoric rise of commodities trading. He’s also about to become the owner of the New York Stock Exchange. Do I have your attention yet?

In little more than a decade the commodities market has gone from $10 billion– a speck on the trading horizon – to more than half a trillion dollars. Nathaniel Popper’s front-page story in the business section of the New York Times today pulls the veil back on Sprecher the man and describes how he grew a little-known southern exchange into a juggernaut capable of purchasing the vaunted New York Stock Exchange. As Popper himself writes, “It sounds preposterous.”

That’s because it is.

Popper’s piece brings forward a story that few people know. Most have no idea that trading exchanges are even for-profit businesses. And while he does a worthy job demystifying the business of exchanges he overlooks the planet-sized regulatory loopholes that allowed Sprecher to convert a small energy futures trading exchange into a global Franken-exchange that is buying the biggest, most well known exchange on Earth.

Sprecher was even a bridesmaid recently when he nearly scuttled a merger between the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange by coming in with a higher bid for the CBOT. The Chicago trading establishment was so freaked out by Sprecher’s surprise bid that they put their legendary differences aside and came to a deal faster than might otherwise have occurred had he not been breathing down everyone’s neck.

Though he was unsuccessful in his last minute bid, Sprecher moved deftly like a great white shark through the rocky financial seas in search of his next prey. Never sleeping, always moving, forever hungry.

To call Sprecher an opportunist would be technically accurate but cheap and intellectually dishonest. He understood the inevitability of electronic trading and the superior potential it held. If the Bloomberg terminal revolution was in providing information quickly and precisely then the Sprecher ICE revolution was in giving traders (and the houses they worked for) the ability to act upon information in the same fashion. My criticism of Sprecher – and Popper for that matter – is the way in which the story of the ICE has come to be told and accepted.

Missing from the brief history of the ICE are the loopholes that gave it life and the ability to flourish beyond imagination. It was the oft-spoken of – but rarely understood – “Enron Loophole” that gave corporations the legal right to trade energy futures even if the corporation itself was in the business of energy. This is the simplest way to convey its net result. The second loophole (and more meaningful for the ICE) was a maneuver by the Bush administration that granted the ICE foreign status as an exchange despite being based in Atlanta. This initiated a massive shift of trading dollars, and influx of new ones, onto the ICE for one reason: this singular move placed the ICE outside the purview of U.S. regulators at the Commodities Futures and Trading Commission (CFTC). Essentially, corporations could now trade energy futures electronically through the ICE without oversight or disclosure.

Sprecher has often stated that one of the great benefits of electronic trading is its inherent transparency. Theoretically, performing trades between parties on a screen reduces the likelihood of transactions being rigged. In some ways he’s right. We are unlikely to witness an old school “corner” where one party dupes all others into trading with it until it controls the vast majority, or position, of the item being traded. Electronic trading moves too quickly and there are too many players involved. But speed does not imply market transparency and openness.

Moreover, the mere fact that the founding investors of the ICE are some of the world’s largest investment banks and oil companies (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP) speaks to how little transparency there truly is. The fact that some of these banks (Morgan Stanley in particular) own and control oil companies and oil companies operate trading desks outside U.S. jurisdiction demonstrates how little need there is for small-time corners. Why pull off a two-bit corner when you have already cornered the entire marketplace?

Now, as Sprecher prepares to close on this historic transaction, investors, citizens and the government are about to be one step further removed from any realistic shot at transparency and oversight.

This in no way takes away from Sprecher’s genius as a businessman. It simply illustrates how willfully ignorant we are to the business of Wall Street and therefore how frightfully far away we are from properly regulating it. Everything Sprecher has done is legal and ethical; to the extent there is an ethos on Wall Street. Where all of this hits home for the consumer is at places like the gas pump and supermarket. The most important and direct relationship most of us have to Jeff Sprecher’s mousetrap is the high cost of the gas we pump and food we consume. Banks and oil companies have a vested interest in Sprecher’s success and in increasing their own revenues. Both are perfectly, mutually aligned. So far they have been able to grow profits with alacrity, free from federal oversight and bolstered by our collective ignorance of the process.

