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Page added on March 29, 2009

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Did Goldman Goose Oil?

How Goldman Sachs was at the center of the oil trading fiasco that bankrupted pipeline giant Semgroup.

When oil prices spiked last summer to $147 a barrel, the biggest corporate casualty was oil pipeline giant Semgroup Holdings, a $14 billion (sales) private firm in Tulsa, Okla. It had racked up $2.4 billion in trading losses betting that oil prices would go down, including $290 million in accounts personally managed by then chief executive Thomas Kivisto. Its short positions amounted to the equivalent of 20% of the nation’s crude oil inventories. With the credit crunch eliminating any hope of meeting a $500 million margin call, Semgroup filed for bankruptcy on July 22.

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.


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