Capping the costs of oil-led inflation

The cost to Americans of imported oil creeps steadily upward -- affecting family pocketbooks, the balance of trade, and US vulnerability to foreign pressure.

The inflationary bulge of oil prices is underscored in President Carter's Economic Report to Congress, which forecasts continued high inflation -- 10.4 percent this year, compared with 13.3 percent in 1979 -- a mild recession, and unemployment rising from the current 5.9 to 7.5 percent.

The doubling of oil prices last year, the report says, both drags the economy down and adds to inflation, as consumers are forced to spend ever higher sums to drive their cars and heat their homes.

"Our immediate objective," says Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), "is to prevent the oil-led inflation of 1979 from continuing this year."

White House officials expect -- though they admit that predicting what the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will do is risky business -- that oil prices this year will rise less rapidly, because world supplies currently are adequate.

Expectation of some additional oil price hikes, Mr. Schultze said, was factored into the economic report's prediction that consumer prices will rise this year by 10.4 percent.

"We must," he says, "prevent a spillover of the overall 13.3 percent consumer price inflation into wage rates, which would give us a double-digit underlying rate of inflation."

"Already," Mr. Schultze said, "the underlying rate of inflation -- when you strip away [the volatiles of] energy, food, and housing -- has gone from 6 to 8 percent."

Experts agree that this underlying inflation, once it becomes embedded in the economy, is extremely hard to melt down.

This year, a US Treasury official says, an estimated 40 percent of all American exports will be needed to pay for the $83 billion worth of foreign oil americans are expected to buy.

In 1974, 27 percent of exports covered the oil import bill, rising -- according to US Treasury figures -- to about 33 percent in 1979.

Equally dramatic over the past decade has been a shift in the sources of US-imported oil -- away from friendly nearby nations to Middle Eastern and North African lands potenitally less secure as suppliers.

In 1970, the American Petroleum Institute (API) says, the United States bought 71 percent of its foreign oil from "neighborly Canada and Venezuela."

Canada is rapidly phasing out of the oil export business to the United States (though it continues its natural gas sales), and Venezuela also is cutting back.

In 1979, API says, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria -- the four top suppliers to Americans -- furnished 60 percent of all petroleum brought in by the US, up from 11 percent in 1970.

Of these four powers, all except Saudi Arabia stand at the top of the heap of the OPEC pricing structure, charging $30 or more for each barrel of their oil.

Saudi Arabia now charges $26 a barrel, lowest among the 13 members of OPEC.

A new outburst of Arab-Israeli tension could cut off, or diminish, the flow of oil from the three Arab members of this leading foursome.

Even without trouble between Israel and the Arabs, most Saudi oil would be lost to the US, if the Strait of Hormuz at the foot of the Persian Gulf were closed to oil traffic due to sabotage, war, or local political action.

The extent to which the US economy grew fat -- and Americans complacent -- on cheap oil is shown by the fact that in the 20-year span between 1953 and 1973, the world price of crude rose only from $2.39 a barrel to $3.01.

In the six succeeding years, the price multiplied nearly 10 times, to an average close to $30 a barrel. In 1979 alone, according to the US Department of Energy, the world price of oil rose 98.1 percent.

This added almost 4 percent to the US Consumer Price Index -- "the equivalent of a $40 billion to $45 billion tax increase," says a senior White House official, "so far as draining purchasing power from the economy."

It also drained money from family pocketbooks, by forcing people to spend more of their disposable income on gasoline and home heating oil.

Although consumption of gasoline was down by about 9 percent in November 1979 , the Department of Commerce reports, Americans spent 34.5 percent more money in service stations than they did a year before.

Despite last year's enormous oil-import bill -- $56.7 billion, a record -- the US trimmed its overall foreign trade deficit from $28.45 billion in 1978 to

This gain was made possible because American exports -- both manufactured and farm goods -- grew substantially, to a total of $181.6 billion. Total imports cost Americans $206.3 billion.

In 1980 the trade shortfall is expected to grow again, because world oil prices already are much higher than they were during the bulk of 1979.

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