Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.
This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.
Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.
Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.
The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.
In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!
Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.
But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.
Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.
This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.
The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.
Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.
Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.
We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.
From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.
It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.
Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.
A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.
Greetings all. With oil prices rising and likely topping $100 per barrel in the New Year, I revisited a favorite subject in the Long Island Press this week. This week’s Off The Reservation is an update to a cover story penned two years ago about the oil speculation scandal in 2008 that artificially drove prices through the roof.
Returning to the subject, I found that not much had changed. A couple of the players, perhaps, but the speculation scheme is alive and well. So when you read projections from “industry analysts” who see crude oil prices rising due to a weak dollar and surging demand, you’ll know the real deal. Don’t get me wrong, these are key drivers of crude oil but are far from the entire picture. There are those who believe that pricing for the last several years is anywhere between 60% and 70% as a result of speculation; the remainder is due to market forces.
So when you’re at the pump cursing the Saudi’s, China, Obama, the Fed – whatever your poison – the biggest ass f#$*ing is still coming from Wall Street.
The scandal that started it all. How Wall Street and Big Oil have conspired over a twenty year period to legalize price-fixing and collusion in the commodities market. This is the reason oil prices are so high. These are the people responsible.
Inside the comfortable landscape of Rock Creek Golf Club in Fairhope, Alabama, life is undoubtedly serene, a far cry from the bustling city of Houston across the Gulf where Doug Terreson, a former Morgan Stanley executive, used to reside. Less than a mile and a half from Terreson’s relocated home on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, the price of regular gasoline at the local BP hovers around $4 per gallon––a constant reminder of the burden that Wall Street and Congress created to bolster their earnings and pad their coffers.
For Terreson––at first an unwitting, then ultimately unwilling accomplice––it is an experience he seems anxious to forget. Perhaps that’s why the high-level investment company executive has packed it all in, far away from the corner offices that contributed to the current implosion on Wall Street.
But while it is clear that the American economy is in deep trouble, there’s one part of the puzzle that still lies in a place as murky as the water surrounding the refineries in the Gulf of Mexico: the Wall Street-oil connection.
We’re all paying the price. It now costs just as much in America for a gallon of milk as it does for a gallon of gas. There are now 9.4 million Americans out of work. High fuel prices have all but sacked the airline and auto industries. Pressures on food production created by fuel subsidies and climbing oil prices may mean that the number of malnourished people worldwide could climb to 1.2 billion by 2025. You don’t have to be lectured on how tough times are.
In case you’re feeling sorry for yourself, or the world, consider the plight of Doug Terreson’s former boss, John Mack. His company had to artificially jack-up oil prices to record levels just to balance out its financial woes. To Mack, it must seem like just yesterday that he received a $40 million bonus as chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley-the largest ever given on Wall Street at the time.
But that was at the end of 2006, a veritable lifetime ago in the financial world, and things are much, much different now. Continued fallout from the credit crisis in the U.S. has forced Morgan into a corner and Chairman Mack against a wall. It could be worse. He could have run Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns.
Luckily, John Mack is an oil man. In every sense of the word. How so, you say? Under John Mack, Morgan Stanley has amassed a formidable group of companies involved in every aspect of oil, from refineries to home heating oil. Mack has thus far been able to navigate through a storm that has brought three of the biggest American investment banks to their knees. And the whole world picked up the tab. By exploiting regulatory loopholes and throwing caution and conscience to the wind, Morgan Stanley, along with Goldman Sachs, has artificially thrust oil prices to record levels.
They don’t call him “Mack the Knife” for nothing.
There Will Be Blood
As one of the greatest economic disasters in modern history is unfolding before our eyes, hidden deep within is a shocking scenario that spans 16 years and three presidents and has left millions of starving and poverty-stricken people in its wake. The architects of the scheme are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. Their names read like a Who’s Who of the financial sector and the American government: Clinton. Mack. Gramm. Paulson. Bush. All are deeply involved in this scandal, which history surely will view as one of the most impactful on the nation and the world economy.
Economists and theorists have already named the economic period that is ending as of this writing. It is being referred to as the era of cheap oil, a time when multinational companies thrived on the global market as never before. Things are changing now: Oil prices remain high and the cost of doing business––in every industry-continues to rise. While it may be true that oil will never be cheap again, inconsistencies abound as to why.
