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Is EVERY Market Rigged?


CNN reports:

The European Commission raided the offices of Shell, BP and Norway’s Statoil  as part of an investigation into suspected attempts to manipulate global oil prices spanning more than a decade.

None of the companies have been accused of wrongdoing, but the controversy has brought back memories of the Libor rate-rigging scandal that rocked the financial world last year.

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A review ordered by the British government last year in the wake of the Libor revelations cited “clear” parallels between the work of the oil-price-reporting agencies and Libor.

“[T]hey are both widely used benchmarks that are compiled by private organizations and that are subject to minimal regulation and oversight by regulatory authorities,” the review, led by former financial regulator Martin Wheatley, said in August . “To that extent they are also likely to be vulnerable to similar issues with regards to the motivation and opportunity for manipulation and distortion.”

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In a report issued in October, the International Organization of Securities Commissions — an association of regulators — said the ability “to selectively report data on a voluntary basis creates an opportunity for manipulating the commodity market data” submitted to Platts and its competitors.

Responding to questions from IOSCO last year, French oil giant Total said the price-reporting agencies, or PRAs, sometimes “do not assure an accurate representation of the market and consequently deform the real price levels paid at every level of the price chain, including by the consumer.” But Total called Platts and its competitors “generally… conscientious and professional.”

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“Even small distortions of assessed prices may have a huge impact on the prices of crude oil, refined oil products and biofuels purchases and sales, potentially harming final consumers,” the European Commission said this week.

USA Today notes:

The Commission … said, however, that its probe covers a wide range of oil products — crude oil, biofuels, and refined oil products, which include gasoline, heating oil, petrochemicals and others.

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The EU said it has concerns that some companies may have tried to manipulate the pricing process by colluding to report distorted prices and by preventing other companies from submitting their own prices.

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Unlike oil futures, which set prices for contracts, the data used in the MOC process is based on the physical sale and purchase of actual shipments of oil and oil products.

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According to Statoil, the EU investigation stretches back to 2002, which is when Platts launched its MOC price system in Europe. The suspicion is that some companies may have provided inaccurate information to Platts to affect the oil products’ pricing, presumably for financial gain.

Fox points out:

At issue is whether there was collusion to distort prices of crude, refined oil products and ethanol traded during Platts’ market-on-close (MOC) system – a daily half-hour “window” in which it sets prices.

But the European Commission also is examining whether companies were prevented from taking part in the price assessment process.

The Guardian writes:

The commission said the alleged price collusion, which may have been going on since 2002, could have had a “huge impact” on the price of petrol at the pumps “potentially harming final consumers”.

Lord Oakeshott, former Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said the alleged rigging of oil prices was “as serious as rigging Libor” – which led to banks being fined hundreds of millions of pounds.

He demanded to know why the UK authorities had not taken action earlier and said he would ask questions of the British regulator in Parliament. “Why have we had to wait for Brussels to find out if British oil giants are ripping off British consumers?” he said. “The price of energy ripples right through our economy and really matters to every business and families.”

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Shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint said: “These are very concerning reports, which if true, suggest shocking behaviour in the oil market that should be dealt with strongly.

“When the allegations of price fixing in the gas market were made, Labour warned that opaque over-the-counter deals and relying on price reporting agencies left the market vulnerable to abuse.

“These latest allegations of price fixing in the oil market raise very similar questions. Consumers need to know that the prices they pay for their energy or petrol are fair, transparent and not being manipulated by traders.”

Shadow financial secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said: “If oil price fixing has taken place it would be a shocking scandal for our financial markets.

The Telegraph reports:

“97 per cent of all we eat, drink, wear or build has spent some time in a diesel lorry,” said a spokesman for FairFuel UK, the lobbyists. “If it is proved, they have been gambling with the very oxygen of our economy.”

