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Romney adviser on list of lobbyists who fought efforts to lower gas prices

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s economic policy director played a role in Wall Street’s efforts to block new regulations intended to lower
Gov. Mitt Romney campaigning in Ohio this week.
Gov. Mitt Romney campaigning in Ohio this week.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s economic policy director played a role in Wall Street’s efforts to block new regulations intended to lower gas prices, according to federal forms.

The website Think Progress reported earlier this month that Pierce Scranton, the Romney campaign's economic policy director, worked as a top lobbyist for JPMorgan Chase through August of this year, fighting a wide array of provisions in the Dodd-Frank law aimed at reforming Wall Street.

Federal disclosure forms reviewed by msnbc's Up w/ Chris Hayes list Scranton, a former top economic adviser to President Bush, as a lobbyist on issues related to Wall Street’s attempts to weaken or block a new regulation mandated by Dodd-Frank that was intended to reduce the ability of Wall Street and other institutional speculators to drive up gas prices. A JPMorgan Chase representative told Up that Scranton did not work on that regulation.

Dodd-Frank specifically directed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the independent federal agency that regulates trading in oil futures and other derivatives, to impose what are known as position limits—caps on how much of the market big speculators can control. The position limits called for in Dodd-Frank were to affect 28 commodities, including oil.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development issued a report last month concluding that, “with the volumes of exchange-traded derivatives on commodity markets now being 20 to 30 times larger than physical production, the influence of financial markets has systematically transformed these real markets into financial markets.” The report was titled “Don’t Blame the Physical Markets: Financialization is the root cause of oil and commodity price volatility.”

Some Republicans and economists have questioned whether speculators have any impact on gas prices and whether capping such speculation can lower gas prices. In the past, however, several Republicans, including 2008 Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have suggested measures like position limits would help.

In May of last year, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was asked by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) what a barrel of oil would cost if the price were based solely on supply and demand. “Somewhere in the range of $60 to $70,” Tillerson said. At the time, oil was trading at about $98 a barrel, as much as 65% higher than Tillerson’s estimate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) last year released previously confidential CFTC data showing that during the 2008 spike in gas prices, Wall Street firms dominated trading. JPMorgan Chase alone was listed as holding 4.7% of all contracts for West Texas Intermediate Crude Oil, or almost one out of 20.

Speculators have long been recognized as essential for providing liquidity to the futures markets used by buyers and sellers of commodities to hedge their bets against price fluctuations. But for decades the U.S. has used an arsenal of laws and regulations to prevent speculators from overwhelming futures markets and undermining their purpose of protecting consumers from price fluctuations.

The CFTC can impose position limits on its own—and does so on some commodities—but Wall Street has in recent decades pushed Washington to allow increasing amounts and kinds of speculation on a growing list of commodities. Wall Street firms now use commodity trades not just for the traditional hedging against fluctuations in commodity prices, but also now claim their legitimate use for hedging against much broader economic phenomena, such as inflation.

At a July 29, 2009, hearing, JPMorgan Chase Managing Director Blythe Masters told the CFTC that JP Morgan Chase supported position limits for individual traders but wanted hedging exemptions for big financial firms she called “aggregators” of commodity-futures trades.

JPMorgan Chase has a checkered history when it comes to its trading. A single trader’s massive position in bonds led to the so-called “London Whale” loss of $2 billion earlier this year. Last month, the CFTC fined JPMorgan Chase $600,000  for violating position limits in cotton futures. Last week, the company apologized to federal regulators for providing inaccurate information during an ongoing probe of its trading practices in California’s electricity market.

Lobbying-disclosure forms filed by JPMorgan Chase list Scranton as lobbying specifically on the issues of position limits and hedge exemptions in the first and second quarters of 2010, when he was vice president of global government relations for the firm. The forms do not indicate whether JP Morgan Chase lobbied for or against position limits, but CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton confirmed to “Up w/ Chris Hayes” that the firm was seeking to block or weaken new position limits.

Dodd-Frank was signed into law that summer, but disclosure forms list Scranton as lobbying on how Dodd-Frank regulations would be implemented as recently as this summer.

Asked about Scranton’s work on position limits, JPMorgan Chase spokesperson Jennifer Kim released a statement to “Up,” saying, “Pierce Scranton worked in JPMorgan Chase's Government Relations department until August 2012. His primary responsibilities with the firm were in tax and fiscal issues. He did not lobby on the issue of position limits nor did he oversee any lobbyists.”

The disclosure forms call for companies to list “Specific lobbying issues” and then the “name of each individual who acted as a lobbyist in this issue area.” On the first-quarter form for 2010, for instance, Scranton is listed as a lobbyist in the section covering four specific issues:

  • HR 4173, S 3217 – discuss proposals for comprehensive reform of market regulation to address recent market turmoil;
  • S 3217 – discuss the value and use of derivatives to hedge risk;
  • Discuss position limits and hedge exemptions with the CFTC;
  • Discuss secured lending practices with Members of Congress and agency officials.

Two trade organizations to which JPMorgan Chase belongs also took up the fight. The International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) submitted joint letters of comment to the CFTC opposing the new position-limits rule. JPMorgan Chase’s general counsel currently serves as ISDA’s treasurer. Masters previously served as SIFMA’s chair and currently sits on SIFMA’s executive committee.

CFTC records also show that after Scranton became executive director of global government relations for JP Morgan Chase in April of 2011, the company sent representatives, including a member of the lobbying team, to lobby CFTC officials in person on at least three separate occasions about position limits.

Those meetings began in July of last year, with the third coming on October 13, just five days before the CFTC finally voted to impose position limits. The vote was split 3-2 along party lines.

Like the Dodd-Frank vote, the CFTC vote also did not end the fight. Soon after, the two Wall Street trade groups to which JPMorgan Chase belongs filed suit challenging the new rule on position limits.

The position limits had been scheduled to go into effect two weeks ago, on October 12. But last month, a federal judge sided with the Wall Street trade groups and overturned the rule. The CFTC has said it plans to appeal.

Trading in oil and other energy futures has proved lucrative for JPMorgan Chase in the last few years. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the company had surpassed Goldman Sachs and other rivals to become the top energy trader.

Prior to joining JPMorgan Chase, Scranton chaired the White House Council of Economic Advisors under President Bush, who resisted regulating energy markets, even after the scandal caused by Enron manipulating California’s electricity prices.

With less than two weeks until this year’s presidential election, Romney’s policies on position limits remain unclear. He has both called for the repeal of Dodd-Frank and called for retaining unspecified measures of the law. His campaign website page on energy makes no mention of position limits or Wall Street speculation. The website lists JP Morgan Chase employees as the fourth-largest source of Romney contributions when ranked by employer.

The Romney campaign was asked for comment Thursday night and this story will be updated in the event of a response.

Additional reporting by Todd Cole and Allison Koch.