Prior to the turn of the millennium, there were a few givens that had an effect on the cost of oil and energy in the world-mainly war, weather, supply and demand. The latest Russian aggression in Georgia, hurricanes in the Gulf, and the spectacular display at the Beijing Olympics that placed China on the world stage would normally have put prices through the roof.
If nothing else, China’s grand coming-out party exhibited the largesse of the Chinese economy and population. This alone should have caused a spike in oil prices. Instead, they have fallen from their stunning highs during the summer. This counterintuitive behavior in the market indicates that a significant portion of oil prices is determined by financial speculation and not just traditional forces of supply and demand.
Still, oil prices are outrageously high compared to just a few years ago, and are a topic of conversation in every American household. No one is escaping the impact of high prices at the pump or the supermarket. But we have been spoon-fed lies about demand from China and India and are expected to simply go along with the madness.
But not everyone is fooled. As the world seeks to shield itself against the crushing economic blow delivered by the skyrocketing cost of energy, many are beginning to take note of the roots of the crisis and point fingers at those responsible for the economic mess that we’re in.
In stark opposition to the oil crisis of the 1970s that left Washington in a state of panic and Americans lined up at the gas pumps, the seeds of the current condition may well have been planted not in the Middle East by the OPEC nations, but right here at home, by the very lawmakers now scrambling to undo what they set in motion.
One of the central villains in the story has become an all-too-familiar symbol of corporate malfeasance. The ghost of Enron, the defunct Texas-based energy company and its now-deceased former president, Kenneth Lay, still haunts the market today. Most are familiar with how Enron preyed on financial loopholes in the marketplace to fabricate a phantom energy market and create false gains on its balance sheet throughout the 1990s.
Enron’s grip on the energy market created spastic and turbulent movement in the marketplace resulting in events like the rolling blackouts in 2000 in California. By December 2001, when everything was unraveled, Enron was out of business, its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, was no more and Washington lawmakers issued a slew of promises to change the regulatory environment.
Devils In The Details
During the final months of Bush 41’s White House in 1992, Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of Phil Gramm, who was then the Republican senator from Texas, was the head of the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Wendy Gramm is an unabashed free-market advocate once described in 1999 by The Wall Street Journal as the “Margaret Thatcher of financial regulation.” She now sits as a distinguished senior scholar of the conservative think tank Mercatus Center at George Mason University, in Virginia. Mercatus is a policy center on Capitol Hill that boasts board members such as Ed Meese-a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan-and Charles Koch, of Koch Industries, who has been investigated for stealing oil from federal property and tribal Indian lands, indicted for environmental crimes and fined $30 million by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for numerous spills throughout the United States.
The CFTC oversees the commodities market and applies the regulations set forth under the 1936 Commodities Exchange Act (CEA), a measure enacted by Congress to prevent another collapse on the scale of the 1929 crash. One of Wendy Gramm’s final acts as chairwoman in January 1993 was to create an exemption that allowed Enron to trade energy futures contracts and essentially hide these trades from the CFTC itself; an energy futures contract is an agreement to deliver energy commodities such as oil or natural gas at a set price in the future.
Gramm left the CFTC, and five weeks after creating this exemption, she became a board member of-you guessed it-Enron. In return for her work deregulating the market for Enron to exploit, she racked up millions as an Enron board member prior to the company’s collapse.
Wendy and Phil Gramm were just getting warmed up.
Under the cloak of darkness at the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term and the waning days of the 106th Congress, it was then-Sen. Phil Gramm’s turn to dust off a bill, now commonly referred to as the “Enron loophole,” and attach it to an 11,000-page appropriations bill on December 15, 2000. The bill had previously died on the House floor, but Gramm resurrected it, found a new sponsor, became a co-sponsor, changed the bill number and turned it into an amendment. That’s a lot of work for one little loophole.
As a rider to a much larger bill, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act was no longer subject to the normal vetting process in Congress that a stand-alone bill would receive. Lawmakers, undoubtedly feeling the pressure of the holidays and lacking the time to thoroughly review the voluminous document, quickly approved the bill for the president’s signature.
On December 21, 2000, on a cold and blustery Washington evening, the bill with the Enron loophole rider was signed by President Clinton. Gramm’s amendment came to life and deregulated all energy futures trading. For Lay and Enron, the rest is history. But it would take another six years, another President Bush and a new Congress to open the floodgates of rampant speculation and really give it legs.