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Platts – to determine the benchmark price – examines just trades in the final 30 minutes of the trading day. A group of half a dozen analysts gather round a trading screen and decide on the final price. As with much that goes on in the City, it is a surprisingly old-fashioned method, reliant on gentlemanly conduct. Critics say it leaves the market open to abuse, and the price can suddenly spike or fall in the final minutes of the day.

The New York Times notes of agencies like Platt and Argus Media:

Their influence is extensive. Total, the French oil giant, estimated last year that 75 to 80 percent of crude oil and refined product transactions were linked to the prices published by such agencies.

The Observer writes that manipulation of the oil markets has long been an open secret:

Robert Campbell, a former price reporter at another PRA, Argus – he is now a staffer at Thomson Reuters, which also competes with Platts and others on providing energy news and data – said this a few days ago in a little-noticed commentary: “The vulnerability of physical crude price assessments to manipulation is an open secret within the oil industry. The surprise is that it took regulators so long to open a formal probe.”

Reuters points out that the probe may be expanding to the U.S.:

In Washington, the chairman of the Senate energy committee asked the Justice Department to investigate whether alleged price manipulation has boosted fuel prices for U.S. consumers.

“Efforts to manipulate the European oil indices, if proven, may have already impacted U.S. consumers and businesses, because of the interrelationships among world oil markets and hedging practices,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Wyden also asked Justice to investigate whether oil market manipulation was taking place in the United States.

Not only are petroleum products a multi-trillion dollar market on their own, but manipulation of petroleum prices would effect virtually every market in the world.

For example, the Cato Institute notes how many industries use oil:

U.S. industries use petroleum to produce the synthetic fiber used in textile mills making carpeting and fabric from polyester and nylon. U.S. tire plants use petroleum to make synthetic rubber. Other U.S. industries use petroleum to produce plastic, drugs, detergent, deodorant, fertilizer, pesticides, paint, eyeglasses, heart valves, crayons, bubble gum and Vaseline.

The India Times explains that:

The price variation in crude oil impacts the sentiments and hence the volatility in stock markets all over the world. The rise in crude oil prices is not good for the global economy. Price rise in crude oil virtually impacts industries and businesses across the board. Higher crude oil prices mean higher energy prices, which can cause a ripple effect on virtually all business aspects that are dependent on energy (directly or indirectly).

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco points out:

When gasoline prices increase, a larger share of households’ budgets is likely to be spent on it, which leaves less to spend on other goods and services. The same goes for businesses whose goods must be shipped from place to place or that use fuel as a major input (such as the airline industry). Higher oil prices tend to make production more expensive for businesses, just as they make it more expensive for households to do the things they normally do.

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Oil price increases are generally thought to increase inflation and reduce economic growth.

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Oil prices indirectly affect costs such as transportation, manufacturing, and heating. The increase in these costs can in turn affect the prices of a variety of goods and services, as producers may pass production costs on to consumers.

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Oil price increases can also stifle the growth of the economy through their effect on the supply and demand for goods other than oil. Increases in oil prices can depress the supply of other goods because they increase the costs of producing them. In economics terminology, high oil prices can shift up the supply curve for the goods and services for which oil is an input.

High oil prices also can reduce demand for other goods because they reduce wealth, as well as induce uncertainty about the future (Sill 2007). One way to analyze the effects of higher oil prices is to think about the higher prices as a tax on consumers (Fernald and Trehan 2005).

The Post Carbon Institute notes (via OilPrice.com) that high oil prices raise food prices as well:

The connection between food and oil is systemic, and the prices of both food and fuel have risen and fallen more or less in tandem in recent years (figure 1). Modern agriculture uses oil products to fuel farm machinery, to transport other inputs to the farm, and to transport farm output to the ultimate consumer. Oil is often also used as input in agricultural chemicals. Oil price increases therefore put pressure on all these aspects of commercial food systems

Figure 1: Evolution of food and fuel prices, 2000 to 2009
Sources: US Energy Information Administration and FAO.

