The last time the oil price lost touch with gravity, which it threatens to again with the price of Brent crude now well north of $100 a barrel, it helped tip the world economy into the deepest recession since the 1930s.
Is history about to repeat itself? Much depends on developments in the Middle East, but things are once more looking perilous.
By adding to energy costs, the effect of high oil prices is to reduce the amount of money for spending on other things, thereby undermining aggregate demand in the wider economy. Eventually a tipping point is reached where confidence collapses. Given what happened as recently as 2008, you would expect OPEC to be acting quickly to prevent any further explosive increase in prices.
The wave of popular protest across North Africa and beyond has put that assumption in doubt. What happens to the world economy is not exactly a priority right now for the autocrats who dominate OPEC. Their focus is instead on survival. The big producer, Saudi Arabia, looks particularly vulnerable to further contagion in the region.
With nervousness turning to panic among key producers, this is not an environment conducive to the sort of prompt decision-making necessary to prevent the oil price running out of control again.Go back to the origins of multinational oil in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was big oil companies such as Shell and BP that set the price, with the emphasis very much on the needs of consumer nations they serviced. By the 1970s, OPEC had usurped that role. As a consumer, you either paid up or went without.
If the latest instability in the Middle East wasn’t enough excitement for the Energy Institute’s traditionally lively annual conference in London this week, there’s also the unprecedented divergence in benchmark oil prices to ponder.
The mid-1980s saw the adoption of a more market-related system, with OPEC turning the taps on and off in an attempt to keep prices in a supposedly mutually beneficial range.
Big producers such as Saudi Arabia still sell on their own terms, but they do so by reference to a small number of benchmark prices, supposedly established by arm’s length international trading in oil.
The extent to which these benchmarks are a true reflection of the balance of supply and demand in the world economy is a matter of conjecture. The suspicion is that they owe as much to manipulation, anomaly and speculation as underlying fundamentals.
Like stock and bond markets, oil has become “financialised”. These days, it appears as much the playground of hedge funds, hoarders and financial investors as genuine users and producers. When the oil price took flight three years ago, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) dismissed claims of undue speculative influence as largely nonsense, and on the basis of “the market is always right” dogma of the time, put the phenomenon down mainly to supply constraints against a backdrop of fast-growing demand.
Not for the first time, the FSA was being naive. Price discovery in oil is at best untransparant and inexact, and at worst subject to substantial distortion. The reason this is of such vital importance is because oil plays such a big role in economic activity. To allow oil markets to become subject to the same speculative excesses as sub-prime mortgages would be disastrous. Producer and consumer behaviour are crucially determined by what the price says; when the pricing signal is wrong, economic activity will be affected in highly undesirable ways.
An unduly elevated price will eventually destroy demand, which in turn will undermine sustainable investment in new capacity to meet future demand growth. These cycles are a major influence on the ups and downs of the broader business environment.
A study by Bassam Fattouh of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies – An Anatomy of the Crude Oil Pricing System – finds the benchmarks that determine world energy prices to be wanting in a number of important respects.
One look at the difference between the two main benchmarks – Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) – immediately tells you there’s something wrong. Historically, WTI has traded at a small premium to Brent, but over the past year, a near record discount of some $15 a barrel has opened up. This in part reflects ample supply in the US Midwest (WTI is an American benchmark) and an equally pronounced squeeze on supplies of Brent. Brent is a waterborne crude, while WTI is a landlocked American benchmark, so the difference might be attributed to the US economy still being down in the dumps while Asia is booming.
But what do the now quite small quantities of oil still coming out of the North Sea have to do with Asia? The answer is virtually nothing, and yet Brent is used in some shape or form to determine prices for approximately 70pc of internationally traded oil. Markets with very low volumes of production are being used to price ones with very high production elsewhere in the world.
The traditional benchmarks might have more credibility if they were at least solidly grounded in the physically traded product, but they are not. In fact, oil markets are characterised by a complex structure of interlinked spot, physical forwards, futures, options and derivative markets, all of which feed into the benchmark price. The paper market is arguably as important in driving the price as the physical one.
Add to that the fact that no one really knows what’s going on in the world’s fastest growing oil market, China, and all the ingredients are there for a mispricing disaster.
The conclusion drawn by Mr Fattouh is that new benchmarks may be needed to reflect the emergence of Asia as the main source of growth in demand for oil. Perhaps unfortunately, we seem most unlikely to get one. As monopoly, state-owned suppliers that won’t auction their oil, the main OPEC producers are even less capable of generating credible price discovery benchmarks than Brent.
Of course, these musings may soon be largely irrelevant. It may be true that whatever the regime, the oil will keep flowing, but with Pandora’s Box now well and truly opened across great swathes of the Middle East, there’s no knowing where it will end. Short-term supply, future pricing, ownership and preferred trading partners – all these things are again up in the air.
Back in 2005, I attended a conference on commodities in London and was amazed at how much money pensions were shoving into so-called "commodity indexes" (even if they were made up of 76% oil futures). It's ridiculous to think that there is no speculation going on in oil markets. Go back to read Michael Masters' excellent testimony to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It's all happening again except this time we also have geopolitical eruptions spurring on further speculation.
The price of oil makes me nervous for one simple reason: if it shoots up, it can easily destabilize the fragile recovery taking place right now. And here is something else to ponder: higher oil price increases deflationary pressures:
...while jumps in the oil price cause inflation to rise at the headline level, it also has an adverse impact on economic activity, reducing demand which naturally serves as a deflationary force. This happens in a number of ways as higher fuel costs hamper a firm's production, which in turn forces it to lay off workers while also reducing wage pressures.
Analysts at UBS believe a $10 hike in the oil price would push up European inflation by 0.2% over one year and 0.1% over two years. They do not believe further oil prices would necessarily translate into significant inflation because of the countering deflationary forces.
According to the investment bank's simulations a jump in oil prices pushes up the energy component of the inflation index but depresses core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices.
Analysis from the bank shows that a 10% increase in crude reduces core inflation by 0.1% a year after with the deflationary effects of oil shocks seem to take longer to disappear with projected core inflation still well below the non-shock level. This is because the shock is estimated to reduce economic activity for more than two years. In a extreme case scenario where the price of oil rises by as much as $50 core inflation subsequently drops by 0.25%.
For this reason UBS does not expect European central banks to be knee-jerked into action if the oil prices continue to rise amid the Middle East tensions.
'An eventual oil shock would hit the EU economy in an environment of low inflation expectations and wage deflation,' UBS says. 'For this reason we think the ECB would not be too worried about second-round effects, and would therefore not be forced to hike rates earlier.'
So while the oil shock may not result in central bankers becoming overly hawkish it could in fact have an opposite deflationary impact and reduce the need for an aggressive tightening campaign on rates.
Whether this could drag the global economy back into recession remains to be seen.
I'm not so sure the ECB (aka the Bundesbank) really cares about anything else except for what's going on in Germany. It wouldn't surprise me if they do start hiking rates, killing the periphery economies and adding further fuel to deflationary forces. I hope I'm wrong but they never cease to amaze me.
As for the global economy, it still runs on oil. If oil prices shoot up, expect more riots, more instability, and more volatility in financial markets. The way things are going, we might be back to a time where everything is correlated to oil. This unstable environment is great for arms manufacturers, but it will wreak havoc on the global economy. Hedge accordingly.