Phil Gramm? Does he sound familiar? Well, you might recall that he has been Sen. John McCain’s top economic adviser. You know, the one who called America “a nation of whiners.”
The easiest way to think about commodities is that they are things-physical things that can be measured in size, quantity or volume. Fruit. Oil. Grains. Metals. Currency. All these have unique characteristics and trade against one another on commodities exchanges throughout the world. For example, one barrel of oil might equal three bushels of corn, which may equal six bushels of wheat, and so on.
It is a complicated system that’s not for the faint of heart. Only a select few traders on Wall Street have the acumen and desire to deal in this sector, an exchange that had been efficiently regulated by the CEA since 1936. In an interview with the Press, Michael Greenberger, an outspoken critic and former employee of the CFTC, described these as “backwater markets,” but ones that recently have become “as important to understand and regulate as the securities and debt markets are.”
Commodities traders were highly specialized in their fields and their discipline was so narrow that it was largely misunderstood. Because it represented such a small portion of the vast economic market of debt and equities, it existed in the shadows of the global marketplace.
An important aspect to the commodities market is that there has always been a ceiling to the transactions and every investment made in the United States, for example, must be overseen by the CFTC. This market cap and theory of transparency kept the commodities market in relative obscurity against its much bigger counterparts, the stock market and the bond market.
But in January 2006, the CFTC, under President George W. Bush’s administration, would upend the regulatory practices held in place since the ’30s and create a virtual frenzy by recognizing a new commodities exchange-ICE Futures-that had been formed in 2001, primarily by investment banks and oil companies.
On May 20 of this year, Michael Masters, the managing member of Masters Capital Management LLC, a hedge fund that invests in private equity, testified before the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. His testimony is now widely quoted by the antispeculation critics who decry the lack of oversight created by the Enron loophole.
“Commodities futures markets are much smaller than the capital markets, so multibillion-dollar allocations to commodities markets will have a far greater impact on prices,” Masters stated.
Essentially, introducing investment banks and hedge funds that have deep pockets and no one looking over their shoulders has the singular ability to move the entire market. It’s like allowing professional athletes to compete in the Olympics. It’s what Masters referred to as “demand shock.”
Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs: the mechanics behind high oil prices
Two primary tools have restrained zealous speculators in the commodities markets since the CEA’s adoption-transparency and position limits. The transparency came from federally regulated markets like the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), which tracks and oversees the transactions of commodities. Position limits were enacted under the CEA to keep any one investor, or group of investors, from overwhelming the exchange and flooding it with money.
The Enron loophole essentially permitted the trading of energy futures on over-the-counter markets, thereby allowing a new set of investors-hedge funds and investment banks-to trade energy futures. But the U.S. exchanges still saw relatively little activity as compared to their European counterparts, where the oversight was far more lax.
Because commodities trade in real time and U.S.-based companies have the most money to invest, the investment banks and hedge funds were still slow to drive great sums of capital into the market. What they needed to really make this thing soar was the ability to invest serious capital within the United States, like their counterparts could on the London Exchange, for example.
In 2000, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and British Petroleum became the primary founders of a little-known exchange based in Atlanta, Ga., known as the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE). A year later, it purchased the London-based International Petroleum Exchange (IPE), and was renamed ICE Futures. It was an acquisition that was fairly straightforward until 2006, when the CFTC-seemingly out of nowhere-officially recognized the ICE as a foreign-based exchange because it had purchased the IPE.
Even though the ICE is based in Atlanta, backed by U.S. banks and now traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange, the CFTC somehow decided to treat it as if it were based in London and thereby no longer subject to federal trading regulations. Now the investment banks could trade every type of commodity, especially crude oil, without any spending limits or federal oversight. Greenberger calls it one of Wall Street’s “most successful ventures,” because the ICE was now “competitive to NYMEX.”
It was here that the wheels began to fall off the commodities market.
John Mack, the chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley, has had an illustrious career, holding some of the most lucrative and prestigious positions on Wall Street.
Nicknamed “Mack the Knife” because of his hard-edged, no-nonsense approach and hardcore cost-cutting measures, Mack ran Morgan Stanley through the ’90s before accepting the job as co-CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston, a leading investment bank, in 2001. Mack left CSFB in 2004 to pursue options outside the large investment banking world but was wooed back to run Morgan Stanley in 2005. Upon his return, Mack’s Morgan Stanley went on an aggressive oil-buying spree-but not necessarily the kind you might expect.
