CFTC takes a mulligan on oil speculator numbers

August 5, 2008

frustrated tiger woodsThe Commodity Futures Trading Commission has quietly bumped up the proportion of oil futures it thinks are held by speculators after going over its data. The agency now thinks speculators held 48 percent of oil futures and options -not 38 percent as it previously thought.

The CFTC is not providing much information about the revision, saying only it followed consultations with the futures industry.

The revision could be a little embarrassing for the agency as its position data forms a big part of its argument that oil speculators are not responsible for this year’s dramatic rally to a record over $147 a barrel last month.

Oil analysts noted the CFTC’s move was done rather quietly after a July 18 announcement. By contrast, the agency has trumpeted its recent enforcement actions in no fewer than six press releases this month.

The timing of the revision appears to coincide with the collapse of SemGroup LP, a midstream energy company that racked up $2.4 billion in losses on NYMEX futures and another $850 million in over-the-counter markets.

Oil traders think the huge losses incurred by SemGroup are a likely sign the firm was engaging in “hedgulation” -speculative bets based on its normal hedging activity.  One of SemGroup’s lenders said in a court filing last week that the company’s advisers had admitted that unauthorized speculative oil trading sank the company.

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