NYT: The gov't created a stupid ethanol-credit system, but it's basically Wall Street's fault for "exploiting" it

If you’re ever in need of a media outlet to relentlessly spin a story to heap blame on the symptoms of a government-created problem instead of the actual disease, you know where to look.

Jazz and I have been covering the saga of stupid that is the Renewable Fuel Standard, the regulation that requires U.S. refiners to increase an ever-increasing volume of certain biofuels into the nation’s gasoline supply. The original rule was passed during the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has done everything they can to bolster and expand the RFS, and refiners must either comply with the RFS or else purchase credits known as renewable identification numbers (RINs) to effectively purchase an exemption.

The ongoing political biofuels-battle was ramped up a notch this summer as energy companies have been cautioning that we’re running up against the “blend wall,” the 10 percent threshold beyond which they warn the blended fuels will no longer be acceptable for most cars and trucks, which means demand for the credits have been spiking and prices have been rising (also perhaps exacerbated by the fact the the EPA has been trying to force companies to include a certain type of cellulosic ethanol that isn’t actually commercially available in the necessary quantities — I am never going to let that one slide, ever).

You might be thinking that the solution for this absolutely not-clean, not-green, corporate-pork-tossing government program, complete with plenty of unintended consequences (like, say, rising food prices, no big deal), would be to repeal the mandate and hence stop creating an artificial market that forces U.S. consumers to purchase something they obviously don’t want to buy. You would be wrong, however — and the NYT is here to let you know that, even though everything they’re doing is perfectly legal and the EPA isn’t even trying to point to excessive trading as a problem, those dastardly and “exploitative” Wall Street fat cats up to their old tricks must be at least partially responsible. Obviously.

A few worried that Wall Street would set out to exploit this young market, fears the government dismissed. But many people believe that is what happened this year when the price of the ethanol credits skyrocketed 20-fold in just six months, according to an analysis of regulatory documents and interviews with more than 40 people involved in the market, including industry executives, brokers, traders and analysts.

Traders for big banks and other financial institutions, these people say, amassed millions of the credits just as refiners were looking to buy more of them to meet an expanding federal requirement. Industry executives familiar with JPMorgan Chase’s activities, for example, told The Times that the bank offered to sell them hundreds of millions of the credits earlier this summer. When asked how the bank had amassed such a stake, the executives said they were told by the bank that it had stockpiled the credits. …

While banks are by no means the largest player in ethanol credits, Wall Street’s activity in this market reflects a larger effort by financial institutions to exert their influence over loosely regulated markets for basic commodities, from aluminum to oil. The opacity of the ethanol credit market makes it difficult to determine the extent to which large financial actors have profited.

The banks say they have far less influence in the market than others are suggesting, and are doing nothing wrong. But the activities, while legal, could have consequences for consumers. In the end, energy analysts say, the outcome will be felt at the gas pump — as the higher cost of the ethanol credits gets tacked onto the price of a gallon of gasoline. (The credits, which cost 7 cents each in January, peaked at $1.43 in July, and now are trading for 60 cents.)

ZOMG, Wall Street actively engages in — gasp — speculation?! Mind = blown.

Wall Street’s interest in renewable fuel credits are not the problem behind rising gasoline prices — the renewable fuel credits themselves are the problem. The RFS is not, as the NYT refers to it, an “environmental program,” and everybody knows it, but they seem to be oh-so-gently suggesting that the answer here is still further financial regulation, instead of just flat-out repeal. Unbelievable.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023