The Wall Street Journal has a good editorial today, dispelling some myths surrounding the energy futures market, which seems to be the new scapegoat for high oil prices:
The futures market may be a convenient scapegoat, but it’s simply a price discovery mechanism. Major energy consumers – refiners, airlines – buy and sell these contracts to lock in goods at a future price, as a hedge against volatility. Essentially, they’re guesses about coming oil supply and demand, as well as the rate of inflation. The political theory is that such futures trading is creating a bubble in the spot market (i.e., oil purchased for immediate delivery) beyond oil fundamentals. Thus, $4 gas.
But there’s no inherent reason to “bet” that commodities will go up rather than down. Bet wrong – place all your chips on red, say – and you lose. If a company purchases the future right to buy oil at $140 a barrel and it instead sells for $130, the option is worthless. Besides, somebody has to take the other side of any futures contract: Some are trying to predict where the price will go in the future, while the other side is attempting to sell its future price risk. But no one knows how things will end up.