Think Progress: How Koch Became An Oil Speculation Powerhouse

From Inventing Oil Derivatives To Deregulating The Market

-By Lee Fang

June 6, 2011- In April, ThinkProgress caused a stir when we uncovered a series of Koch Industries corporate documents revealing the company’s role as an oil speculator. Like many oil companies, Koch uses legitimate hedging products to create price stability. However, the documents reveal that Koch is also participating in the unregulated derivatives markets as a financial player, buying and selling speculative products that are increasingly contributing to the skyrocketing price of oil. Excessive energy speculation today is at its highest levels ever, and even Goldman Sachs now admits that at least $27 of the price of crude oil is a result from reckless speculation rather than market fundamentals of supply and demand. Many experts interviewed by ThinkProgress argue that the figure is far higher, and out of control speculation has doubled the current price of crude oil.

Reached for information about its trading division, Koch Industries — America’s second largest private company — declined our request for comment.

Writing on his political blog, an attorney working for Koch’s law firm angrily replied to our initial investigation by claiming that Koch is solely a bonafide hedger, meaning that it only participates in speculative markets to reduce risk for the oil the company refines (he also bizarrely argued that speculation has no relation to the price of oil). The spin obscures reality: much of Koch’s oil trading business is actually akin to a hedge fund, buying and selling financial products based on oil with little interest in the actual delivery of the product. In fact, Koch pioneered the risky speculation industry that dominates the world’s oil markets today, first by inventing oil derivatives back in the ’80s, then by working to kill off regulations. ThinkProgress has delved into the history of Koch’s oil speculation business and the following timeline spells out Koch’s leading role:

– October 6, 1986: First oil derivative is introduced to Wall Street by traders at Koch. Koch Industries executive Lawrence Kitchen devised the “first ever oil-indexed price swap between Koch Industries and Chase Manhattan Bank.” At the time, such derivatives had been limited to currency markets, and the shift of creating a synthetic financial instrument based on the value of crude oil was revolutionary. For an agreed-upon period, an oil swap is a contract where one party makes payments based on a fixed oil price, and the other party makes payments back based on the changing spot price of oil. In July of 2009, EnergyRisk magazine, a publication for commodity traders, posted a piece exploring the very first oil derivatives and Koch’s role in developing them.

– 1990-1992: Koch, along with several oil companies and Wall Street speculators, form a coalition lobbying group to deregulate oil speculation. A coalition called “The Energy Group” is organized to press the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to allow oil derivatives to be traded off the NYMEX or any other regulated exchange. Participants in the coalition include Koch, Enron, Phibro (a powerful commodity speculator firm recently sold from Citigroup to Occidental Petroleum), J. Aron & Co (a commodity trading division of Goldman Sachs), BP, and other companies.

– January 21, 1993. Wendy Gramm makes first major move to deregulate oil speculation. “On the final day of the [George H.W.] Bush administration, January 21, 1993, [CFTC chairwoman] Wendy Gramm … approved the rule exempting key energy futures contracts from government regulation and returned a great chunk of the energy market to the grand old days of unregulated futures trading,” writes author Antonia Juhasz in the book Tyranny of Oil. The move mirrored the demands made by Koch’s lobbying coalition, The Energy Group. Gramm, the wife of then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX), leaves the Commodity Futues Trading Commission and a month later joins the board of directors of Enron.


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