Archive for the 'Oil prices' Category

May 26 2008

It may not be a recession, but it sure feels like one… / Columnists / Wolfgang Munchau – Inflation and the lessons of the 1970s

It seem that everyone’s speculating about the US economy today. Recession or no recession, that is the question. The economy has even surpassed the Iraq War as the number one issue in the US presidential race! John McCain, who has publicly admitted that economics is not his strong suit, may just find himself in trouble in a general election where the most important concern among voters is the economic situation.

So what IS that situation, anyway? Is the US in a recession? In other words, has real gross domestic, or total output in the US economy, actually declined over the last six months? Technically, the answer is no. My fellow blogger, Steve Latter, explains this clearly here. What is true, on the other hand, is that the current situation shares many similarities to the global economic slowdown that did occur in the 1970s.

In 1973 OPEC, the newly formed oil cartel consisting at the time of only Arab states, reduced its output of oil and cut off exports to the United States in response to US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, in which the Israelis officially occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and seized the Golan Heights from the sovereign nation of Syria. To punish the US for its position on this conflict, OPEC cut off supplies of oil to the west, driving gas and energy prices upwards by 70%, triggering a supply shock characterized by a decline in total output and an increase in both unemployment and inflation, a phenomenon known as stagflation: a macroeconomic policy maker’s worst nightmare.

Recently the world has seen a similar (albeit of a different cause) rise in the price of oil and energy prices. Today the rise in energy prices is driven primarily by rising demand, rather than reduced supply (since the 1970s the OPEC cartel has grown to include many non-Arab nations, making it harder to achieve collusion to restrict output and drive up oil prices). Global demand for oil has risen steadily, driven ever higher due to rapid growth in China and other developing nations, and exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, the currency in which oil prices are denominated.

The supply shocks of today have combined with falling aggregate demand in the US due to weak consumer spending to slow real growth rates to nearlry 0%. So technically, the US has avoided a recession, but the effect on American workers and consumers may be just as painful as the real recession of the 1970s. In order to prevent the “r” word from becoming a reality today, central banks (including the US Fed) have eased money supplies, lowering interest rates, fueling even greater increases in the price level.

…the global weighted average inflation rate will be 5.4 per cent this year, while the global money market interest rate is currently only 4.3 per cent. This means that global short-term real interest rates are negative – at a time when inflation is rapidly accelerating. As monetary policy has been excessively accommodating for more than a decade, inflationary pressures have built up in the global economy.

Central bankers like Ben Bernanke have to make tough decisions sometimes, weighing the trade-off between unemployment and inflation, and determining their monetary policies based on whatever they deem to be the “lesser of two evils”. Rising energy prices have forced firms to cut either cut back their production and raise the price of their products, both actions that result in less overall spending and output in the economy. Falling house prices have led consumers to cut back their own spending, further reducing demand for firms’ output. These factors have all pushed the unemployment rate from around 4.8% a year ago to 5.1% today, which combined with an estimated additional 3-5% of American workers having dropped out of the workforce, (referred to by the Department of Labor as “discouraged workers”) paints a pretty ugly picture of the reality for the American worker today.

The harsh reality of the weak labor market has led Mr. Bernanke and the Fed to pursue an expansionary monetary policy aimed at avoiding further increases in the unemployment rate and decreases in the GDP growth rate. Expansionary monetary policy means lower interest rates, with the goal being increased consumption and investment, both factors that could worsen the inflation problem already experienced thanks to the global supply shock. Evidence indicates that the inflation problem, even in the US where slow growth usually leads to lower price levels, is not going away:

In the US, a survey-based measure of inflationary expectations recently showed an increase to more than 5 per cent. I would estimate there are now several hundred basis points of difference between the current Fed funds rate and an interest rate that would be consistent with price stability in the medium term.

…meaning the Fed, in its attempt to avoid recession and rising unemployment, has created a condition where real interest rates are actually negative, a highly inflationary condition. All this wouldn’t be so bad if wages in the US were rising along with the price level. This however, does not appear to be happening:

The main difference between the situation in the 1970s and now is today’s absence of wage inflation, which explains why absolute inflation rates are a little more moderate. I guess this is probably because of some combination of deregulated labour markets and globalisation. But the lack of wage-push inflation is not necessarily good news. Falling real wages mean falling disposable income and tighter credit conditions mean less borrowing for consumption.

