One of the themes I have been hitting during my recent presentations concerns the oil price risk hanging over our heads. My hypothesis goes something like this. The days of huge supply excesses in the oil production world are over. Those 5 million barrel per day supply cushions of 10 years ago kept oil prices low, and fairly stable. As the excesses shrank we began to see increasing volatility and prices steadily climbing. Higher oil prices have historically caused recessions. We are currently in a recession, albeit one in which high oil prices weren’t the primary cause. (More on that at the end).
But, oil supplies were already tight prior to the recession. The recession has lowered demand, and at the moment we find that we again have a fair excess of oil production capacity. As global economies strengthen, that increases the demand for oil. One of the things I have been pointing out in my presentations is that U.S. oil demand dropped by 1.2 million bpd over the past four years, but demand in India and China increased by 1.9 million bpd over that time period.
Therefore, it won’t take long for the capacity cushion to shrink and for oil prices to spike up again, putting us back at risk for recession. This was the basis for my essay The Long Recession – and I think it helps explain why oil is back up to $80. This is going to make for a long recession, and one in which the attempts to recover will trigger the higher oil prices that tend to bring on recession in the first place. It is a merry-go-round that we need to get off of, but it won’t be easy.
CNN has a story out today that covers this theme:
NEW YORK (Fortune) — Are cash-strapped American consumers on for another date with energy price misery?
The U.S. economy remains weak and one in six Americans can’t find enough work. Yet oil prices have risen steadily this year. A barrel of crude costs $79 and change, more than double its price at the end of 2008.
That could complicate recovery in an economy that, despite the tumult of the past two years, remains as consumer-driven as ever.
I think “complicate recovery” is putting it mildly. We have to recognize the economic danger posed by being so dependent upon something that has the potential to swiftly bring the economy to its knees – and that is also in high demand by countries like India and China.
The story also points to the role oil prices played in bringing on the recession:
And though it’s futile to single out any one trigger for the recession that started at the end of 2007, the downturn didn’t start in earnest until consumers’ energy budgets breached the 6% mark in November that year.
As energy prices soared and incomes came under pressure, Americans first stopped buying pickup trucks and then deserted the local car dealer altogether. Car sales plunged in the spring of 2008 before falling off a cliff with the collapse of Lehman Brothers that September.
“The price of oil played a bigger factor in the recession than people seem to be remembering,” Hamilton said.
I would argue that the U.S. would have been pushed into recession eventually even without the subprime mortgage crisis. There are also a number of people who would argue that high oil prices led directly to the recession; that it was oil prices stretching family budgets which led to people not being able to pay their mortgages. Regardless of which theory is true, it is a historical fact that spiking oil prices have caused economic slowdowns, and over the past year oil prices have doubled. It is tough to see an easy way out.
In closing, I am still traveling for a couple more days (writing this from a small library in Oklahoma), and as I mentioned in the previous post I am about to miss my wife’s birthday for the 4th year in a row. So I want to wish her a Happy Birthday tomorrow, and at least this year I will be home only one day late. Plus, I will be arriving in Hawaii with our two Miniature Schnauzers that we had to leave behind when we moved to Hawaii. She doesn’t feel too bad about me missing her birthday, because the reason is that I had to take a detour to Texas to pick up the dogs. So, she is going to be reunited with “the pups” after three months apart (this is a result of Hawaii’s tight restrictions on importing pets) – and I think she feels that’s a great birthday present. At least I hope she does, because I didn’t get her anything else. Now that I think about it, I should go shopping…