We’ve all been caught in Jeffrey Sprecher’s mousetrap. Now the question is will he “catch and release” or dispose of us in search of his next conquest. I hope he’s as nice and down-to-earth as Popper suggests.

 

Image: From 2008 Long Island Press cover story explaining the rise of the ICE and how Morgan Stanley became one of the largest oil companies in the world. For more on this story view the video below:

 

Fracking: The Ultimate Scam Revealed

By touting natural gas as the clean-burning fossil fuel that is cheaper to use and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the industry has nailed the PR trifecta: cheaper, cleaner and patriotic.

gas mask hydrofrackingOne of the great joys of writing, as in science, is the accidental discovery. To wit: penicillin. And while this entry hardly ranks near Alexander Fleming’s pharmaceutical breakthrough, it does relieve a particular itch that has been nagging my brain. For months I have been vexed by the discrepancy in pricing between crude oil and natural gas. (Wait, I know how tedious commodities can be but I promise you this column is worth sticking with.) Unable to settle on any fundamental market-based explanation, I placed the issue on the mental backburner. It was only when I decided to update a series of articles on the role of speculation in the commodities markets that I happened upon the most plausible solution to this puzzle.

First, a little context. Over the past couple of years New York State has been flirting with the idea of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The discovery of enormous pockets of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation that runs from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York to as far as Ohio, has led to a modern-day gold rush in the region, with Pennsylvania several years ahead of New York. While the gas has always been there, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when controversial chemical enhancements invented by Halliburton were added to a difficult horizontal drilling technique that accessing this gas became feasible.

Almost immediately, however, environmental concerns began to mount. Stories of contaminated groundwater, intense air pollution and, most recently, a ruptured fault line and mini-earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio, on Dec. 31, have begun leaking into public consciousness. Gasland, a documentary by Josh Fox, increasingly agitated environmental organizations, and high-profile activists such as actor Mark Ruffalo have helped fracking reach the tipping point in the media. Once seen as a panacea for rural land owners in depressed parts of the country, fracking has become a pariah in the environmental community, setting the stage for yet another battle between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists. Caught in the middle of the entire fiasco at the moment is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is cautiously moving toward legalizing fracking in New York, though his public reticence highlights how tenuous this decision truly is.

Early on, I came down firmly against fracking in New York, and the Long Island Press was in the vanguard of reporting on it downstate. So I’m on record quite clearly as to why I believe fracking to be a disaster for New York, or anywhere else for that matter. No need to rehash this position. Still, one piece of the broader issue was missing—until now.

Here’s the issue: Fracking is expensive. The prolonged low market price of natural gas is the most logical deterrent to increasing drilling because it barely pays to pull the gas out of the ground. Moreover, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that natural gas demand in the United States should rise only 11 percent over the next 25 years compared to a projected rise of more than 300 percent in China over the same period.

Here’s where the market rationale gets murky. Analysts point to increased demand for fossil fuel in developing economies as the primary reason behind the steady rise in oil prices. Goldman Sachs’ most recent forecast of Brent Crude Oil, commonly known as “sweet light crude,” is $120 a barrel for 2012, with most market analysts following suit. A weak dollar, the ongoing crisis and uncertainty in the Eurozone, a burgeoning conflict between the U.S. and Iran, and continued growth in China, India and Brazil are the oft-given reasons behind these prognostications.

Historically, natural gas and oil prices have generally moved in tandem, and with natural gas gaining momentum as the fossil fuel of choice, it only makes sense that they would continue their mirrored trajectory. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Crude oil remains stubbornly high and creeping ever higher while natural gas remains depressed.

