I recall reading that the President of Exxon was forecasting oil prices much lower than the futures markets and thinking that if he believes his own forecast, then he should put his company up for sale.
I think there’s a genuine inconsistency between Exxon’s talk and its actions, but selling the company isn’t the optimum response. We don’t know that Exxon’s stock price currently reflects the prices forecast by the futures market (I decided 6 months ago that energy-related companies were underpriced relative to the futures market and sold my last 2009 futures contract while keeping a large position in energy-related companies) or that the market for large oil companies is liquid enough for Exxon to be sold at a good price. It makes more sense for Exxon to hedge larger fractions of its production by selling more futures contracts.
Maybe the long-date futures markets are illiquid enough that prices would approach what Exxon’s president thinks they should be, in which case Exxon would make slightly more money than under its current policies (assuming the resulting prices are right, which Exxon ought to assume is the best available guess). Or maybe the markets have enough liquidity that Exxon would hedge a large fraction of its production at prices near $60/barrel, which would help Exxon dramatically if Exxon’s president is right, and forgo big profits if he’s wrong. It’s fairly clear the market doesn’t have the liquidity to keep long-dated futures prices over $60/barrel if Exxon tries to make big hedges overnight, but if Exxon were fairly patient about building up the hedge positions, I don’t think we can know what would happen without performing the experiment. There are lots of people out there who think that betting against Exxon would be a good deal. Their confidence in their beliefs remains untested.
The government has all sorts of subsidies for alternative energy. However, the most efficient subsidy would be to buy oil futures contracts. If we must have an energy policy, it should consist solely of strategic futures market purchases.
Buying oil futures contracts would be the least wasteful way to subsidize the solar energy market, where there are many designs that are close to providing competitive mass-produced products. But financial markets are pouring enough money into that market that there’s little reason to think government subsidies are valuable.
Buying oil futures won’t provide the kind of subsidy that, say, fusion advocates would want. If markets are inadequately funding fusion research and government is benevolent enough to do better (a suspicious pair of assumptions, but without assumptions of that nature the popular demand for a government energy policy is a mistake), then oil futures markets won’t solve the problem because the problem is something like markets having inadequate information to target the right research or patents not providing inventors with the optimum fraction of the social benefits of their inventions.