Rising prices for energy, transportation and food have put American households in a tough situation. In the past, periods of inflation have often been characterized by rising wages, meaning the full brunt of nominal price level increases was not entirely born by the American worker. Today, on the other hand, a recession has thus far been avoided, but the combination of record numbers of “discouraged workers”, rising unemployment and inflation may make the pain of our current economic situation just as real as recessions of the past.

In the words of billionaire investor and economic sage Warren Buffett just today:

“I believe that we are already in a recession… Perhaps not in the sense as defined by economists. … But people are already feeling the effects of a recession.”

“It will be deeper and longer than what many think,” he added.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between nominal and real GDP? Which must decline in order for the economy to be in a recession?
  2. What impact do rising energy prices have on the behavior of individual firms?
  3. Why are low interest rates likely to make the inflation problem even worse?

9 responses so far

May 09 2008

Colbert’s solution to rising fuel prices: “Total Gas Holiday”

Published by under Humor,Oil prices

Hat tip to Greg Mankiw.

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May 05 2008

“Living” evidence of a determinant of demand at work in the deserts of Northern India / Asia-Pacific / India – Camel demand soars in India

In a principles of economics course such as AP or IB Econ, we learn about the determinants of demand. I teach my students the acronym “TOEISS”, which stands for consumer tastes, other related goods’ prices, expectations, income, size of the market and special circumstances. A change in any of these determinants will shift the demand curve for a particular product.

“Other related goods” refers to the effect that a change in price for a substitute or a complement of one good will have on the demand for that good. An example might be the effect of an increase in the price of pork on demand for beef. Clearly, these two goods are substitutes in consumption, and if pork becomes pricey, consumers will demand more beef.

In an era of soaring gasoline prices, many consumers have made the switch from large, inefficient, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs to smaller, more efficient hybrids and compact cars, a reasonable substitute for the average commuter. For some drivers, however, a hybrid just won’t meet their everyday needs.

In northern India, where farmers rely on tractors to till their arid fields, rising gas prices have made expensive tractors, dependent as they are on large inputs of fuel, less attractive to farmers. As gas prices have risen, demand patterns have shifted among farmers in the northern state of Rajasthan:

As the cost of running gas-guzzling tractors soars, even-toed ungulates are making a comeback, raising hopes that a fall in the population of the desert state’s signature animal can be reversed.

It’s excellent for the camel population if the price of oil continues to go up because demand for camels will also go up,” says Ilse Köhler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development. “Two years ago, a camel cost little more than a goat, which is nothing. The price has since trebled…

”Market prices for these “ships of the desert”, which crashed with the growing affordability of motorised transport, are rising again as oil prices soar.

A sturdy male with a life expectancy of 60-80 years now fetches up to Rs40,000 ($973), compared to Rs5,000-Rs10,000 three years ago, according to Hanuwant Singh of the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, a non-profit welfare organisation for livestock keepers. Entry-level tractors cost around $4,000.

Camels, the ultimate “alternative energy vehicle”. In fact, the only fuel these vehicles need is the occasional bite of grass and a weekly sip of water; talk about fuel economy!

While it may seem funny to those of us so used to the motor vehicle, animals represent a viable substitute for farm machinery in the developing world, and it is likely that as fuel costs continue to soar, more poor farmers will switch back to traditional means of tilling their soil. Water buffalo, cattle, camels, these are all substitutes for the gas powered tractor. Demand for these “alternative vehicles” will rise as fuel costs climb.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is causing the demand for camels to increase in India?
  2. What will happen to demand for camels if the price of oil begins to fall again in the future? Explain.
  3. Do you think the camel is a viable “alternative energy vehicle”? What are the pros and cons of using a camel for farming compared to using a tractor for farming?

6 responses so far

Apr 29 2008

Obama vs. McCain and Clinton on gas tax relief

As Clinton Seeks Gas Tax Break for Summer, Obama Says No – New York Times

Times are tough for American consumers. Rising food and fuel prices have increased the proportion of household incomes that must be allocated towards these two necessities, both for which demand is highly inelastic, meaning that as their prices rise, the quantity demanded by consumers remains relatively high.

In response to the pinching of Americans’ pocketbooks, two presidential candidates are advocating action at the federal level.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lined up with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, in endorsing a plan to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season.

Sounds like a good idea, right? If Americans are finding it burdensome to pay more at the pump, and the government can do something to relieve that burden, why shouldn’t they do it?

