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The Literary Sofa | with Isabel Costello

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But the best was yet to come. While the collapse of the housing bubble sent most of the financial world fleeing for the exits, or to jail, Goldman boldly doubled down — and almost single-handedly created yet another bubble, one the world still barely knows the firm had anything to do with.

B y the beginning of , the financial world was in turmoil. The credit markets were in crisis, and the mantra that had sustained the fantasy economy throughout the Bush years — the notion that housing prices never go down — was now a fully exploded myth, leaving the Street clamoring for a new bullshit paradigm to sling.

Where to go?

With the public reluctant to put money in anything that felt like a paper investment, the Street quietly moved the casino to the physical-commodities market — stuff you could touch: corn, coffee, cocoa, wheat and, above all, energy commodities, especially oil. But it was all a lie. While the global supply of oil will eventually dry up, the short-term flow has actually been increasing. In the six months before prices spiked, according to the U. Energy Information Administration, the world oil supply rose from Over the same period, world oil demand dropped from Not only was the short-term supply of oil rising, the demand for it was falling — which, in classic economic terms, should have brought prices at the pump down.

So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help — there were other players in the physical commodities market — but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the once-solid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures — agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock.

By , a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed. As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing. The commodities market was designed in large part to help farmers: A grower concerned about future price drops could enter into a contract to sell his corn at a certain price for delivery later on, which made him worry less about building up stores of his crop.

That way, someone was always there to buy from the farmer, even when the market temporarily had no need for his crops. In , however, Congress recognized that there should never be more speculators in the market than real producers and consumers. If that happened, prices would be affected by something other than supply and demand, and price manipulations would ensue. A new law empowered the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — the very same body that would later try and fail to regulate credit swaps — to place limits on speculative trades in commodities. All that changed in when, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the world, a Goldman-owned commodities-trading subsidiary called J.

Aron wrote to the CFTC and made an unusual argument. This was complete and utter crap — the law, remember, was specifically designed to maintain distinctions between people who were buying and selling real tangible stuff and people who were trading in paper alone. In the years that followed, the commission would quietly issue 14 similar exemptions to other companies.

Reminder Successfully Set!

Now Goldman and other banks were free to drive more investors into the commodities markets, enabling speculators to place increasingly big bets. That letter from Goldman more or less directly led to the oil bubble in , when the number of speculators in the market — driven there by fear of the falling dollar and the housing crash — finally overwhelmed the real physical suppliers and consumers.

What is even more amazing is that the letter to Goldman, along with most of the other trading exemptions, was handed out more or less in secret. Last year, a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee just happened to be at a briefing when officials from the CFTC made an offhand reference to the exemptions. You issued a letter? Can I see it? Armed with the semi-secret government exemption, Goldman had become the chief designer of a giant commodities betting parlor.

Its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index — which tracks the prices of 24 major commodities but is overwhelmingly weighted toward oil — became the place where pension funds and insurance companies and other institutional investors could make massive long-term bets on commodity prices. Which was all well and good, except for a couple of things. Complicating matters even further was the fact that Goldman itself was cheerleading with all its might for an increase in oil prices. At the time Goldman was heavily invested in oil through its commodities trading subsidiary, J. Aron; it also owned a stake in a major oil refinery in Kansas, where it warehoused the crude it bought and sold.