US oil probes focusing on price manipulation: report

New York | Updated: May 31 2008, 06:51am hrs
A U.S. regulatory probe into potential oil-market trading abuses is focusing on possible short-term manipulation of benchmark crude prices and the use of information related to important oil storage tanks to influence prices, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

The report comes a day after the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, under pressure from U.S. lawmakers to crack down on speculators they blame for pushing energy prices to record highs, said it would step up market surveillance.The CFTC announced a nationwide investigation into energy trading last December, but is in fact pursuing several oil investigations, many of which relate to one another, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with enforcement priorities of the agency.

It has expanded its probe into alleged short-term manipulation of crude-oil prices via a widely used price-reporting system run by Platts, a unit of McGraw-Hill Cos, the newspaper reported.

The probes appear to focus on gambits well known by traders in the opaque physical oil market, where trading a small volume of cash crude or gasoline during a short period when benchmark prices are set can yield big profits on derivatives positions.

Oil traders say that these kind of leveraged trading plays which are generally not illegal were more common prior to the Enron melt-down and the California power trading scandal that triggered increased scrutiny of world energy markets earlier this decade, but rarely had a lasting effect on prices.

However traders and analysts believe that increased investment from pension and other funds into commodities markets is partly responsible for causing prices to quadruple since 2004, with U.S. crude hitting a record high of $135.09 a barrel last week after rising by more than 40 percent this year alone.The Journal quoted CFTC enforcement chief Gregory Mocek as saying the agency has about 60 manipulation investigations open in various commodity markets.On Thursday the CFTC said it would expand its oversight of energy trading by tracking index funds, and had reached an agreement with the U.K.s Financial Services Authority and ICE Futures Europe to share information.

One suspicion, the newspaper said, is that energy companies and traders have at times issued a flood of orders during the trading window used by Platts to determine its reported prices for physical oil transactions, then used the potentially distorted prices to make profits in other markets.

According to the Journal, Platts has said its system has safeguards to protect against manipulation. Subpoenas on the matter have gone out in several stages, the report cited people familiar with the cases as saying.

A Platts spokesman was not immediately available to comment.

The Journal cited people familiar with the matter as saying the agency has also been questioning traders about similar activity in the jet-fuel market.

Another area of concern for CFTC regulators is whether the owners of crude-oil storage tanks use their knowledge to make bets on oil-futures markets.