Watchdogs clash over blame for oil price spikes

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Financial regulators on either side of the Atlantic are set to clash over the role of futures traders in major swings in the oil price as the US commodities watchdog gets ready to clamp down on "excessive speculation".

In some quarters, both last year's ballooning $147 (£90) per barrel high, and June's eight-month high of more than $70, are blamed on traders speculating in the futures markets.

The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission held the first of three open hearings on the issue yesterday, has another scheduled for today, and is expected to report next month with reforming measures. Possibilities include limits on investments in energy products and an increased reporting requirement on hedge funds.

Gary Gensler, the chairman of the CFTC in Washington, said: "The CFTC is directed by statute and provided with broad authorities to ensure the fair, open and efficient functioning of futures markets. Our hearings will be critical as we look into different approaches to regulate energy markets."

But on this side of the pond, the Financial Services Authority has so far shown little appetite to follow suit. At an appearance in front of the Treasury Select Committee last year, the regulator said there was no evidence of speculation driving up oil prices. And the stance remains the same.

Although the FSA has no direct role regulating commodities markets, its jurisdiction does include oversight of financial instruments such as futures and options that are linked to energy products. As a result, it is in regular contact with a range of market participants including traders, price assessors and major suppliers.

But as yet no evidence of speculative manipulation of the market has come to light. "If that changed we would certainly take a view," a spokeswoman for the FSA said yesterday.