A closer look reveals that the world has record stockpiles of both fuels, and has developed incredible potential for new sources such as the Marcellus Shale play or the tar sands in Canada. Then there are the yet-to-be-developed fields in Iraq that, according to the New York Times, are “expected to ramp up oil production faster than any other country in the next 25 years, with a capacity…more than traditional leaders like Saudi Arabia.” Or, if you prefer, the real reason we went to war in Iraq.

Excess supply, new discoveries, and sluggish demand—and yet only natural gas is acting appropriately in the markets. This behavior is undeniable proof that the invisible hand of speculation is at work, which naturally begs the question as to why traders would suppress the price of gas but not oil.

For this answer we must turn back the clock once again and revisit several acts in Congress over the past two decades that made it possible for banks to merge with investment banks and trade commodities without limits and without transparency. Much of this trading is done on the Intercontinental Exchange, a trading platform that was founded and owned by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP. When you understand that markets today are dominated by investment banks and oil companies, who are at times one in the same (Morgan Stanley’s direct holdings in oil companies, fossil fuel infrastructure and transportation companies make it one of the largest oil companies in America), it is possible to fully comprehend the psychology behind natural gas pricing. Oil companies and investment banks have the ability to move the market by forecasting prices and investing in their own products through opaque exchanges that they own, so no matter where prices are they are making money.

Now you’re ready for the secret behind the fracking con job.

As previously mentioned, domestic natural gas is difficult to procure. The process is devastating to human health and the environment, and the effects are irreversible. To gain momentum and influence public opinion, the oil and gas companies have launched an ingenious propaganda assault on America. By touting natural gas as the clean-burning fossil fuel that is cheaper to use and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the industry has nailed the PR trifecta: cheaper, cleaner and patriotic. And with an earnest pitchman like T. Boone Pickens, who wouldn’t believe it?

The problem is none of the above is true. First, natural gas might burn cleaner than oil but the process to extract it is so harmful it doesn’t matter. And second, because the same companies who are in control of the product are in control of the pricing, once they sew up the drilling rights they can simply jack up the price. This leaves the final argument that is wrapped in the American flag and served with a side of apple pie: reducing dependence on foreign oil for the sake of the union.

For the truth, let’s check in with the rest of the world to see what they say. (This was the happy accident that prompted this column.)

According to India’s leading daily business newspaper, the Business Standard, “the increasing shale gas production in the U.S. has led to a surplus, likely to increase in the coming years. The U.S. is, therefore, eyeing export to countries like China, Japan, Korea and India… In the past, the U.S. has been an importer of gas.” The article goes on to quote A. K. Balyan, chief executive officer of Petronet LNG, India’s largest liquefied natural gas importer, who states, “With an increase in U.S. gas production, the gas receiving terminals need to be converted to exporting terminals.”

Ta-dah!

The average life of a fracking site is seven years. At best. The environmental and human health catastrophe is forever. All of the current talk of job creation and reducing dependence on oil is a sham. Our natural gas stockpiles are higher than ever and the demand for natural gas, by our own country’s admission, will remain basically flat until 2035. The oil and gas companies are planning to export gas from the Marcellus Shale region to the same developing economies we’re supposed to be competing against. How’s that for homeland security?

The real insult? American oil and gas companies are willing to risk the health and welfare of our own citizens by fracking on our land in order to export fuel they claim is more beneficial to the environment. Normally, our companies are busy screwing up other countries in pursuit of their natural resources for our own consumption. As if this isn’t bad enough, they are finally committing the cardinal sin of shitting where they eat.

Let’s do the right thing for once: Ban fracking now. There’s no other way.

JANUARY 11th – FINAL DAY FOR PUBLIC COMMENT ON DEC WEBSITE. CLICK HERE

Main Photo Image: Photograph from AP. April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.
Long Island Press cover image. Original art by Jon Sasala
T. Boone Pickens
. AP Photo.