Economists Nouriel Roubini and Setser note that all recessions after 1973 were associated with oil shocks.

Interest Rates Are Manipulated

Unless you live under a rock, you know about the Libor scandal.

For those just now emerging from a coma, here’s a recap:

The big banks have conspired for years to rig interest rates … upon which $800 trillion in assets are pegged

This was the largest insider trading scandal ever … and the largest financial scam in world history

Local governments got ripped off bigtime by the Libor manipulation

Libor is still being manipulated

Derivatives Are Manipulated

The big banks have long manipulated derivatives … a $1,200 Trillion Dollar market.

Indeed, many trillions of dollars of derivatives are being manipulated in the exact same same way that interest rates are fixed: through gamed self-reporting.

Gold and Silver Are Manipulated

The Guardian and Telegraph report that gold and silver prices are “fixed” in the same way as interest rates and derivatives – in daily conference calls by the powers-that-be.

Everything Can Be Manipulated through High-Frequency Trading

Traders with high-tech computers can manipulate stocks,  bonds, options, currencies and commodities. And see this.

Manipulating Numerous Markets In Myriad Ways

The big banks and other giants manipulate numerous markets in myriad ways, for example:

Engaging in mafia-style big-rigging fraud against local governments. See this, this and this

Shaving money off of virtually every pension transaction they handled over the course of decades, stealing collectively billions of dollars from pensions worldwide. Details here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

Charging “storage fees” to store gold bullion … without even buying or storing any gold . And raiding allocated gold accounts

Committing massive and pervasive fraud both when they initiated mortgage loans and when they foreclosed on them (and see this)

Pledging the same mortgage multiple times to different buyers.  See this, this, this, this and this.  This would be like selling your car, and collecting money from 10 different buyers for the same car

Cheating homeowners by gaming laws meant to protect people from unfair foreclosure

Pushing investments which they knew were terrible, and then betting against the same investments to make money for themselves. See this, this, this, this and this

Engaging in unlawful “frontrunning” to manipulate markets. See this, this, this, this, this and this

Engaging in unlawful “Wash Trades” to manipulate asset prices. See this, this and this

Otherwise manipulating markets. And see this

Participating in various Ponzi schemes. See this, this and this

Charging veterans unlawful mortgage fees

Cooking their books (and see this)

Bribing and bullying ratings agencies to inflate ratings on their risky investments

via Is EVERY Market Rigged? | Washington’s Blog.

Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme: The Internet currency will collapse.


Bitcoin is a fantasy. The Internet’s currency—a secure, private, decentralized type of money that makes possible anonymous and virtually costless transactions across borders—contains the seeds of its own destruction. More than anything else, it resembles a Ponzi scheme—and the wild claims made on its behalf reveal a great deal about a libertarian strain of thinking with deep roots in the American psyche.

As Farhad Manjoo relates in his entertaining (but dubious) foray into the market, bitcoin is the brainchild of a person (or persons) called Satoshi Nakamoto. Computer users can “mine” bitcoins by instructing their computers to solve complex problems generated by the bitcoin network. As more bitcoins are produced, the problems become more complex, requiring more computer power to solve them, and this limits the total number of bitcoins that can be created over time. Bitcoins are themselves simply strings of numbers. Once you own a bitcoin, you can transfer it to someone else (as a gift or to purchase goods) over the Internet. You can also convert it into dollars or other currencies on various exchanges. A central registry keeps track of where the bitcoins are located, so you cannot spend a single bitcoin over again by trying to transmit the identical code.

The currency was launched in 2009. It has traded for less than 1 cent. As recently as a year ago, a bitcoin was worth less than $5; this week the price of a bitcoin reached $266, an increase of more than 1,000 percent over the last three months, but then yesterday plunged to $105 before finishing off at $165 last I looked. More than 11 million bitcoins circulate, and so their aggregate value is fluctuating between $1 and $2 billion—a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars in currency but not bad for the infant brainchild of an anonymous brain.

