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30/09/2006 | Oil slides down

The Economist Staff

Cheaper oil is welcome but it is unclear whether lower prices will last. Worse, the uncertainty may reflect worries that America's economy is weakening too.

 

Two months ago headlines were trumpeting record oil prices. Today the cost of petrol is plummeting. Since the price of crude peaked above $78 a barrel in July, it has tumbled even faster than it soared. On Monday, September 25th, the cost of a barrel of oil touched $59.52 in intraday trading, its lowest level since March.

Oil slides downOne might expect economists to be dancing in the streets. The rising cost of oil, after all, has been clouding their forecasts for over a year. Dearer oil has been pushing up inflation throughout the developed world, crimping consumer confidence, and for the first time in 20 years reviving fears of “stagflation”, the crippling combination of inflation and slow growth that devastated economies in the 1970s. (This time around, so far, the higher price of oil has had much less impact on the world economy.)

But many analysts remain gloomy. Oil markets are relatively easy at this time of year, resting between high petrol demand in the summer travel season, and winter needs for home heating oil. While prices may drift lower in the short term, a cold winter could drive them skywards again. And futures markets are slightly more pessimistic than the spot prices might suggest: the cost of a barrel of oil for delivery in January closed at $63.50 on Monday.

They might be cheerier if it was clearer why, exactly, prices rose in the first place. Economists have a rough notion of the factors that helped push up the price over the past two years. Rapid global economic growth lifted demand for energy, particularly in America and China. Supply has been tight, in part because oil is getting more expensive to find, but also because suppliers, particularly in OPEC, have been haunted by the memory of $10 for a barrel of the black stuff in the late 1990s. This has made them reluctant to expand capacity too quickly.

Security woes in the Middle East and Africa, political worries in Latin America, and violent hurricanes in North America have made everyone jumpy—and eager to hoard precious petroleum. The steady increase in commodity prices over the past few years also attracted new investors who were disgusted with low interest rates and lacklustre equity markets. Many believe that prices rose especially high because of speculation, rather than market fundamentals.

If analysts know approximately what factors drove up the price, they find it much harder to say exactly what each one contributed. How much of the price is a reasonable concession to market conditions and the possibility of supply shocks, and how much can be attributed to the speculative fever of hedge funds chasing returns? If analysts could answer this, they might be able to predict how low it will now fall.

Not much lower, if OPEC has anything to say about it. At their September 11th meeting in Vienna, OPEC’s nervous ministers left quotas where they were—but raised the possibility of production cuts before the next meeting if prices continue to tumble. Although many OPEC producers, particularly Saudi Arabia, had worried that high oil prices would cause a recession in the West—and a resulting glut on the oil markets—after several years of steady increases in both price and consumption, they are extremely reluctant to return to the moderate prices of yesteryear.

But OPEC needs to be careful not to get addicted to expensive oil. Demand tends to be relatively unresponsive to price changes over the short term, but in the longer run consumers adopt more fuel-efficient lifestyles, which can cause prices to collapse. This is what happened in the 1980s, leaving big holes in OPEC members’ budgets.

More worrying still is one possible contributor to falling oil prices: fears of a slowdown in the American economy. There are troubling signs already, especially in the housing market which has supported consumer spending over the past few years. If house prices drop and if America’s economy slows sharply, then producers may find demand for oil sinking fast too. The only saving grace: a lower oil price may, in turn, give the American economy the sort of boost it needs.

The Economist (Reino Unido)

 



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27/01/2009|
27/01/2009|
27/01/2009|
17/01/2009|
17/01/2009|
17/01/2009|
17/01/2009|
17/01/2009|
17/01/2009|
11/01/2009|
06/12/2008|
06/12/2008|
06/12/2008|
06/12/2008|
23/11/2008|
23/11/2008|
16/11/2008|
16/11/2008|
04/11/2008|
04/11/2008|
03/11/2008|
03/11/2008|
24/10/2008|
24/10/2008|
24/10/2008|
24/10/2008|
15/09/2008|
15/09/2008|
15/09/2008|
15/09/2008|
15/09/2008|
15/09/2008|
06/09/2008|
06/09/2008|
05/09/2008|
05/09/2008|
05/09/2008|
05/09/2008|
01/09/2008|
01/09/2008|
01/09/2008|
01/09/2008|
22/08/2008|
22/08/2008|
17/08/2008|
17/08/2008|
16/08/2008|
16/08/2008|
28/07/2008|
28/07/2008|
28/07/2008|
28/07/2008|
28/07/2008|
28/07/2008|
19/07/2008|
19/07/2008|
24/05/2008|
24/05/2008|
03/05/2008|
03/05/2008|
29/04/2008|
11/02/2008|
05/01/2008|
09/12/2007|
18/11/2007|
10/11/2007|
10/11/2007|
06/11/2007|
06/11/2007|
06/09/2007|
26/08/2007|
25/08/2007|
11/07/2007|
16/06/2007|
16/06/2007|
10/06/2007|
10/06/2007|
19/05/2007|
19/05/2007|
19/05/2007|
19/05/2007|
24/04/2007|
24/04/2007|
14/04/2007|
14/04/2007|
05/04/2007|
05/04/2007|
05/04/2007|
28/02/2007|
28/02/2007|
05/02/2007|
05/02/2007|
04/02/2007|
04/02/2007|
04/02/2007|
04/02/2007|
04/02/2007|
04/02/2007|
29/01/2007|
29/01/2007|
29/01/2007|
29/01/2007|
11/01/2007|
11/01/2007|
11/01/2007|
11/01/2007|
27/12/2006|
27/12/2006|
27/12/2006|
27/12/2006|
27/12/2006|
27/12/2006|
20/12/2006|
20/12/2006|
17/11/2006|
28/07/2006|
12/04/2006|
12/04/2006|
12/04/2006|
06/03/2006|
21/02/2006|
17/02/2006|
31/01/2006|
10/01/2006|
28/12/2005|
31/10/2005|
26/09/2005|
29/08/2005|
11/08/2005|
08/08/2005|
24/06/2005|
24/06/2005|
24/06/2005|
03/04/2005|
03/04/2005|
03/04/2005|
03/04/2005|

ver + notas
 
Center for the Study of the Presidency
Freedom House