This article was published in the January 5th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Chuck Schumer Is Responsible For The Price Of Gas

A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral.

Bubble, Bubble, Oil and Trouble

We assemble around the pumps staring at gas prices like hominids around the monolith, shrieking and beating our chests. But whereas Stanley Kubrick’s primates in 2001 were willing to touch the slab and receive the divine, other-worldly intelligence it offered, we simply tighten the cap and blithely go about our day, all the while filling the wallets of oil companies and banks that conspire to pick every last nickel, dime and piece of lint from our pockets.

The ongoing drama in the Beltway, quibbling over mere billions of a multi-trillion dollar problem, is the ultimate subterfuge blinding us from the true budgetary crisis in our nation and the world. The $39 billion compromise achieved on Capitol Hill last week is a billion shy of ExxonMobil’s profit for 2008, the last time oil prices crippled the nation and filled the corporation’s coffers. This was the largest profit ever posted by an American public company. Once again analysts are predicting record profits when the publicly traded oil companies release their first quarter earnings in the coming weeks.

I’m officially calling bullshit; calling it on the whole stinking lot of them. While oil companies reap historic profits and politicians try to out-Ayn Rand one another, espousing free market ideals they completely misinterpret, Wall Street and Big Oil are about to deliver the coup de grace on the American people and the world at large.

The Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), in partnership with NASDAQ, recently upped the ante to purchase the historic New York Stock Exchange (NYSE Eurodex). Naturally, your next questions should be: “What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps?”  “Why is this important?” “Why should I care?” and “What can I do about it?”

Glad you asked.

What does this have to do with the price of gasoline at the pumps? Everything. Here’s the short version of exactly why gas is so high right now. All you have to do is memorize the following paragraph to be able to shut anyone up at a party who claims that Middle East uprisings are responsible for driving up oil prices.

Nearly 20 years ago Wendy Gramm and her senator husband Phil Gramm created the Enron loophole when Mrs. Gramm chaired the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under President George H.W. Bush that cleared the way for trading energy futures on the commodities exchanges. On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed it into law. In 2001, the two largest investment banks in the nation, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, teamed up with British Petroleum (BP) to start their own exchange called the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) to handle commodities transactions. In January of 2006, George W. Bush made it possible for anyone investing in commodities to hide their identity, turning the ICE into a powerhouse exchange overnight. When the Glass Steagall Act was repealed, deregulating the banking industry, banks and investment banks merged; further, because of the commodities deregulation under Clinton, then Bush, banks are now able to set the price of commodities by having their analysts forecast pricing and purchase large quantities of commodities through the banking end on exchanges they own and control.

There you have it. I mention all of the presidents involved in this fiasco to illustrate that this is not a partisan issue. Both parties have blood on their hands. They have created a trading exchange that, despite being only 10 years old, is so big and powerful it can partner on an $11 billion bid to acquire the New York Stock Exchange.

Why is this important? The obvious, most immediate reason is the pain at the pump that you’re experiencing personally and the pain that threatens the global economic recovery. But there’s a larger problem. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been vociferously warning anyone who will listen that there is a direct correlation between sharply rising crude oil prices and starvation.

There are three reasons for this: 1) The surge in oil prices has increased demand for bio-fuel substitutes, so instead of feeding people we feed our vehicles. 2) Higher oil prices means higher production costs. At the farm level the hard production costs of fertilizer and irrigation rise in lockstep with crude oil prices. 3) Lastly, the cost of transporting goods from farm to table increases directly and dramatically.

So, the answer to the first question is: This is important because high oil prices kill people.

Why should I care? Another wonderful question. Well, apart from the obvious fact that we are all part of the human race and should care about things like forced hunger and starvation, there is a distinctly American reason to care about this issue: Fairness.