Bitcoin may be useful for certain types of transactions, especially illegal ones. But bitcoin’s defenders argue that the experiment has proved that a currency can come into existence and function without any government role, so designed as to make inflation impossible and bank transfer fees unnecessary. These features are supposed to make bitcoins irresistible for consumers. Meanwhile, stripped of the power to manipulate currencies to advance nefarious ends, governments will collapse, and we will live in an anarcho-utopia.

This is wrong, both theory and experience tell us. Bitcoin is not the first unregulated or private currency. Until central banks were invented in the 17th century, the money supply was unregulated even if governments did stamp coins. Other unregulated or private currencies have emerged from time to time—think of cigarettes in prison camps. Gold, silver, bank notes, and all kinds of other things have played similar roles. Paul Krugman wrote a famous Slate piece about a private currency that was invented to facilitate the exchange of services in a baby-sitting co-op.

Felix Salmon and many others have pointed out that a currency cannot succeed with a supply that is fixed, or if it grows too slowly. A currency is used to enter transactions; the more transactions there are, the more of the money you need. As the economy grows, a fixed-supply currency becomes worth more in terms of goods and services, and people begin to hoard it—expecting that if they wait a little longer, they will be able to buy more. Once hoarding takes over, circulation ends, and with it the function of the currency. Hoarding accounts for the large increase in the value of bitcoins; hoarding also sank Krugman’s baby-sitting scrip.

An even more fundamental problem with bitcoins, and indeed any private currency, is that there is no way to limit its supply. True, bitcoins cannot be manufactured beyond the limits set by Nakamoto. But there is no way to prevent future Nakamotos from creating bitcoin substitutes—say, bytecoin, or botcoin. If merchants are willing to accept bitcoins, they will be willing to accept the substitutes, especially as bitcoins become scarce and consumers scramble for substitutes. Nakamoto must have realized this because there are not enough bitcoins to substitute for the currencies around the world. The currency can only succeed if it is expanded or supplemented. But if there are no constraints on substitute digital currencies—and there aren’t—then the value of bitcoins will plummet as the subs begin to circulate. And once it becomes clear that there is no limit, people will realize that their holdings could become worthless at any moment, and demand for bitcoins and the other currencies will collapse, ending the experiment.

Unless a bitcoin has value as a currency, it has no value at all, and its price in dollars will fall to zero. A regular Ponzi scheme collapses when people realize that earlier investors are being paid out of the investments of later investors rather than from the returns on an underlying asset. Bitcoin will collapse when people realize that it can’t survive as a currency because of its built-in deflationary features, or because of the emergence of bytecoins, or both. A real Ponzi scheme takes fraud; bitcoin, by contrast, seems more like a collective delusion.

Given this, why all the enthusiasm for bitcoin? Partly, the technological ingenuity of the scheme, of course. And people have misinterpreted the run-up in price as a sign of success rather than failure. But more fundamentally, bitcoin unites futuristic left-wing Internet anarchism—the fantasy that the Web can provide the conditions for a governmentless society—with the cave-dwelling right-wing libertarianism of goldbugs who think a stable money supply can be established without government involvement. It is proof for both that government is not needed for much, or at all.

Yet history shows that private currencies always end in tears; if central banks sometimes abuse the trust we place in them, the alternatives are worse. The strangest feature of the bitcoin saga is that people who are so suspicious of government put their trust in Satoshi Nakamoto, who could be anyone, or anyones—eccentric academic researchers, mischievous Fed economists, DARPA, U.N. globalizers in black helicopters, a criminal syndicate, a bored 11-year-old Ukrainian genius. If Nakamoto is as amoral as he is ingenious, then he pocketed the early bitcoins and laughed himself to the bank.

via Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme: The Internet currency will collapse. – Slate Magazine.

via Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme: The Internet currency will collapse. – Slate Magazine.

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