More of a threat to the world economy than investors seem to think
Mar 3rd 2011 | from the print edition
THE price of oil has had an unnerving ability to blow up the world economy, and the Middle East has often provided the spark. The Arab oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian revolution in 1978-79 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 are all painful reminders of how the region’s combustible mix of geopolitics and geology can wreak havoc. With protests cascading across Arabia, is the world in for another oil shock?
There are good reasons to worry. The Middle East and north Africa produce more than one-third of the world’s oil. Libya’s turmoil shows that a revolution can quickly disrupt oil supply. Even while Muammar Qaddafi hangs on with delusional determination and Western countries debate whether to enforce a no-fly zone (see article), Libya’s oil output has halved, as foreign workers flee and the country fragments. The spread of unrest across the region threatens wider disruption.
The markets’ reaction has been surprisingly modest. The price of Brent crude jumped 15% as Libya’s violence flared up, reaching $120 a barrel on February 24th. But the promise of more production from Saudi Arabia pushed the price down again. It was $116 on March 2nd—20% higher than the beginning of the year, but well below the peaks of 2008. Most economists are sanguine: global growth might slow by a few tenths of a percentage point, they reckon, but not enough to jeopardise the rich world’s recovery.
That glosses over two big risks. First, a serious supply disruption, or even the fear of it, could send the oil price soaring (see article). Second, dearer oil could fuel inflation—and that might prompt a monetary clampdown that throttles the recovery. A lot will depend on the skill of central bankers.
So far, the shocks to supply have been tiny. Libya’s turmoil has reduced global oil output by a mere 1%. In 1973 the figure was around 7.5%. Today’s oil market also has plenty of buffers. Governments have stockpiles, which they didn’t in 1973. Commercial oil stocks are more ample than they were when prices peaked in 2008. Saudi Arabia, the central bank of the oil market, technically has enough spare capacity to replace Libya, Algeria and a clutch of other small producers. And the Saudis have made clear that they are willing to pump.
Yet more disruption cannot be ruled out. The oil industry is extremely complex: getting the right sort of oil to the right place at the right time is crucial. And then there is Saudi Arabia itself (see article). The kingdom has many of the characteristics that have fuelled unrest elsewhere, including an army of disillusioned youths. Despite spending $36 billion so far buying off dissent, a repressive regime faces demands for reform. A whiff of instability would spread panic in the oil market.
Even without a disruption to supply, prices are under pressure from a second source: the gradual dwindling of spare capacity. With the world economy growing strongly, oil demand is far outpacing increases in readily available supply. So any jitters from the Middle East will accelerate and exaggerate a price rise that was already on the way.
What effect would that have? It is some comfort that the world economy is less vulnerable to damage from higher oil prices than it was in the 1970s. Global output is less oil-intensive. Inflation is lower and wages are much less likely to follow energy-induced price rises, so central banks need not respond as forcefully. But less vulnerable does not mean immune.
Dearer oil still implies a transfer from oil consumers to oil producers, and since the latter tend to save more it spells a drop in global demand. A rule of thumb is that a 10% increase in the price of oil will cut a quarter of a percentage point off global growth. With the world economy currently growing at 4.5%, that suggests the oil price would need to leap, probably above its 2008 peak of almost $150 a barrel, to fell the recovery. But even a smaller increase would sap growth and raise inflation.
In the United States the Federal Reserve will face a relatively easy choice. America’s economy is needlessly vulnerable, thanks to its addiction to oil (and light taxation of it). Yet inflation is extremely low and the economy has plenty of slack. This gives its central bank the latitude to ignore a sudden jump in the oil price. In Europe, where fuel is taxed more heavily, the immediate effect of dearer oil is smaller. But Europe’s central bankers are already more worried about rising prices: hence the fear that they could take pre-emptive action too far, and push Europe’s still-fragile economies back into recession.
By contrast, the biggest risk in the emerging world is inaction. Dearer oil will stoke inflation, especially through higher food prices—and food still accounts for a large part of people’s spending in countries like China, Brazil and India. True, central banks have been raising interest rates, but they have tended to be tardy. Monetary conditions are still too loose, and inflation expectations have risen.
Unfortunately, too many governments in emerging markets have tried to quell inflation and reduce popular anger by subsidising the prices of both food and fuel. Not only does this dull consumers’ sensitivity to rising prices, it could be expensive for the governments concerned. It will stretch India’s optimistic new budget (see article). But the biggest danger lies in the Middle East itself, where subsidies of food and fuel are omnipresent and where politicians are increasing them to quell unrest. Fuel importers, such as Egypt, face a vicious, bankrupting, spiral of higher oil prices and ever bigger subsidies. The answer is to ditch such subsidies and aim help at the poorest, but no Arab ruler is likely to propose such reforms right now.
At its worst, the danger is circular, with dearer oil and political uncertainty feeding each other. Even if that is avoided, the short-term prospects for the world economy are shakier than many realise. But there could be a silver lining: the rest of the world could at long last deal with its vulnerability to oil and the Middle East. The to-do list is well-known, from investing in the infrastructure for electric vehicles to pricing carbon. The 1970s oil shocks transformed the world economy. Perhaps a 2011 oil shock will do the same—at less cost.