On May 24, 2006, Morgan oil analyst Douglas Terreson announced that integrated oil equities were “15 percent undervalued” and in a research report, he wrote that “Independent refining and marketing remains the largest sector bet in the global model energy portfolio.” Soon after, on June 18, 2006, Morgan Stanley acquired TransMontaigne, Inc. and its subsidiaries-a half-billion dollar group of companies operating in the refined petroleum business.
How convenient… after their oil analyst decides that this portion of the industry is looking up, Morgan Stanley gets into the oil business and buys a refining company. However, it did not take only 25 days to conceive and work out the TransMontaigne transaction. This had to be a long-planned, well-thought-out takeover. One that worked for the great benefit of Morgan Stanley’s future oil plans.
This type of freewheeling environment, with little separation between the proprietary desks at the banks and their investment analysts, has been the subject of much scrutiny and concern of late.
“[There must be] a verifiable and hardened wall between analysts and the investment entities,” Greenberger says-it’s the only way to maintain integrity. And this is essentially what the CFTC was dismantling, right under everyone’s noses.
Morgan’s investments in the oil business continued aggressively over the next year into the far corners of the industry. In short order it closed the circle of the supply chain by acquiring Heidmar, a shipping company, and various stakes in foreign-based energy supply companies. It even snagged a contract from the U.S. Department of Energy to store 750,000 barrels of home heating oil at its corporately owned terminal in New Haven, Conn. Morgan Stanley, which was at the time the largest trader in oil futures, was now a serious international oil company.
Speculation Takes Centre Stage
It was the Masters testimony that brought speculation into the light and sent shockwaves through the halls of Congress. Masters was able to simplify the exchange and put the issues in a context that lawmakers could grasp. One of the telling examples he gives is that “Index speculators [companies such as Morgan Stanley] have now stockpiled, via the futures market, the equivalent of 1.1 billion barrels of petroleum, effectively adding eight times as much oil to their own stockpile as the United States has added to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the last five years.”
This essentially squashed the claims of the investment banks that demand from parts of the world such as China and India was solely responsible for the increase in oil futures prices. However, there are some theorists who still vehemently deny that this is the case.
James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and creator of the popular blog Clusterfuck Nation, believes that the effect from the speculative market is “basically witch-hunt stuff.” A peak oil theorist, Kunstler, on the phone from his home in Saratoga Springs in upstate NY, says he believes that the root of the problem lies more in our global dependence upon a commodity that is quite simply disappearing.
American scientist M. King Hubbert predicted in the 1950s that American oil production would peak by the early 1970s. He was right. His predictive model was the basis for peak oil theory, which, when applied to the global market, indicates that the world may hit peak oil production within the next 20 years or sooner. Kunstler says that “the biggest thing that’s going on right now is the oil export problem or crisis.
“What that means,” he adds, “is the countries that we depend on for imported oil are less and less able to send it out and they’re using more of their own oil even as they’re in depletion. Two of the biggest cases of this are Mexico and Venezuela.”
While America imports the vast majority of its oil from Mexico, Venezuela and Canada––not the Middle East-and there is evidence to support the peak-oil predictions in some of these areas, it seems to speak more to the long-term crisis that mature and developing countries face. But it doesn’t fully explain away why oil prices would increase exponentially during the summer months and then decline shortly thereafter.
“Instead of oil going up,” Greenberger says, “oil is going down. Has India and China dramatically cut back? Nothing has changed and, in fact, the supply-demand factor has probably gotten worse because of Russia’s aggression [and] the severe weather, but oil is sinking, sinking, sinking. How can that possibly be?”
So if oil prices could be so easily manipulated, why didn’t it happen more severely and immediately when restrictions were lifted in 2006? While oil prices did indeed climb between the time the ICE was created in Atlanta and the regulations were lifted in January of 2006, they didn’t skyrocket until late in 2007.
Enter Douglas Terreson.
The Terreson timeline
Douglas Terreson, the Morgan Stanley analyst who said that independent refining and marketing companies were undervalued, was the bank’s chief oil analyst. The award-winning, nationally recognized Terreson had fielded questions in relation to oil prices and futures since the mid-1990s. On March 14 of this year, he said that oil would settle in at around $95 per barrel for the remainder of 2008. Moreover, Terreson also concluded that oil would retreat to around $83 per barrel for 2009.
