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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Is the world economy suffering from 'high-priced fuel syndrome'?

The major issue for many countries is that oil is becoming too expensive for the economy to afford, Tverberg writes.

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Home prices started to drop in 2006 as well (Figure 6, above), and they haven’t been able to recover yet. We don’t think of homes as being discretionary spending items, but people can’t move into more expensive homes unless their incomes are rising. First-time buyers will also tend to put off purchases, if their financial situation is tight. The construction industry was one of the industries to face large lay-offs.

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Gail Tverberg, an actuary with a background in math, analyzes energy and financial matters from a perspective that the world has limited resources. For more of Gail's posts, click here.

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Defaults on loans caused considerable problems in the financial industry. “Short sales” (in which the sales price of a home is insufficient to pay off the remaining mortgage because the price of a home has fallen) also caused losses to the financial industry. The financial system was not set up with the idea that there may be a systemic problem of this sort. As a result, many banks found themselves in financial difficulty and needed governmental bailouts.

Other industries, such as auto manufacturing and insurance, also required bailouts. These patterns are precisely what one might expect from rising oil prices.

I make arguments similar to these in Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis. James Hamilton (2009) has shown that the rise in oil prices alone were sufficient to bring on recession in the 2007-2008 recession.

One other important factor also affecting the 2006 to 2008 period was target interest rates. The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised interest rates during the 2004 to 2006 period (Figure 7, below).

The basic idea in manipulating interest rates is that low interest rates are supposed to increase economic activity, because low interest rates make it less expensive to buy a car, using a loan, or to take out a home improvement loan. They also make it less expensive for businesses to finance expansion with a loan. Higher interest rates are supposed to decrease economic activity, because of the opposite impact.

Ludlum (2009) reviewed the minutes of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC). The FOMC noticed rising energy and food prices as early as December 9, 2003. It wasn’t until June 2004, though, that the FOMC first raised interest rates, in an attempt to “damp down” demand for oil. The committee’s view (not stated in the minutes, but implied by rising interest rates) was that the rapid expansion of the US economy was leading to rising oil and food prices. The expectation was that raising interest rates would damp down US demand for oil, and bring inflationary pressures affecting oil prices under control. The FOMC continued to raise interest rates by 0.25% at each of its meetings (the minutes repeatedly comment about rising energy and food prices), until the target interest rate reached 5.25% in June 2006). The FOMC did not start bringing interest rates down again until September 2007.

If the problem were really rising US demand for oil, this approach might have worked. In fact, the real issue was rising oil demand elsewhere, especially China, India and other Asian countries. China had joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, and was ramping up its exports starting in 2002 and 2003. It also didn’t help that world oil supply was not rising very quickly, so rising demand led to rising oil prices.

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