Let’s do a little calculation here: At 18.4 cents per gallon, how much per fill-up will Americans save?

I drive a ’94 Toyota pick-up, has a 15 gallon tank and gets notoriously poor mileage. I’ll save $2.76 per tank of gas I buy. I usually fill up my truck about once a week during the summer, meaning I’ll save that much each week. McCain wants to suspend the gas tax from Memorial Day until Labor Day, or for a total of about 12 weeks. If Clinton and McCain get their way, I could very well save as much as $33.12 this year! ASTOUNDING!! What a deal for Americans!

Clearly, repealing the gas tax will have only a minor impact on disposable incomes in America. Obama seems to understand this better than the other candidates:

Senator Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic rival, spoke out firmly against the proposal, saying it would save consumers little and do nothing to curtail oil consumption and imports

Mr. Obama derided the McCain-Clinton idea of a federal tax holiday as a “short-term, quick-fix” proposal that would do more harm than good, and said the money, which is earmarked for the federal highway trust fund, is badly needed to maintain the nation’s roads and bridges.

The decision to suspend or not suspend federal gas taxes is essentially a cost-benefit decision. The benefit? Well, apparently around $30 per driver, or about half a tank of gas, compliments of the US government. The cost? Read on…

The highway trust fund that the gas tax finances provides money to states and local governments to pay for road and bridge construction, repair and maintenance. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton propose to suspend the tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the peak driving season, which would lower tax receipts by roughly $9 billion and potentially cost 300,000 highway construction jobs, according to state highway officials.

There you have it; $9 billion dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs that won’t be created in order to put half a tank of gas in each American’s car, which if you think about it, will only lead to Americans driving more this summer. Repealing the gas tax may actually induce Americans who weren’t planning road trips to go ahead and take one, increasing the overall demand for gas and driving the price up to the level it would have been with the tax.

And what about the much needed government revenue the tax creates? Hillary has another plan for recouping that loss:

Mrs. Clinton would replace that money with the new tax on oil company profits, an idea that has been kicking around Congress for several years but has not been enacted into law. Mr. McCain would divert tax revenue from other sources to make the highway trust fund whole.

Clearly, Mrs. Clinton needs a refresher course in basic microeconomics. If she had paid attention in AP Economics (did she even take AP Econ?), Clinton would know that a tax on producers of a highly inelastic good such as oil can be passed almost entirely onto the consumers. In this case, the oil companies, when faced with additional federal taxes on profits, will respond by restricting output, which reduces overall supply in oil market, raising the price of the main input for gasoline. Higher input costs for gasoline refineries will reduce overall supply of gasoline, increasing the price paid by consumers at the pump, negating any price-reduction induced by the suspension of the gas tax.

Ultimately, all taxes are borne by the consumers of an inelastic product: gasoline in this case. Whether the tax is levied on drivers directly, or the oil companies “upstream” in the production process, the outcome is the same: supply is restricted and price is higher.

The suspension of a gas tax that only costs Americans $30 over 3 months appears to impose a much greater cost to society than benefit. At least Obama seems to understand the basic economic reasoning behind this fact.

Obama on State Gas Tax Suspension

9 responses so far

Feb 25 2008

Stagflation – a blast from the past could mean trouble for US economy

Stagflation??Inflation gets a new focus along with recession worries – Feb. 21, 2008

As we begin our studies of the theories underlying the aggregate demand/aggregate supply model in AP Macroeconomics, it is useful to look in the news to see if we can try and understand how these theories apply to the real world. In the US, it appears as if a dangerous economic phenomena that plagued the country in the early 1970’s may be returning to wreak its havoc among households and policymakers.

Stagflation, “the unwanted combination of stagnant economic growth and destructive inflation”, has emerged in America today, in the face of weak aggregate demand and rising unemployment, combined with rising costs to firms thanks to energy costs and food prices.

Recession has been getting so much attention lately that it’s been easy to forget about the threats posed to the U.S. economy by inflation.But inflation worries are now back in focus in a major way. Oil prices hit a record of $101.32 a barrel in trading Wednesday, and was briefly above $100 again Thursday

Meanwhile, the Consumer Price Index, the government’s key inflation reading, showed a 4.3% rise in overall prices over the past 12-months. That reading has risen steadily from only 2.0% last August. Even stripping out volatile food and energy prices, the so-called core CPI posted the biggest seasonally-adjusted one-month jump in 19 months.

Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

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