This would be Terreson’s last forecast for Morgan Stanley.
Two short months later, Dow Jones Newswires reported that Terreson had been ousted in a round of layoffs. Two weeks after that, Richard Berner, Morgan Stanley co-head of global economics and chief U.S. economist, issued a statement saying that crude oil could easily reach $150 a barrel.
This speculation set off a round of speculative fervor never before seen in the market. Goldman Sachs immediately followed suit by forecasting oil to roar beyond $150, saying it could hit $200 a barrel in the near future. Oil prices were off to the races, with the investment banks in full lobbying mode while pointing the finger at China and India.
On September 19, 2007, Morgan Stanley’s stock price was $67 and oil was at $78. This was the day that Morgan Stanley began to trickle out the bad news. The worse the news was coming out of the investment banks, the higher oil prices would climb. By the time Morgan announced that Terreson was gone, Morgan’s stock was at $41 and oil was at $134.
In retrospect, the turning point appears to be Morgan’s $150 forecast by Berner. It fuelled the apprehension of the media and Wall Street alike. Americans were quick to do the math and knew that the spike would mean $5 per gallon at the pump. Maybe more. Suddenly everyone recalled the 1970s, and new terms such as “stay-cation” were on everyone’s lips.
So, where did this $150 number come from? Who better to answer that question than Richard Berner, the man behind the proclamation?
Unfortunately, a spokesperson for Morgan Stanley tells the Press that Richard Berner “doesn’t do interviews on oil stuff.” In fact, “he doesn’t deal in oil” at all, says his assistant matter-of-factly. That’s because for more than a decade this had been the exclusive domain of Terreson. Yet a month after the report that Terreson had been laid off, Morgan Stanley issued a statement claiming that Terreson voluntarily left his position at Morgan for the promise of higher pay from a hedge fund.
Not so, according to a Morgan Stanley employee familiar with the circumstances surrounding Terreson’s departure, who asked not to be identified in this story. Taken aback by the confusion surrounding Terreson’s reason for leaving, he says, “I knew they had a rightsizing, but he said he was retiring. He was getting ready to head off into the sunset.” And, just like that, Terreson was gone.
Morgan Stanley no longer has a spokesperson for oil. Nor are they willing to comment on the decision to forecast crude oil futures at $150 per barrel by someone who “doesn’t deal in oil.”
Terreson, once an integral part of the Houston community and a rising star in the financial sector, seemingly disappeared from the city altogether. His home phone has been disconnected. His former co-workers were unsure of his whereabouts. And almost no one from the firm at which he spent years as a superstar in his field wants to discuss why.
When the press finally reached Terreson at his present residence in Alabama, he simply offered, “I’m retired. I’m not with Morgan anymore and can’t talk about any of this.” When asked for a brief comment on current oil prices, Terreson responded, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” and hung up the phone.
The smell coming our way
Still, the question persists: If the market conditions surrounding the price of crude oil futures remained unchanged, why were the analysts at the world’s largest banks determined to drive up the price of oil at a historic pace?
Was it merely dumb luck that this rampant speculation occurred at a time when the major investment banks were reporting record losses and write downs due to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown? It is Greenberger’s assertion that “a lot of people were very upset that they were in a sense humping their own product-not only their physical holdings but their future holdings.” What he’s referring to is the fact that Morgan Stanley doesn’t just trade oil futures; it’s also very much in the business of oil. This is a fact that is “unseemly,” according to Greenberger and many onlookers of the financial markets. One such observer is Gary Aguirre, a former staff lawyer and investigator for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), who has testified several times in front of Congress and is widely considered a leading authority on financial markets.
“The way it ran up had all the earmarks of manipulation,” says Aguirre from his office in San Diego. “It looked like somebody was playing a game. I don’t know what the game was or how they did it but that was…the smell drifting my way.” As far as Morgan Stanley and Mack are concerned, Aguirre knows firsthand just how powerful the Wall Street tycoon is.
