Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has given more than $1.4 million to the University of Illinois since 2008, with most of the money going to the business school.
As energy companies and traders have reaped fortunes by buying and selling oil and other commodities during the recent boom in the commodity markets, Mr. Pirrong has positioned himself as the hard-nosed defender of financial speculators — the combative, occasionally acerbic academic authority to call upon when difficult questions arise in Congress and elsewhere about the multitrillion-dollar global commodities trade.
Do financial speculators and commodity index funds drive up prices of oil and other essentials, ultimately costing consumers? Since 2006, Mr. Pirrong has written a flurry of influential letters to federal agencies arguing that the answer to that question is an emphatic no. He has testified before Congress to that effect, hosted seminars with traders and government regulators, and given countless interviews for financial publications absolving Wall Street speculation of any appreciable role in the price spikes.
What Mr. Pirrong has routinely left out of most of his public pronouncements in favor of speculation is that he has reaped financial benefits from speculators and some of the largest players in the commodities business, The New York Times has found.
While his university’s financial ties to speculators have been the subject of scrutiny by the news media and others, it was not until last month, after repeated requests by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, that the University of Houston, a public institution, insisted that Mr. Pirrong submit disclosure forms that shed some light on those financial ties.
Governments and regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe have been gradually moving to restrict speculation by major banks. The Federal Reserve, concerned about the risks, is reviewing whether it should tighten regulations and limit the activities of banks in the commodities world.
But interviews with dozens of academics and traders, and a review of hundreds of emails and other documents involving two highly visible professors in the commodities field — Mr. Pirrong and Professor Scott H. Irwin at the University of Illinois — show how major players on Wall Street and elsewhere have been aggressive in underwriting and promoting academic work.
The efforts by the financial players, the interviews show, are part of a sweeping campaign to beat back regulation and shape policies that affect the prices that people around the world pay for essentials like food, fuel and cotton.
Professors Pirrong and Irwin say that industry backing did not color their opinions.
Mr. Pirrong’s research was cited extensively by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by Wall Street interests in 2011 that for two years has blocked the limits on speculation that had been approved by Congress as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. During that same time period, Mr. Pirrong has worked as a paid research consultant for one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, according to his disclosure form.
While he customarily identifies himself solely as an academic, Mr. Pirrong has been compensated in the last several years by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the commodities trading house Trafigura, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a handful of companies that speculate in energy, according to the disclosure forms.
The disclosure forms do not require Mr. Pirrong to reveal how much money he made from his consulting work, and a university spokesman said that the university believed it was strengthened by the financial support it received from the business community. When asked about the financial benefits of his outside activities, Mr. Pirrong replied, “That’s between me and the I.R.S.”
Debating to a Stalemate
No one disputes that a substantial portion of price increases in oil and food over the last decade were caused by fundamental market factors: increased demand from China and other industrializing countries, extreme weather, currency fluctuations and the diversion of grain to biofuel…….