Yesterday, the price of oil rose to its highest level ever, $115 per barrel. I've been meaning to link to an interesting analysis of the oil price spiral by the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor in which he asks, "Is There an Oil Price Bubble?"
Taylor professes agnosticism on the question of a "bubble," but does cite oil economist Philip Verleger on why money is flowing into commodities right now. According to Taylor:
The best argument against "speculation" in the subsequent price spiral is offered by oil economist Phil Verleger, a fellow I think quite highly of. Verleger believes that, whatever truth there might be to the simple "supply-and-demand" story I offered above, those price increases were greatly exacerbated by a huge move of dollars into commodity futures. That influx of cash was not driven by speculation (classically defined). According to Verleger, it was driven instead by the market recognition of the fact that, historically speaking, (i) commodities provided better returns over long periods of time than provided by equities, and (ii) returns on commodity investments are negatively correlated with returns on equities.
Hence, market actors thought they found an investment vehicle that provided a hedge against volatility in stock markets while also promising excellent long-term returns to boot. Even more interesting for our purposes, however, is the fact that this huge flow of cash into commodity futures (with a very large share of that investment going to oil and gas) came primarily from large institutional investors such as pension funds, university endowments, and the like. Those investments tended to be fully collateralized (that is, institutional investors were not borrowing to invest) and they are buy-and-hold investments for the long term. Neither of those two investment strategies is consistent with the popular vision of what constitutes "speculation."
The most recent Fed actions to combat the deteriorating state of the macroeconomy added even more fuel to the oil price fire. With market actors increasingly convinced that the Fed is willing to entertain inflation in the course of injecting liquidity into the market, investors are looking for investments to hedge against inflation. And what do you know? Returns on commodities have historically been better during inflationary periods than during non-inflationary periods. Ben Bernanke thus sent another strong infusion of cash into commodity futures – again, largely into oil and gas futures.
The increased demand for oil futures drives spot prices because it diverts oil from immediate use into inventories. The stepped-up infusion of oil into public inventories (the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the emerging state inventory maintained by the Chinese government, for instance) has also contributed to the diversion of oil from immediate use and thus, has further increased prices. Federal mandates for low-sulfur fuel hasn't helped either.
For what it's worth, Verleger does not believe that this infusion of cash into oil futures is sustainable. Returns have been modest and there are simply not enough profits available to support these investments over the long haul. "Speculators" – classically understood – have reacted and will continue to react by leaving the market when returns prove disappointing.
Verleger goes so far as to put the "bubble" tag on oil markets, but again, he does not attribute that bubble to simple speculation. Nevertheless, he predicts a (big-time) crash, but does not predict when that crash will occur. I am less certain about the "bubble" tag (see my introductory paragraph), but I wouldn't bet against it. I think Verleger's narrative regarding the root causes of the oil price boom is better than any other I've run across.