Remember when oil traded at $147 a barrell and gasoline was $4 a gallon?

Turns out it might not have been because of the Iraq War, OPEC or shortages on the market.  Turns out it might have been driven that high from shoddy practices at Goldman Sachs.

But now some of the people involved in cleaning up the financial mess are suggesting that Semgroup’s collapse was more than just bad judgment and worse timing. There is evidence of a malevolent hand at work: oil price manipulation by traders orchestrating a short squeeze to push up the price of West Texas Intermediate crude to the point that it would generate fatal losses in Semgroup’s accounts.

“What transpired at Semgroup was no less than a $500 billion fraud on the people of the world,” says John Catsimatidis, the billionaire grocer turned oil refiner who is attempting to reorganize Semgroup in bankruptcy court. The $500 billion is how much the world would have overpaid for crude had a successful scam pushed up oil prices by $50 a barrel for 100 days.

What’s the evidence of this? Much is circumstantial. Proving oil-trading manipulation is difficult. But numerous people familiar with the events insist that Citibank, Merrill Lynch and especially Goldman Sachs had knowledge about Semgroup’s trading positions from their vetting of an ill-fated $1.5 billion private placement deal last spring. “Nothing’s been proven, but if somebody has your book and knows every trade, it would not be difficult to bet against that book and put the company into a tremendous liquidity squeeze,” says John Tucker, who is representing Kivisto.

What’s known for sure is that Goldman Sachs, through J. Aron & Co., its commodities trading arm, was in prime position to use such data–and profited handsomely from Semgroup’s fall. J. Aron was Semgroup’s biggest counterparty, trading both physical oil flowing through pipelines and paper oil, in the form of options and futures.

When crude oil peaked in July, Semgroup ran out of cash to meet margin requirements on options contracts it had with Aron, contracts on which it had paper losses of $350 million. Desperate to survive, Semgroup asked Aron to pony up $430 million it owed on physical oil. Aron said no, declared Semgroup in default on its contracts and demanded immediate payment of losses.

Answers may appear in late March (isn’t it late March already) when the SEC and FBI investigations come to a close.

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