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Obama calls for tougher penalties for oil market manipulators (+video)

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"We can harness our natural resources and end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina said on his website Monday. "But that won’t happen until Washington receives a wakeup call from the American people."

The debate over domestic drilling promises to be an important one in the presidential race. 

In effect, Obama was changing the subject Tuesday, arguing that another factor – market manipulation – is an important factor behind high oil prices.

Finance experts note that everything from tensions over Iran's nuclear program to trends in US refineries affects prices. But many agree with the notion that speculative investors now play a greater role in energy markets than they used to – though the effect of their trading activity on retail gas prices is inconclusive.

Still, a declining share of commodity market activity reflects the actions of producers and consumers of products like gasoline, and a growing share is accounted for by either "passive investors" (often viewing commodity investments as a hedge against inflation) and active traders seeking to profit from market volatility.

"Financial firms and speculators now make up the vast majority of these markets," CFTC chairman Gary Gensler said in testimony to Congress last month.

Already, some trading firms have been nabbed for market manipulation and have paid penalties as a result of federal prosecution. A central goal of Obama's latest proposals is to signal that cops are on the beat.

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