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Goldman Sachs Says Bless The Energy Speculators (Like Us)

Wednesday, 7 May 2008 | 4:19 PM ET

This post is from CNBC.com features writer Ken Stier.

Energy speculators are getting a bum rap. Instead of condemning them, they ought to be blessed, as impartial messengers of a greener future.

That’s one key message in Goldman Sachs’s widely cited ‘Super Spike’ report issuedTuesday about oil prices very likely ramping to $150-200 per barrel, possibly by the time of the presidential elections.

Taking aim at a “fundamental misperception” (even within the oil industry) about “so-called speculators” driving oil prices to “supposedly unjustified levels,” GS report says the truth is really quite the contrary.

They are really helping to “solve the energy crisis by speeding up the process of incentivizing higher capital spending” on alternative energy projects. Fair enough.

But speculators also perform their handiwork by driving down demand through these higher prices. In fact the report, in an underplayed clause, predicts there is a “sharp correction in oil demand” coming. That correction--and here you can read pain--will be particularly pronounced in the U.S., where consumption is heavily weighted in the transportation sector, where there are no commercially significant alternatives.

Another reason the correction will crash here is because much of non-OCED demand is “price insulated.” That means governments, such as China, are willing to absorb the rising costs of maintaining highly subsidized fuel prices.

Government’s cutting back on these subsidizes risk civil unrest, although this did not stop Indonesia from recently deciding they had no choice.

In the US, higher energy prices are already rationing demand, which declined one percent last year. That’s why US refiners are already cutting back on their production runs. If prevailing trends continue this demand will have to drop significantly more.

That’s the beneficent message speculators’ higher prices are bringing. But you have to wonder where this reduction is going to come from; just how much of our driving is really discretionary.

“In our view, supporters of a cleaner environment should be supportive of commodity investors” [sometimes, a.k.a., speculators], opines the report. That’s fine. But supporters also consume of oil and oil-related products, which are all more expensive.

And while some of that money is going into alternative energy investment, they are also providing handsome profits for speculators. This is especially true for the large trading houses which execute volume energy trades for big market players, while also managing proprietary trading on their own account. That’s a sweet business, which some liken to shooting fish in a barrel.

So while market prices are surely pointing the way to different energy future--and we will all pay the price for that transition--some of us, along the way, are benefiting more than others. But then, there’s nothing really new about that.

Questions? Comments? energysource@cnbc.com