DID HIGH PRICED OIL CAUSE THE CRISIS ?
Attempts are made to try out this argument, in a few diehard neoliberal New Economy circles, for example tracing problems reducing the USA's extreme high, but falling trade deficit, to "stubbornly high" oil prices. Whenever mass unemployment, recession and devaluing the dollar to cut import demand and sell more US products overseas does not work, the handy culprit is high priced oil. Put another way, if US oil imports cost nothing, the trade deficit would be a lot smaller, but the same applies to overseas purchases of US exports like Microsoft Windows or Apple iPhones - if they were given away, importing them would be cheap and easy.
To be sure, the fact-free one-liners and soundbytes from defenders of the only way to run the economy wheel the shadow of 1970s Oil Shocks on stage - high priced oil was the sole reason for massive inflation and devaluation of the dollar, at the time, according to New Economy myth. More likely than these mercantilist strivings, seeking to bolster the money with always-in-surplus trade accounts, high priced oil through 2004-2007 drove the global economy and world trade to record high growth rates, in a process I call Petro Keynesian Growth.
This is recognized since around 2006 in multiple studies published by the IMF and US Federal Reserve Banks (for example the Reserve Bank of New York) which underline that windfall gains to oil and commodity exporters are recycled to the global economy almost completely in the year they accrue, totally unlike the 1970s case of "unrecycled" petrodollars. These studies go on to point out the USA is now the principal beneficiary of recycled petrodollars in the OECD: not only does it get a large slice of its own oil trade deficit dollars back, but also gets recycled petrodollars, and recycled petroeuros or petroyen from other big oil importer countries. To be sure there is a downside, investors recycling petrodollars want performance. They move them elsewhere, very fast, when performance shrinks as the economy slumps into recession.
DEBT, DEBT AND DEFICITS
The oil trade deficit for any country counts a lot of entry items and output items, in the US case including a rising amount of refined product exports. Invisibles include drilling and seismic services, equipment, financing and other revenue or value items, cutting the "big number" of the apparent deficit, based only on volume - not value - data for total gross imports of crude and products multiplied by the prevailing oil price.
The volume number counts two components: gross imports of crude and products, and net imports after re-exports. Where crude is imported, and products exported, the value gain (and refinery gains) help pay a part of the crude imports, reducing the net deficit on oil trade.
This "big number" for the OECD group is about 44.5 Mbd (million barrels a day), of which the US takes around 12.5 Mbd in May 2010. If we used an average year barrel price of US$ 100, this would generate a total "big number" of approximately 1625 billion US dollars a year for the OECD group.
Net imports after re-exports are running about 20 Mbd less than the gross import volume figure, at around 24.75 Mbd for the OECD group in May 2010. This net import volume number multiplied by the prevailing oil price gives the apparent net deficit on oil trade - excluding value items (oil services, equipment, financing etc).
At a year average barrel price of US$ 100, current net oil import volumes of the OECD group's 27 importer countries would generate an apparent oil trade deficit of about US$ 900 billion a year.
Taking account of value items, the net deficit is far lower and probably below US$ 675 billion a year with a year-average barrel at US$ 100. Estimates for the net deficit on oil trade for the OECD range around US$ 625 - 675 bn a year, if we take a 100-dollar year average barrel price. Current outlook, assuming an 85-dollar average barrel for 2010, runs around 15% less, that is about 550 - 600 billion US dollars for year 2010. The US net deficit would likely be in the range of 180 - 190 billion US dollars for year 2010 with year average 85-dollar barrel.
To be sure this is a big number, but it needs comparing with total economic output and value data. This can be calculated several ways, including purchasing power and market currency corrections and estimates, leading to considerable variations. For 2009, after a fall in total GDP of the 30-nation OECD group attaining about 4.5% (using estimates from the IMF, World Bank, OECD Secretariat), OECD economic output was about 35 000 billion US dollars in value.
Relative to this, a net yearly import cost for all OECD oil consumption of around 650 billion US dollars, with an annual average barrel price around US$ 100, is not exactly extreme at about 2% of total GDP.
This is really clear from the quickest cut review of national budget deficits in nearly all OECD countries (excluding only 3 or 4 with deficits under 3% of annual GDP) for year 2010. The US and UK, for example, have record high budget deficits for 2010, in the 10% - 12% range.
For the US, the budget deficit swollen by debt service payments and hand outs and bail outs to failed finance sector gamblers will probably exceed 1500 billion US dollars. Several Eurozone-16 countries come close to this as a percent of national economic output (GDP) for 2010, with the EU-27 group of countries likely facing region-wide budget deficits totaling 1200 billion US dollars equivalent, in 2010. Japan, the record holder in the OECD group for national debt relative to annual GDP, will use at least 20% of its 2010 budget simply to pay interest on debt, for a deficit of above 500 billion US dollars equivalent.
National budget deficits for the US, EU-27 and Japan can exceed 3200 billion US dollars in 2010. Spending 650 bn US dollars on oil is distanced and shrunk to its real relative size, by these massive and likely out-of-control national deficits - and assuming oil prices rise to the "fear and loathing", or probable panic level of 100 dollars a barrel, year average. On current barrel price data, the net oil trade deficit for the entire OECD group, probably less than 600 billion US dollars for 2010, is around 18% of the national budget deficit number, and a tiny fraction of accumulated national debt for the group.
To be sure, austerity and rigour are now the keyword slogans for attempts to trim these massive deficits, but all political leaders in the OECD group know that only one thing can get them off the hook: economic growth. Getting economic growth back to the most-recent "belle epoque", that is 2004-2007 will unsurprisingly result in higher oil demand - pushing oil prices higher. The panic response to oil at 100 dollars a barrel will therefore be totally unproductive, and this time could trigger attempts at massive devaluation, national austerity, trade protection and any number of old style, tried-and-failed remedies for cutting economic pain.
THE BIGGEST DEFICIT
The biggest deficit is facing up to oil dependence and doing something about it - rather than making theatrical claims of climate change apocalypse as a smokescreen for selling energy austerity and justifying debt-financed and large government subsidies to high price green energy vanity projects. Changes to national energy policies and programmes through the last 35 years that could have been made, but were dumped the second oil prices fell back below the panic level, will be needed soon, rather than throwing borrowed and printed money at fantasy problems with fantasy solutions.
In the current this is unlikely. Going for growth is the No Alternative option - so higher oil prices will be the only result. Given the real amounts in play, panicking at the 100-dollar barrel is about as realistic as imagining biofuels can substitute even 10% of world car fleet fuel demand, but an entirely speculative oil price trading casino can drive prices right off the top of the chart. Energy conservation and rational energy utilisation, demand side management, and a massive increase in oil producer-consumer country dialogue and confidence building, with oil pricing taken out of the casino, are the only ways forward.
By Andrew McKillop
Project Director, GSO Consulting Associates
Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights
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