In 2005, Aguirre headed up an investigation into an insider trading claim involving Mack and a hedge fund named Pequot Capital Management. Mack’s involvement came during the period between his tenure at Credit Suisse First Boston and his return as chairman of Morgan Stanley. There were allegations of insider trading on the part of Mack by the SEC, but just when the investigation seemed to be gaining momentum, Aguirre was told to back off by his bosses at the SEC. After a glowing review from his superior, Aguirre went on vacation. When he returned, he got a pink slip, not a raise.
Aguirre insists that his own experience is merely part of a larger and much scarier problem running rampant on Wall Street.
“What we have are the markets highly leveraged, highly speculative and without any regulation, effectively, of the abuses,” he explains. “In short, it’s not much different than it was just before the crash in 1929.” This sentiment is echoed throughout Wall Street and the Beltway as the news from Wall Street grows more desperate with each piece of bad press about the economy.
The cozy relationship between oil companies and the U.S. government is nothing new to people like Aguirre who are familiar with the system. Aguirre explains the “you scratch my back” culture in monetary terms by saying, “These people are sponsored by the industry. Paulson’s straight out of Goldman. We have the fox guarding the henhouse.” (He’s referring to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who was chairman of Goldman Sachs until June 2006.)
This was certainly true for Wendy Gramm, leaving the CFTC for the Enron board, and for her husband, who received nearly $100,000 in financial contributions from Enron while in office.
“These Enron traders were highly sought after,” says Greenberger. “Enron showed in its dying days how you could make a lot of money trading unregulated energy futures products.”
The real price of oil
A report titled “Double Jeopardy: Responding to High Food and Fuel Prices,” issued by the World Bank on July 2 of this year, estimates that “up to 105 million people could become poor due to rising food prices alone,” with “30 million additional persons falling into poverty in Africa alone.”
The report links the effect of high food prices directly to rising energy and oil costs-but stops short of blaming speculators, claiming that commodity investors and hedge fund activity appear to have played only a “minor role” in the increase of food and fuel prices. The report’s source: The CFTC.
The eye-opening May testimony from Masters was a scathing indictment of the CFTC’s thinking. In it, he claimed, “The current wheat futures stockpile of Index Speculators is enough to supply every American citizen with all the bread, pasta and baked goods they can eat for the next two years.”
As far as the much maligned “corn for ethanol” program that has environmentalists and lobbyists alike backing away, Masters contends that “Index Speculators have stockpiled enough corn futures to potentially fuel the entire United States ethanol industry at full capacity for a year.”
At least high oil prices have us thinking about alternative energy, right? According to Kunstler, it’s a case of too little, too late: “No amount of alternative fuels is going to allow us to run the stuff we’re running the way we’re running it, and we have to get hip to that. We’re not going to run the interstate highway system and Wal-Mart and Walt Disney World on any combination of ethanol, solar, wind, nuclear or chicken fat. We’re going to have to make other arrangements for daily life, and it’s the one thing we’re not talking about.”
Kunstler has very little faith that we can afford the new technology, let alone old fossil fuel technology. “The ‘whoosh’ that you hear in the background is the sound of capital leaving the system,” he muses. On this, most everyone agrees: Kunstler, Greenberger, Aguirre and Masters all come from diverse backgrounds, but all point out that our financial system seems to be hanging by a thread and that the corrupt regulatory system is mostly to blame.
Given the recent government bailout of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and AIG, the collapse of companies such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and political unrest in the far reaches of the globe, there is always the possibility that the banks prolonged the collapse of our financial system. Skyrocketing oil prices have also highlighted our complete dependence and addiction to oil and brought the debate to the surface in the upcoming presidential election. For better or for worse, people are talking about oil, and not in favorable terms.
When Terreson’s oil price forecast was less than what Richard “Doesn’t-Deal-In-Oil” Berner believed it to be, his career at Morgan Stanley ended abruptly. When Berner predicted $150 oil, the entire world market responded to this claim. Was Terreson tired of shilling for Morgan and thus decided to retire at the tender age of 46? Or was he unceremoniously axed after refusing to alter his forecast on oil prices? Then again, was he part of the game all along and paid handsomely to “ride off in the sunset,” as one co-worker described?
Regardless of the reasons behind Terreson’s departure, there is still the question of motive.
Why drive oil prices beyond practical limits?
Let’s say for a moment that you run Morgan Stanley. Over the past few years you made a couple of bad deals. OK, so it was more than a couple, but not as many as your friends at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Thankfully, you have remarkable control over the price of oil-just by forecasting it. Heck, you don’t even have to “deal in oil” or do interviews “on oil stuff,” you just have to pick a number and watch the market actually try and hit it.
