Commentary

Get Ready for the Oil-Price Drop

The price of crude oil has jumped as high as $135 lately, up from $87 in early February. The news encouraged some Wall Street analysts to suggest oil might approach $200 before long. In fact, that’s quite impossible: The world economy can’t handle current energy prices, much less a big increase.

Which in turn means that oil prices will fall.

Market analysts often claim oil prices are almost entirely determined by supply. Demand is said to be insensitive (“inelastic”) to price. The standard example is that many Americans have to drive to work and most gas-guzzling SUVs will still be on the road even if the affluent few can trade theirs for a Prius. Whatever the price, we’ll pay it.

Nine out of 10 previous postwar recessions began shortly after a big spike in the price of oil. ”

This idea rests on two fallacies. The first is to exaggerate the United States’ importance when it comes to ups and downs in worldwide oil demand. In fact, America is using no more oil than we did in 2004.

The second fallacy is to greatly exaggerate the importance of passenger cars in the United States. It’s true that Americans are driving less and buying four-cylinder cars - but that’s not where we should be looking for serious “demand destruction.”

Two-thirds of petroleum in the United States is used for transportation - but half of the transportation sector’s fuel flows into commercial trucks, trains, buses, airplanes and ships. As a result, only 44 percent of each barrel of oil is used to produce gasoline in this country, and some of that gasoline fuels business - delivery vans, landscapers’ trucks, fishing boats, industrial and farm machinery, etc.

Most crude oil is used to produce diesel fuel for trucks, ships and trains, heavy fuel oil for industry, aviation fuel, asphalt, home heating oil, propane, wax, and innumerable petrochemical products ranging from detergents and drugs to synthetic fabrics and plastic.

In short, a huge share of crude oil is used to produce and distribute industrial products. That explains why the price of oil is extremely cyclical - that is, it tends to rise during economic booms and fall during contractions. It dropped 44 percent in the last recession (from November 2000 to November 2001), 48 percent from October 1990 to January 1992 - and 71 percent from July 1980 to July 1986.

Oil prices have a huge impact on producers’ cost of production - profits and losses - not just on consumers’ cost of living.

Firms that can’t raise prices will find profit margins squeezed - and will have to cut back on production and jobs. Even if some producers of energy-intensive products can raise prices enough to cover higher energy costs, they’ll nonetheless sell fewer of their products because of those higher prices. So they too will have to cut back on production and jobs.

Nine out of 10 previous postwar recessions began shortly after a big spike in the price of oil. Yet those recessions always slashed oil prices dramatically. People who have been predicting both a nasty US recession and $200 oil prices are contradicting themselves.

Recent news reports have expressed surprise that the US economy appears much stronger than the famously gloomy predictions at the start of the year. Indeed, the surprising endurance of US manufacturing and exports is one reason oil prices rose as long as they did.

But note that a US recession isn’t required to bring down the price of oil. All that’s needed is industrial stagnation or decline in many other countries.

In the United States and Britain, industrial production is nearly flat - only 0.2 percent higher than it was a year ago. In many other countries, however, industrial production has dropped over the past 12 months. It’s down by 0.7 percent in Japan, 1.1 percent in Austria, 2.5 percent in Italy and Denmark, 2.9 percent in Canada, 5.4 percent in Greece, 5.7 percent in Singapore and 13.3 percent in Spain.

In April, industrial production also fell in India and China. Shrinking industry around the world shrinks demand for energy in general - and for oil in particular.

When the price of anything gets unbearably high, it discourages demand. The resulting drop in sales, in turn, causes inventories to pile up and the price to come down. That has proven true of overpriced houses - and it will likewise prove true of overpriced oil.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and the author of Income and Wealth.