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by Abid Aslam

Bush Could Lower Gas Prices Tomorrow - But Won't

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- U.S. regulators are pressing charges against a global trading firm they accuse of manipulating the oil market, in a move that dovetails with heightened political agitation over rising energy and food prices.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) on Thursday charged Netherlands-based Optiver Holding BV, two of its subsidiaries, and three employees with manipulation and attempted manipulation of futures prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX).

The three employees pocketed one million dollars by manipulating futures prices of crude oil, heating oil, and petrol, the CFTC alleged in civil complaint seeking monetary penalties and filed in federal court in New York.

Regulators identified the three employees as Christopher Dowson, head trader at Chicago-based subsidiary Optiver U.S. LLC; Randal Meijer, head of trading and supervisor of the U.S. unit and at the other unit named in the complaint, Netherlands-based Optimer VOF; and Optiver chief executive Bastiaan van Kempen. None could be reached for immediate comment.

The complaint accuses all the defendants of trying to manipulate energy futures contracts 19 times over the course of 11 days in March 2007. On at least five occasions, it adds, they succeeded in "causing artificial prices": They allegedly forced prices lower three times and pushed them up twice.

According to the complaint, the defendants engaged in a manipulative scheme commonly known as "banging" or "marking" the close.

"Banging the close" refers to the practice of acquiring a substantial position leading up to the closing period, followed by offsetting the position before the end of the close of trading for the purpose of attempting to manipulate prices for profit.

The CFTC further accused Optiver and van Kempen of concealing the manipulative scheme and making false statements in response to an inquiry from NYMEX.

"Although this alleged energy trading scheme lasted only several days in March 2007, even short-term distortions of prices will not be tolerated by the Commission," said Walt Lukken, the acting CFTC chairman.

The agency, which is prosecuting a nationwide probe of oil market manipulation, said NYMEX and the UK Financial Services Authority helped to build its latest case.

The action against Optiver comes as Congress weighs a raft of proposals aimed at addressing runaway commodity prices. A number of the bills would bolster the CFTC.

Earlier this year, the agency's commissioners told lawmakers they needed additional staff to keep up with rapid expansion in trading and to enforce new requirements for stronger oversight of electronic and overseas exchanges.

Additionally, proposals before Congress would limit trading and target financial speculators in hopes of reining in runaway energy and food prices.

Legislators are under pressure from voters and from commodity-consuming industries -- airlines and road haulers, among others -- to address commodity prices before taking their summer recess from next month.

Airline executives, in a recent open letter urging consumers to lobby Congress for tighter controls, said that while speculators bought roughly one-fifth of oil futures contracts 20 years ago, today they dominate two-thirds of the futures market.

Speculators sell each other contracts so many times before the oil is delivered and used that they drive up the price of a barrel by 30-60 dollars, the airline bosses said, citing figures used by some economic analysts.

"Consumers pick up the final tab," they added.

Financial services firms, having become lightning rods for the political disquiet, on Wednesday launched a united bid to dissuade legislators from clamping down, saying such action might hurt members of the "baby boomer" generation of people born between 1946 and 1964.

"We understand why increases in energy prices alarm members of Congress," the newly formed Coalition to Protect Competitive Markets said in a statement. "But restricting the ability of U.S. investors to participate in these global markets will make it harder for American citizens, including millions of baby boomers saving for retirement, to diversify their holdings and offset losses in equity and bond markets."

Members of the group include CME Group Inc. of Chicago; the Commodity Markets Council, Financial Services Roundtable, Futures Industry Association, Managed Funds Association, InterContinental Exchange; International Swaps and Derivatives Association, and NYMEX.

Many analysts agree that speculation influences commodity prices but estimates of the extent and long-term significance of this sway vary considerably.

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Albion Monitor   July 24, 2008   (

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