The Peculiar Economics of Falling Oil Prices

The Peculiar Economics of Falling Oil Prices

December 8, 2014

The sharp fall in worldwide oil prices is a silver lining with a silver lining, even if the linings are a bit tarnished. The price of the world’s most widely-used commodity has fallen sharply over the last five months, from a spot market price of $115 per-barrel in late June to $77 last week. For consumers everywhere, that means major savings that will mainly go to purchase other goods and services; and those boosts in demand should spur more business investment. So, if low prices hold for another six months, analysts figure that growth in most oil-consuming and oil-importing countries could be one-half to a full percentage-point higher than forecast, including here in the U.S. and in the EU, China and Japan.  It’s a blow to the big oil-producing and oil-exporting nations; but the global economy will come out ahead. After all, the U.S., EU, China and Japan account for more than 65 percent of worldwide GDP, while the top ten oil exporting countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, make up just over six percent.

The hitch for this rosy scenario is that much of the revenues that OPEC countries now won’t see would have gone into financial and direct investments in the U.S. and EU. That means that new investments in American and European stocks and bonds could be reduced by some $300 billion per-year. The upshot may be slightly higher interest rates and slightly lower equity prices, which would dampen the growth benefits of lower oil prices.

The lower prices are driven mainly by supply and demand, but market expectations and some strategic maneuvering by Saudi Arabia play a role, too. Yes, worldwide oil supplies are up with rising production from U.S. and Canadian tar sands and shale deposits, and Libya’s fields are fully back online. Moreover, these supply effects are amplified by softness in demand for oil, coming from economic stagnation in much of Europe and Japan, China’s slower growth, and our own increasing use of natural gas. Oil prices also are influenced, however, by the prices that buyers and sellers expect to prevail months or years from now. Last week, when the “spot price” of crude oil was about $77 per-barrel, the price for oil to be delivered next month was almost $10 lower. In fact, the world’s big oil traders see crude prices continuing to decline not simply into 2015, but for a long time: The price for oil to be delivered in mid-2016 is less than $72 per-barrel and, according to these futures prices, not expected to reach even $80 per-barrel until 2023.

Don’t count on a decade of cheap oil. Yes, technological advances have brought down the cost of extracting oil from tar sands, shale and deep water deposits, as well as the cost of producing and transporting natural gas. But the economics of these new energy sources work best at prices higher than those prevailing today. A long period of low oil prices would slow the growth of supply from those sources — and so, drive oil prices back up. The Saudis are counting on it.  They’ve refrained from cutting their own production, which could restore higher prices, in hopes that another year of low prices will slow down investments in all those alternatives sources.

The truth is, oil prices will rise again whether the Saudis’ tactic works or not. While the outlook for much stronger growth remains slim for Japan and much of Europe, an extended spell of lower energy prices will support higher growth here, in China, and across many of the non-oil producing countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Stronger growth and energy demand will bring on line more alternative sources of energy — as long as oil prices are high enough for the alternatives to be competitive.

This is an old story. Oil prices fell, and as sharply as they did this year, in 1985 and 1986, in 1997 and 1998, and in the aftermath of the 2008 – 2009 financial upheavals. Each time, oil prices marched up again after one, two, or at most three-to-four years. Of course, that volatility also makes some people billionaires. To join them, what you’ll need is patience and a hedge fund’s access to credit. With that, all you do is go out and purchase a few billion dollars in contracts to take delivery of crude in 2018 or 2020 at today’s futures prices, and then dump the contracts when oil prices once again head north of $100 per-barrel.