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Originally published Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Coming to terms | Oil speculators

A speculator is loosely defined as anyone who invests in something simply to profit off fluctuations in its market value. With oil, speculators buy and sell contracts for oil barrels (to be delivered later) without any intention of using the oil.

A speculator is loosely defined as anyone who invests in something simply to profit off fluctuations in its market value. With oil, speculators buy and sell contracts for oil barrels (to be delivered later) without any intention of using the oil.

The New York Mercantile Exchange is dominated by this kind of trading. Less than 1 percent of all futures trading results in someone actually receiving barrels of oil.

Government economists are suspicious that a 124 percent surge in oil prices earlier this year — during a period of low demand and high supply — was triggered by a flood of money from speculative investments, though they can't say for sure how much this affects energy prices.

Speculators are hardly the faceless poachers that Congress and trade groups make them out to be. The speculator could very well be you. Pension funds, mutual funds and hedge funds are all players in energy commodities. One of those investors is the California Public Employees' Retirement System, providing retirement and health benefits to 1.6 million people.

But it's nearly impossible to say how much speculators affect oil prices because the government doesn't track them very closely.

Investors have been moving huge sums of money into oil and other commodities through over-the-counter trades. These are considered "dark" markets because the Commodity Futures Trading Commission hasn't been empowered to watch them. Anyone can agree to an oil contract on their own without listing it with any market.

The commission is expected to release a report on oil speculation this month.

The Associated Press

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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