One of the big stories today is news that oil deliveries for February topped $100 for the first time in history yesterday and are again over $100 today. Lots of ink has predictably been spilled covering this story, but it’s unclear why. The $100 threshold is purely psychological and holds little import to the market. The macroeconomy is hardly more affected by $100 oil than it is by $98 oil. Likewise, the great public hunt for the “tipping point” at which oil price increases induce significant changes in consumer behavior is akin to Captain Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick. Since oil prices began their run up in 2003, demand has remained relatively strong and consumers have responded far less robustly than they did during the price run-up from 1975-1980. Although it is unclear why consumers are so much less inclined to conserve fuel today than they were yesterday, there is little reason to expect any radical change in consumer response to fuel price increases in the short term.
The more interesting question is why oil prices have risen so dramatically since August of last year – one of the three or four largest price increases of the last 30 years. The standard explanations – turmoil in oil producing regions, demand growth in India and China, global crude oil shortages, speculation, and low oil inventories – are not very satisfactory. Turmoil in oil producing regions has, if anything, declined since August. Demand growth in India and China is hardly a new phenomenon. Oil production in the 3rd quarter of 2007 actually increased (4th quarter data is not yet in) and Middle Eastern producers are increasing discounts available to buyers of heavy crude. Oil inventories are likewise being liquidated - hardly a sign that speculators are hoarding oil to drive up price.
The only significant change in world crude oil markets has been the buy orders coming out of the United States for crude oil destined for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Oil economist Philip Verleger believes that most of the recent price movement can be traced to that fact alone, although the evidence for that proposition is not dispositive.
Regardless, there is little reason to succumb to panic. First, there is strong empirical evidence to suggest that consumers invest efficiently in automotive fuel efficiency. Hence, long-run demand response may prove much more robust than short-run demand response. Second, the economic burden of high gasoline prices today is greatly overstated relative to what that burden has been in the past given the increases in per capita and median household income. In fact, the “hardship price” of gasoline (that is, gasoline prices adjusted for inflation and changes in household income) is about average what it has been since the end of World War II. Third, belief that high oil prices are important macroeconomic events that are capable of triggering recessions or worse have been shattered by recent experience. Fourth, the fact that inventories are being released - not built up - tells us that market actors are betting that today’s high prices are not long for this world.
Taken together, those observations imply that government should treat high oil prices with benign neglect. If consumers want to reduce their fuel bills, there are ample opportunities available for them to do so. A good rule of thumb - even for non-libertarians - is that government should not do for you what you can do for yourself.