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Did Markets Know Obama Was Going to Tap Oil Reserve?

Tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was supposed to lower oil prices but instead has only raised questions about market manipulation.

The price of US crude actually is higher now than when the Department of Energy and International Energy Agency made the controversial move on June 23 to hit up the SPR in an effort to ease the gasoline burden on consumers and goose the economy.

At the time, critics blasted the move because oil prices already had fallen considerably – more than 16 percent in just two weeks’ time, in fact.

In retrospect, the price move is starting to look fishy to some traders.

Dennis Gartman, a hedge fund manager and author of the widely followed “Gartman Letter,” constructs a timeline of how the oil release came to be and the trading action surrounding it.

He notes the most recent peak of oil on May 2, discussions with Gulf oil ministers on May 5 as the price started to decline, and the ultimate announcement seven weeks later, when oil was around its near-term bottom.

The price drop leading into the SPR release indicates that the market may have been anticipating the move and selling oil accordingly.

“When presented this information in this simple but elegant format, how can we not believe that someone in a position of some authority did indeed know what was in the works regarding the SPR?” Gartman wrote.

“May 2nd was an outside reversal to the downside, marking the very top…the very absolute top in the crude oil market,” he said, referring to the trading pattern in which a high and low price on a particular day exceed those of the previous session. “It was followed by a massive, violent $9/barrel collapse on the very day that the Saudis were apparently being told of the decision to sell crude from the SPR!

“We are not conspiratorialists here at TGL, but certainly this is worthy of investigation.”

For the record, officials at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority would neither confirm nor deny any such probes.

But Gartman apparently is not alone in his suspicions.

He cites Ross Clark, an advisor at CIBC Wood Gundy in Vancouver, who also questions the oil trading.

“Call me a cynic,” Clark writes, “but there appears to have definitely been money made on inside information. As a rule of thumb, some of the best opportunities occur by trading opposite the headline news once prices stabilize.”

Oil has traded in a fairly tight range over the past three weeks but is clear of the $94.40 opening level the day of the SPR announcement. Gasoline, meanwhile, has fallen about 20 cents a gallon over the past month about are down about 35 cents a gallon from the early-May oil price peak.

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