The Scholars Who Shill for Wall Street
How much of a difference can one academic make? Last September, a federal court knocked down a proposed regulation concerning “position limits,” a provision of Dodd-Frank designed to limit the role of speculators in inflating the price of commodities like oil, wheat and aluminum. To understand how this came about, follow the path of the University of Houston’s Craig Pirrong, who plays a Zelig-like role in the story of how this rule—hated by both the big speculators and the private exchanges in which commodities are traded—came to face delays, legal setbacks and now an uncertain future.
While numerous studies have demonstrated, and even Goldman Sachs has conceded, that excessive speculation on crude oil has boosted the price of gasoline at the pump by billions of dollars for consumers, the impetus for reform can be traced to the record spike in gas prices in June of 2008. The following month, a congressional hearing was called on the role of speculators. That’s when Professor Pirrong’s assault began on what would later become part of Dodd-Frank.
In his testimony, Pirrong said that “speculation is not the cause of high prices for energy products” and that there is “no evidence” to the contrary. In fact, there is an abundance of research, including a 2006 report from the Senate Homeland Security Committee, about the role of speculators in driving up the price of energy products like crude oil. Nevertheless, Pirrong pressed on, advocating against action on speculation in a report for the libertarian Cato Institute, in an opinion column for CNN Money, and in comments to major media outlets like the Financial Times.
As Congress continued to debate a response to the speculation problem, Terry Duffy, executive chairman of the CME Group, the for-profit company that operates the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and other private commodity exchanges, implored lawmakers to ignore the calls for reform and instead listen to Pirrong, who, he said, was among the “community of responsible scholars of energy markets.”
Pressure from consumer groups and commercial end-users of commodities mounted, and Dodd-Frank ultimately included a provision calling for a position-limits rule to curb how many futures contracts a speculator can hold at one time. The law required the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the government watchdog on commodity trading, to devise a regulation.
As with any major regulation, when the CFTC announced the rule in 2011, the agency said it would welcome public comments to help inform the process. Pirrong then submitted comments, which were similar to the remarks he made in his 2008 congressional hearing. Lobbyists weighed in as well. Trade groups for hedge funds and investment banks submitted comments citing Pirrong’s writing in opposition to the regulation. Ultimately, the rule became riddled with loopholes before being released by the agency.
However, before the rule could take effect, two industry groups, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, filed a lawsuit in US District Court. They retained Eugene Scalia and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm that argued the proxy access case. Scalia and his colleague Miguel Estrada’s evidence? They cited Pirrong seven times in their brief, according to court documents. And last fall, the court handed Dodd-Frank one of its most visible defeats by siding with the financial industry to bat down the proposed rule.
In every instance of Pirrong’s involvement with the position-limits rule, he identified himself as a professor of finance and as the energy markets director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. While Pirrong has disclosed at times that he has contracted with private exchanges in the past, including work on soybean futures in 1997, what he has not revealed is that the institute that employs him is underwritten by the largest speculation-industry players in the country.
Pirrong’s Global Energy Management Institute has been funded by Citigroup, Merrill Lynch Global Commodities (a unit of Bank of America) and the New York Mercantile Exchange (owned by the CME Group), among others. Charles River Associates is also a sponsor. In a now-deleted portion of the University of Houston website, corporate sponsors of the Global Energy Management Institute are invited to enjoy “access to [its] activities” and “an opportunity to influence its policies and direction.” Pirrong did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
In addition, Cornerstone Research and the Global Economics Group—two more consulting businesses that help financial companies hire academics for expert testimony and regulatory work—list Pirrong as one of their affiliate professors. In the span of time that Pirrong has helped fight the position-limits rule, he has also given a speech at the Futures Industry Association’s annual expo, an industry event for speculators. How much Pirrong may have been compensated for these activities is not disclosed.
Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland who is in favor of greater regulation of commodity speculation, testified before Congress alongside Pirrong but says he had no idea of the latter’s financial ties to speculators. Pirrong “presents himself as an independent academic, and he’s not,” Greenberger says. If Pirrong’s funding had been disclosed during the course of his advocacy over the position-limits rule, “his influence would have been a tenth of what it is.”