The top six financial institutions in this country own assets equal to more than 60 percent of our gross domestic product and possess enormous economic and political power. One of the great questions of our time is whether the American people, through Congress, will control the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street, or whether Wall Street will continue to wreak havoc on our economy and the lives of working families.
I represent Vermont, a rural state where many workers drive long distances to jobs that pay $12 an hour or less. Many seniors living on fixed incomes heat their homes with oil during our cold winters. These people have asked me to do all that I can to lower outrageously high gasoline and heating-oil prices. I intend to do just that.
Why have oil prices spiked wildly? Some argue that the volatility is a result of supply-and-demand fundamentals. More and more observers, however, believe that excessive speculation in the oil futures market by investors is driving oil prices sky high.
A June 2 article in the Wall Street Journal said it all: "Wall Street is tapping a real gusher in 2011, as heightened volatility and higher prices of oil and other raw materials boost banks' profits." ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson, testifying before a Senate panel this year, said that excessive speculation may have increased oil prices by as much as 40 percent. Delta Air Lines general counsel Richard Hirst wrote to federal regulators in December that "the speculative bubble in oil prices has concrete detrimental consequences for the real economy." An American Trucking Association vice president, Richard Moskowitz, said, "Excessive speculation has caused dramatic increases in the price of crude oil, which harms end-users like America's trucking industry."
After I released records last month that documented the role of speculators, I was criticized on this page last week by two former members of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. I put the information on my Web site for three reasons.
First, the American people have a right to know why oil prices are artificially high. The CFTC report proved that when oil prices climbed in 2008 to more than $140 a barrel, Wall Street speculators dominated the oil futures market. Goldman Sachs alone bought and sold more than 860 million barrels of oil in the summer of 2008 with no intention of using a drop for any purpose other than to make a quick buck.
Wall Street, of course, wants to hide this information. They don't want the American people to know the extent to which speculators keep oil prices artificially high and the great damage that does to our economy. After the information became public, it was suggested that some on Wall Street may stop trading in the oil futures market. Good!
Second, Congress recognized last year that excessive oil speculation must end. The Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation required the CFTC to eliminate, prevent or diminish excessive oil speculation by Jan. 17, 2011. Months after that deadline, the commission still has failed to enforce the law, and speculators still are making out like bandits.
Third, the commodity regulators' claim that they cannot end excessive oil speculation because they lack sufficient data is nonsense. As the information I released makes clear, the commission has been collecting this information for more than three years. The time for studying is over. It is time for action.
I agree with former commissioners James E. Newsome and Fred Hatfield in one respect. Trust in government is at an all-time low. That's not because Washington is too heavy-handed with Wall Street. Quite the contrary! The American people are angry and disillusioned because they see our government act boldly to protect Wall Street CEOs but not ordinary Americans. When Wall Street needed a $700 billion bailout, the government was there for them. When working families need an end to excessive oil speculation and real relief at the gas pump, the government has failed to act.
The same Dodd-Frank bill that required commodity regulators to limit speculators included my amendment calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve from Dec. 1, 2007, to July 21, 2010, the period of the financial crisis. What we learned was that the Fed provided $16 trillion in secret, low-interest loans to every major American financial institution and to other central banks, large corporations and wealthy individuals. The audit provision was vigorously opposed by the Federal Reserve chairman. It was right, however, that the veil of secrecy at the Fed was lifted and the American people learned about its actions.
Now it is appropriate to lift the veil of secrecy in the oil futures market. The American people have a right to know how much excessive speculation has driven up oil prices and which Wall Street firms are doing it.
The writer is an independent senator from Vermont.