Crude oil price should reflect a simple supply-demand equation, but it rarely does in the world of oil index funds, ETFs and loose foresight. Add to the mix an uncertain geopolitical climate and what you get is extreme market volatility. Especially since 2005, there have been record highs, followed by record lows and then yet another spike. Even at times of ample surpluses at Cushing (Oklahoma) - the US hub of criss-crossing pipelines - sometimes the WTI ticker is still seen trading at a premium defying conventional trading wisdom. The cause, according to Dan Dicker, author of the book Oil’s Endless Bid, is the rampant "assetization" of oil.
The author, a man with more than 20 years of experience on the NYMEX floor, attributes this to an influx of "dumb money" in to the oil markets. Apart from introducing and taking oil price volatility straight to the consumers' wallets, this influx has triggered a global endless bid for energy security. Via a book of just under 340 pages split by three parts containing 11 chapters, their epilogue and two useful appendices, Dicker offers his take on the state of crude affairs.
While largely authored from an American standpoint, Dicker throws up some unassailable truths of global relevance. Principal among them is the fact that visible changes that have taken place in the oil markets over the past 20 years. Go back a few decades, and everyone can recollect the connection between price volatility and its association with a major economic or geopolitical crisis (economic woes, Gulf War I, OPEC embargo, etc.)
Presently, there is near perennial volatility as the trading climate and instruments of trade available place an incessant upward pressure on black gold. Reading Dicker's thoughts one is inclined to believe that at no point in history was the phrase "black gold" more appropriate to describe the crude stuff than it is now; particularly in the last six years, as investment banks, energy hedge funds and managed futures funds have come to dominate energy trading and wreak havoc on prices.
In his introduction to the book, Dicker makes a bold claim - that we've lost control of our oil markets and it has become the biggest financial story of the decade. When the Oilholic began reading it, he was sceptical of the author's claim, but by the time he reached the ninth chapter the overriding sentiment was that Dicker has a point - a huge one, articulated well and discussed in the right spirit.
Ask anyone, even a lay man, a non-technical question about why the price of oil is so high - the answer is bound be China and India's hunger for oil. A more technical person might attribute it to the US Dollar's weakening and perhaps investors playing with the commodities market as the equities markets take a hit.
But are these reasons enough to explain what caused prices to soar 600% from 2003 to 2008, only to take a massive dip and soar again over the next couple of years? Something is fundamentally wrong here according to the author and the latter half of his book is dedicated to discussing what it might mean and where are we heading.
Whether you agree or disagree is a matter of personal opinion, but the author's take on what broke the oil markets, and how can they be fixed before they drag us all down into an economic black hole, strikes a chord. He also uses part of the narrative to reflect on his life as a trader before and after passage of the US Commodities Futures Modernization Act opened up the oil markets to a flood of "dumb money."
Sadly, as Dicker notes, the biggest victim of oil markets frenzy is the average consumer, who pays the price at the pump, and in the inflated costs of everything - from food and clothing to electric power and even lifesaving medications. The Oilholic is happy to recommend this book to those interested in crude oil markets, the energy business, US crude trading dynamic, petroleum economics or are just plainly intrigued about why getting a full tank of petrol has suddenly lost the element of predictability in the last half decade or so.
© Gaurav Sharma 2011. Photo: Cover of ‘Oil’s Endless Bid’ © Wiley Publishers, USA 2011.