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Elmer Smith: Slorer & Mofaz: Blame them for gas pains

YOU PROBABLY wouldn't know Ole Slorer from a can of paint if you stood him next to one. The name Shoul Mofaz probably won't ring a bell, either.

YOU PROBABLY wouldn't know Ole Slorer from a can of paint if you stood him next to one. The name Shoul Mofaz probably won't ring a bell, either.

But if you're looking for names to take in vain as you watch the numbers on the gas pump roll up toward infinity, Ole and Shoul will do nicely.

Slorer is a managing director for Morgan Stanley. His job is to track trends in petroleum prices. Commodities traders amass or squander vast fortunes on the basis of Ole Slorer's prognostications.

I'm guessing that most of us will never amass or squander a vast fortune. But Ole Slorer's predictions impact what little we do amass or squander.

On Friday, Slorer authored a commercial memo that said that Asian markets are taking up an "unprecedented share" of oil production capacity and "appear to be pricing out Atlantic Basin consumers."

Within hours, oil prices soared 8 percent to $138.54 per barrel, the biggest one-day spike since the '80s. Takes a couple of weeks for that to work its way down the pipeline to a gas station near you. But speculation is that gas may be $4.50 a gallon by (pardon the expression) Independence Day.

It wasn't all Slorer's fault. Before traders could call their brokers, Shoul Mofaz threw another log on the fire by predicting that Israel would attack Iran unless Iran drops its nuclear aspirations. Iran is the second- largest oil producer in OPEC.

Mind you, Mofaz is not the Israeli defense minister. He's the transportation secretary and has only slightly more say about who attacks whom in the Middle East than I do.

But that was enough to set skittish speculators in a feeding frenzy, buying up oil futures as if there were no tomorrow. By Friday night, July shipments of light, sweet crude were up $10.75 a barrel.

By the end of trading, the bad news about the spike in petroleum prices had spread to the stock market, which nosedived nearly 400 points. It was the biggest one-day drop in the stock index in 15 months.

So, let's review. Slorer and Mofaz open their mouths and, before you could say "fill 'er up," oil prices had hit an all-time high.

That led to plummeting stock prices, thus eroding our pension funds and making retirement even more speculative than petroleum prices.

But wait! There's more.

Seems that with the dollar dropping faster than a stone compared to the euro, speculators who used to buy currencies are buying oil futures as a hedge against inflation. So, the weaker the dollar, the higher oil prices have gone, which, in turn, will impact the U.S. economy and weaken the dollar and . . .

I think you can see where this is going. Point is, all of it has to do with market forces that affect us but that we can't affect, even though we're spending $1.5 billion a day on gasoline, according to the Oil Price Information Service.

But according to Argun Murti, a market analyst for Goldman Sachs, even our combined buying power won't be enough to offset the speculators. Murti says that oil prices would have to spike to $200 a barrel before demand would be curtailed enough to rebalance the market.

Democrats in Congress are scheduled to introduce a bill today that would raise collateral requirements on traders to discourage speculation and slap windfall-profits taxes on oil companies that don't invest in renewable energy sources.

But the president has pledged to veto that one if it makes it to his desk, and Republicans in Congress say they can uphold the veto.

Our only consolation here is that it could be worse. In Alaska, gas prices have gone from $3.09 a gallon to $4.30 since May. In California, the price has gone from $3.22 to $4.42 since May.

It's small consolation, I know. But it's all we've got - that and the occasional profanity we can hurl at the Ole Slorers and Shoul Mofazes of the world. *

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