Not to mention you also own companies that operate refineries. You control shipping routes. The government has handed you a contract to store 750,000 barrels of home heating oil for the Northeast United States. You founded and are still an owner in a public exchange that handles energy trades that no one can really see. Win. Win. Win. Win.
It’s not difficult to see how America got here. The worst part is, it was all legal. The federal government, beginning with Wendy and Phil Gramm, cleared the way for tremendous systematic abuse in the financial markets to fatten the Gramm family bank account with blood money-Wendy Gramm’s multimillion-dollar take as an Enron board member and Phil Gramm raking in more than $335,000 in campaign contributions from the securities and investment industries.
Instead of being punished for these now well-documented actions, Wendy Gramm is still influencing Capitol Hill at the Mercatus Center and Phil Gramm has been advising McCain, the man who might be our next president.
People are beginning to contemplate peak oil and imagine that while the world may have flattened out for a while, it’s getting a whole lot rounder again. Kunstler proclaims, “Globalism was a product of a certain time and place and special circumstances, namely, a period of very cheap oil and relative peace between the great powers.” It’s what he calls the “end of the happy motoring era.”
Still, one can’t help but think about how quickly the end of this era may be arriving and for what reason. The “demand shock” that Masters speaks of also created a hunger shock that reverberated around the globe. Perhaps the analysts and speculators were acting to save their own banks in the short run––lest they wind up like Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers.
But it seems awfully easy to manipulate the markets when you control so many pieces of the puzzle. Does saving a bank and focusing our daily discussions on renewable technology really equal thrusting millions of people into poverty and pushing price increases on the global food markets?
Congress has the ability to seize control of these markets even before the upcoming presidential election. The new president will decide whether we drill or not, but this decision has nothing to do with restoring the oversight and stability that existed in the commodities arena from 1936 until 2006. If it weren’t for federal oversight and regulation, Morgan Stanley-which was created in 1935 from the ashes of the 1929 crash-wouldn’t even exist. But history is often forgotten, or ignored, by greedy corporate raiders who are therefore destined to repeat it.
How They Roll
Energias de Portugal (EDP) is the national energy producer for Portugal. For insight into how Morgan Stanley conducts its investments on the open market, the following are excerpts from a release by EDP announcing the sale of stock to Morgan Stanley subsidiaries. We have highlighted the different corporations, in case you lose track. See if you can follow along:
• “On April 21, 2008, Morgan Stanley notified EDP that as a result of a share transaction concluded on the 16th of April 2008 and in accordance with article 20 of the Portuguese Securities Market Code, it became [sic] to hold 79,157,462 ordinary shares of EDP, which represent 2.16% of EDP share capital and 2.16% of the voting rights and 16,745,810 convertible bonds into EDP shares, which represent .46% of the EDP share capital and an imputation of .46% of the voting rights.”
OK. Fairly straightforward. How did they do it? Take a deep breath and read the following sentence out loud.
• Morgan Stanley & Co. International – which is owned by Morgan Stanley UK Group, which is owned by Morgan Stanley Group (Europe), and this is owned by Morgan Stanley International Limited, that is owned by Morgan Stanley International Holding Inc that is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 68,334,088 ordinary shares of EDP, which represent 1.86% of EDP share and capital and 1.86% of the voting rights and 16,745,810 convertible bonds into EDP shares, which represent .46% of EDP share capital and an imputation of .46% of the voting rights;
But wait, there’s more…
• Morgan Stanley & Co. Incorporated – which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 9,485,622 shares representing .25% of the share capital and .25% of the voting rights;
• MSDW Equity Finance Services I (Cayman) Ltd – which is owned by MSDW Offshore Equity Services, which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 1,000,000 shares corresponding to .02% of the share capital and .02% of the voting rights;
• Morgan Stanley Capital (Luxemborg) S.A. – Which is owned by Morgan Stanley International Holdings Inc, which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 316,552 shares representing .00% of the share capital and 0.00% of the voting rights;
• Bank Morgan Stanley AG (Zurich) – which is owned by MSDW Equity Finance Services I, which is owned by MSDW Offshore Equity Services, which is owned by Morgan Stanley – holds 21,200 shares corresponding to 0.00% of the share capital and 0.00% of the voting rights.