Politicians, lobbyists, policy makers, and pundits are all mixing metaphors and messing with the essential American principles of fairness. Tea Partiers, conservative radio hosts, radical free-market freshmen Republicans in Congress and kooky presidential candidates are carrying weathered copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible, and screaming from the mountaintops, “Set my market free!” (The Bible-toting Objectivist is my new favorite American oxymoron.)

Talking about “free-markets” is fun, but there are seriously flawed fundamentals at work here. As we have learned from every bubble burst in the era of deregulation, the markets do not self-police nor are they inherently moral. Markets, like people, must be guided by regulations and boundaries; investors must have the freedom to maneuver within these parameters, and suffer punishments for exceeding them. Free market radicals should understand better than anyone that a market without regulations is like the Bible without Commandments.

A market where only a handful of powerful people determine the price of commodities, buy and sell them at will, and reap huge rewards while starving millions of people worldwide and decimating the savings of Americans almost overnight is anything but moral. It’s exactly immoral and completely un-American.

 What can I do about it? Plenty.But we have to work together. It starts with understanding the fundamentals behind oil pricing and then figuring out who’s lying. First and foremost, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are both lying unabashedly through their teeth by blaming political unrest and upheaval for potentially hindering supply and causing speculative panic in the market. They’re ignoring that the United States and OPEC oil reserves are at an all-time high, that actual demand is still sluggish, and that we continue to build more energy-efficient vehicles and access natural gas and renewable resources. 

Now they’re playing a game of chicken and managing our expectations, sending mixed signals about “demand destruction” and how high energy prices might have a deleterious effect on the global economic recovery even though their own analysts set the price of oil futures contracts and their own bankers buy them up. What they’re doing is establishing a new low, an artificial floor. It’s genius. Get us used to the idea of $5 per gallon pricing so that $4 doesn’t seem so bad. This is a test and we’re eating up their lies.

There are four primary solutions to the global oil problem. They’re a heavy lift and you should know what they are, but don’t be overly concerned with these details; your part comes later. Briefly, the solutions are as follows: (1) Reinstate Glass-Steagall, (2) Incentivize oil companies to invest in renewable energy by levying enormous fees on non-compliant companies, (3) Strip the ICE of its foreign-based exchange status to restore transparency to the commodities and derivative market and (4) Kill all speculative conflicts of interest by crafting legislation that prohibits investment banks from owning a controlling interest in any oil-related corporation.

202-224-6542. Give him a jingle.

Sounds like a crazy, impossible pipe dream. Not to worry. Thankfully there is one man with the power to get all of this done. Who is that powerful you ask? New York’s own Sen. Charles Schumer.

Schumer sits on the Rules, Economic, Judiciary, Finance and Banking committees. When it comes to anything related to finance, Charles Schumer is the single most important man in America. Now for your part: Because his office doesn’t accept emails, please call his office at 202-224-6542 and tell whoever answers the phone that you would like Sen. Schumer to please lower the price of gas at the pump. Don’t take no for an answer.

Then we go viral. It’s on. Tweet and post a link to this article with the message: “Only Chuck Schumer can lower the price of gas. If he doesn’t, I guess he’s responsible.”

Good luck and Godspeed. Remember, there are tens of millions of starving people counting on you to tweet our demands.


Charles knows enough to cancel the subsidies (starting around 1:30).

Click on the following links to read other oil-related entries

LIBYA. MORE BLOOD FOR OIL. “Crude Behavior” March 23, 2011 – JedMorey.com

BEHIND THE BUSINESS OF EXCHANGES. $4 Per Gallon: Beating the Oil Drum. March 9, 2011 – JedMorey.com

HAPPY NEW YEAR AMERICA. OIL’S HEADING TO $4. “Why Is Oil So High?” Crude: Part II – Long Island Press

OP-ED: INITIAL REACTION TO BP OIL SPILL. “Our Addiction To Oil” June 24, 2010. – JedMorey.com

CRUDE: HOW WALL STREET SCREWED AMERICA IN THE SUMMER OF 2008 – Long Island Press