Fortune Pumps Oil Fears, Rich Sources Get Richer

A Fortune correspondent warns readers to be "Be very afraid" of $262/barrel oil.

When speculating about improbable, abstract disasters, journalists like nothing more than kicking things off with a pointed, bone-chilling question. What would happen if a hurricane hit New York? How can you protect yourself against the world’s deadliest virus? Will Y2K cause you to eat your family pet?

Or, as a headline on Fortune’s Web site asks: “Ready for $262/barrel oil?”

“Be afraid,” writes Fortune correspondent Nelson Schwartz, in a dispatch for CNN from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Be very afraid.”

The primary source for the article is Moscow-based hedge fund manager Bill Browder, who has dreamed up six doomsday scenarios that could — maybe, perhaps, might — cause the price of oil to skyrocket. For example, the House of Saud might fall, cutting supplies from the world’s largest producer.

The House of Saud is going to fall? Holy smokes! … No, wait a minute. Schwartz goes on to write that this “seems the most far-fetched of the six possibilities.” And, by the way, “it’s the one that generates that $262 a barrel.”

What about the other scenarios that should make us “afraid … very afraid?” Well, one possibility cited by Browder is that Venezuelan “strongman” Hugo Chavez could enact an oil embargo. That would be scary if it weren’t for the fact, noted by Fortune, that the scenario is “quite dubious.”

“More realistic — and therefore more chilling,” writes Schwartz, “would be the scenario where Iran declares an oil embargo a la OPEC in 1973, which Browder thinks could cause oil to double to $131 a barrel.” Other possibilities include “civil war in Nigeria ($98 a barrel), unrest and violence in Algeria ($79 a barrel) and major attacks on infrastructure by the insurgency in Iraq ($88 a barrel).”

Fortune didn’t give us any reason to doubt these scenarios. Luckily, before we shelled out a down payment on a corn-powered stove, we discovered that Browder, the man who fed Schwartz these doomsday scenarios, is hardly a passive observer. In fact, his Moscow-based fund has been pouring money into the Russian energy giant Gazprom — a company whose stock price would benefit mightily from fears of higher oil prices. Gazprom is Browder’s largest single investment, and his company runs the biggest foreign hedge fund in Russia, an oil-rich country that would also benefit from higher prices.

Anyone who cares about the integrity of American journalism would say that the best-case scenario here is that Schwartz is simply unaware that a hedge fund manager is using him to stir up fears that can make him a lot richer.

The innocent-by-ignorance scenario, however, is “quite dubious” because earlier this month the same hedge fund manager was the primary source in another Schwartz article, this one pointing out that Gazprom is likely to profit handsomely from — you guessed it — higher energy prices. We hope that Schwartz is at least getting a cut of the profits that Browder stands to make from all this Fortune love.

Of course, it can be difficult to find multiple sources for stories about doomsday scenarios that are unlikely to ever happen. But Schwartz puts in a yeoman’s effort and manages to find one more person who might think oil prices are going to rise.

“U.S. power and influence has declined precipitously because of Iraq and the war on terror and that creates an incentive for anyone who wants to make trouble to go ahead and make it,” the source told Fortune.

“Iran is on a collision course and I have a difficulty seeing how such a collision can be avoided,” he added. “I’m very worried about the supply-demand balance, which is very tight.”

So who is this soothsayer?

Say hello to America’s favorite hedge-fund-billionaire-turned- political-activist … George Soros. Yes, that would be the same George Soros who spent most of the 2004 presidential campaign crisscrossing the country, donating millions of dollars to liberal political groups, and referring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a “colossal blunder.”

News flash: a political player who has spent the past few years calling the war in Iraq a disaster is now saying that it could be … a disaster! It’s good to know Fortune is on the story. Or shall we say, it’s good to know that Fortune stuck a completely irrelevant quote into an absurd story just to show that Schwartz scored an interview with Soros?

In any case, Soros didn’t even comment on the price of oil. The billionaire “wouldn’t make any specific predictions about prices,” Schwartz writes — perhaps the most telling phrase in the article. Even so, we must believe that prices are going to increase — no, skyrocket to almost four times the current level — because Soros says the war in Iraq is a colossal blunder.

It is “worth paying heed” to these words, according to Fortune, because Soros is “a legendary commodities player … the man who once took on the Bank of England — and won.”

Which has nothing to do with Iran, or Iraq — or the likely course of oil prices.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.