The sharp contrast between the previous Republican administration under former President George W. Bush and the new Democrat regime under President Barack Obama is adding to the market disruptions still reverberating from the financial crisis. It's amazing how far and how fast the political pendulum is swinging. During the Bush administration, regulators took a vacation, intervening only when absolutely necessary and trusting perhaps a little too blindly that the free markets would take care of themselves. The mortgage mayhem turned credit crisis provided plenty of reasons for a regime change and a new approach, which has been embraced with much gusto. The latest example is from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -- the official regulator of commodity pricing -- an agency that one rarely hears from except when major abuses in the futures markets are revealed. CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler apparently doesn't want to be left out of the governmental engagement in the markets that is now in vogue. It's hip to regulate again. Everyone's doing it in Washington these days. Gensler is apparently concerned about the volatile oil and energy markets, although enthusiasm for new rules may be limited with oil down in the $60 range compared with a record $147.21 last year. But it's all about avoiding a repeat performance. For consumers, the free market doesn't always make a lot of sense when they see gas prices fluctuate wildly during the course of a single day. Under past regimes, that was just the price of the free market. This administration is looking deeper and wondering aloud whether the free market mechanisms have been broken by speculators and all the varied index funds and ETFs, such as the United States Oil ( OIL) and United States Natural Gas ( UNG) funds that play the indexes without any desire to take possession of the actual commodity. (Don Dion revealed the extraordinary interest in the natural gas ETF in his piece yesterday).
For his part, Gensler thinks that leaving control in the hands of the futures exchanges may be too much like letting the fox guard the henhouse. Since the CFTC limits the number of futures contracts that can be held in agricultural products in order to protect the market from manipulation, he thinks the same standards should apply to energy markets. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, right? OK, enough with the old farm sayings. The point is that we have entered into a brave new world of stricter government oversight and rulemaking. Investors need to bear that in mind, whether they like it or not. There will be implications for ETFs, underlying commodities and the companies in the energy game . This will spread to the oil giants such as Exxon Mobil ( XOM), ConocoPhillips ( COP) and the various energy-dependent companies such as Delta Air Lines ( DAL) and United Parcel Service ( UPS) that seek to hedge their fuel costs by dabbling in the commodities futures markets. Finding a way to tame the speculators without major collateral damage will not be easy. But something tells me that, one way or another, we'll see more and more rules imposed by this government. And like the previous regime, we may not fully recognize the consequences until it's too late. That's the trouble with pendulums, they just keep swinging.