Published May 25, 2011
We report a lot about the fact the stock market is a rigged game -- an uneven playing field -- for small investors without the resources, inside information or deep pockets of the pros.
In the last year alone, high-frequency traders contributed to the volatility that brought the stock market crashing down on May 6 of last year: the Flash Crash.
Obviously, regular investors like you and me don't participate in the sort of technology-driven trading that moves in and out of stocks in a millisecond -- but we did pay the price. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly a thousand points and then snapped back within minutes.
Just last week, some people made a bucket load of money on the initial public offering of a company called LinkedIn, a networking Website for professionals.
The stock price doubled after the IPO from $45 to $100 a share in a single day, but the people who benefitted were more than just company insiders, they were also Wall Street insiders, people who were clients of the big investment banks that brought the deal to market.
They got those IPO shares and profited big time -- not because they had taken any risks starting up a new business, but because they "knew a guy."
But it's not just stocks. When it comes to the price of gas you pay at the pump, oil traders are adamant there is no price manipulation and no speculators moving the market. They also claim their role is positive -- by say allowing airlines to hedge their risk that oil prices will rise. "We're not to blame for higher prices," they say.
But now, after one of the biggest crack-downs ever, the gig is up for some of them. Here's why: U.S. commodities regulators are suing three companies and two traders accused of manipulating crude oil prices.
Regulators claim the defendants who traded oil futures took steps to artificially drive the price up, then back down, reaping more than $50 million in profits.
Here's how they did it: the traders bought large quantities of oil, for which they had no use, only so they could tighten supplies of crude oil at a major facility in Cushing, Oklahoma.
Supply at that facility plays a key role in setting the price for West Texas Intermediate. As prices jumped, the same traders took a short position on oil derivatives.
Then they dumped their oil positions in one day, pushing supplies higher and prices lower to profit from the short sale. Regulators say the scheme took place just as prices were sharply rising in early 2008 - that in turn pushed gas prices to record levels.
I'm not one for conspiracy theories -- heck, I have a hard time getting five friends to coordinate their schedules for dinner -- but this is exactly the kind of scheme that goes on all the time - while the rest of us get screwed.
Credit to investigators for busting these guys - but it's just a drop in bucket.