Oil prices surged to near $107 per barrel yesterday and regular gasoline is going for $3.51 per gallon. Last March oil sold for around $80 per barrel and gas cost about $2.79 per gallon. The uprisings throughout the Middle East are in part responsible for the recent uptick in prices. For example, the fighting in Libya has reduced global oil production by about one million barrels per day. On the other hand, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are boosting their outputby a similar amount to make up for the shortfall. Democrats in Congress are calling upon President Barack Obama to damp down prices by selling off oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Of course, the global oil market is pricing in worries that production could be disrupted if protesters in other major OPEC producers such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran began to demand greater freedom. What would happen to the U.S. economy if petroleum prices continue their rapid rise? University of California, San Diego, economist James Hamilton noted in a recent study that 10 out of 11 post-World War II recessions [PDF] in the United States were preceded by a sharp increase in the price of crude petroleum. The only exception was the mild recession of 1960-61 for which there was no preceding rise in oil prices.
Hamilton has also written a fascinating short history [PDF] of U.S. and global oil price shocks. Until 1974 the United States was both the world’s biggest consumer and producer of crude oil. Although domestic oil production has recently upticked, the U.S. today produces about half the oil it did in 1971. It still is the biggest consumer.
It turns out that boom/bust price shocks have been a feature of oil production ever since Edwin Drake drilled his first well in Pennsylvania in 1859. Before Drake’s well crude oil was being sold for the equivalent of $2,000 per barrel (2009 dollars). After Drake’s discovery, the price of oil collapsed by 1861 to about $2.50 per barrel. In those days, the products of crude oil chiefly competed against ethanol as illuminants. Oil became increasingly important to the U.S. economy as it took over as the chief transport fuel. In 1900, there were 0.1 internal combustion-engine vehicles per 1,000 residents, rising to 87 by 1920, and reaching 816 in 2008.
Between 1915 and 1920 oil consumption in the U.S. nearly doubled. A gasoline “famine” broke out in 1920 on the West Coast, provoking state governments to issue ration cards and prosecute “joyriders.” The famine preceded the recession that began in January 1920. The giant oil fields in Texas, California, and Oklahoma came online and oil prices fell 40 percent between 1920 and 1926. By 1931, oil prices had fallen an additional 66 percent. To prevent overproduction, states began to set pumping quotas and Depression-era federal legislation prohibited interstate shipments of oil produced in violation of state regulatory limits. These restrictions did prevent waste, but also boosted prices for producers.
The price shocks after the World War II were generally associated with geopolitical events that significantly disrupted global production. For example, Iran nationalized oil production in 1951 and during the Korean War the U.S. Office of Price Stabilization froze oil prices. In 1956 war broke out when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, disrupting oil imports. The biggest geopolitical event for oil prices was the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which was imposed to punish countries that had supported Israel after it had been attacked by Egypt and Syria. The price of oil doubled. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution resulted in supply disruptions that were then made even worse by the outbreak of the Iran/Iraq War in 1980. Still, in the 1980s, global oil prices collapsed to $12 per barrel.
The next run up in price was associated with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the First Persian Gulf War in 1990. While oil prices slowly rose through most of the 1990s, the U.S. and global economy both continued to expand. The 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis led to another collapse during which oil prices once again fell to $12 per barrel by the end of 1998. “A price that perhaps never will be seen again,” writes Hamilton. After 2001, Hamilton argues that oil production did not keep up with global economic growth. The result was that the price of oil eventually reached its highest level in modern history, about $142 per barrel in the summer of 2008. Interestingly, the U.S. economy entered what would become the Great Recession in December 2007. By December 2008, the price of oil had dropped to just over $30 per barrel.
Hamilton is not arguing that oil price shocks are the sole cause of recessions, but that they tip an already vulnerable economy into contraction. A 2010 study by economists at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank agrees: “For most countries, oil shocks do affect the likelihood of entering a recession. In particular, an average-sized shock to WTI [West Texas Intermediate crude] oil prices increases the probability of recession in the U.S. by nearly 50 percentage points after one year and nearly 90 percentage points after two years.” On the other hand, a 2005 study by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum found that “when oil prices move gradually higher (perhaps somewhat erratically), as they have done over the last several years, they do not directly result in economic recessions, even though the economy may grow modestly slower.” Gradual price increases do not derail economic growth because consumers and entrepreneurs are able to adjust smoothly to them.
So how do oil shocks cause recessions? Hamilton and many other analysts note that the actual amount spent on oil relative to the overall size of the economy initially suggests that the effect of a price increase should be relatively small. For example, as a result of the 1973 oil embargo, the world spent an extra $5.1 billion ($23 billion in 2009 dollars) on oil. Yet, U.S. real GDP declined by 2.5 percent, which is about $38 billion ($164 billion).
One of the key ways oil price hikes negatively affect the U.S. economy is by provoking a decline in demand for new automobiles. Unemployed autoworkers and idled factories can’t be rapidly deployed to other sectors. In addition, uncertainty over oil prices also leads people and firms to postpone purchases of capital and durable goods. While higher oil prices contribute to recessions, lower oil prices do not appear to have much effect on economic expansions. People may postpone buying a new car when gas prices are high, but they don’t rush out to buy one just because pump prices are low.
So will the recent run up in the price of crude push the U.S. economy back into recession? The good news is that the U.S. economy grew at a rate of 3.2 percent in the most recent quarter, and gross domestic product has returned to the level it reached in 2007. On March 1, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified before the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs that “sustained rises in the prices of oil or other commodities would represent a threat both to economic growth and to overall price stability, particularly if they were to cause inflation expectations to become less well anchored.”
The price of oil spiked briefly in 2003 as the result of a strike in Venezuela and the launching of the Second Persian Gulf War. Hamilton points out that actual oil production didn’t decline that much and he believes that strong economic growth rode out that short-term price increase. More worryingly, back in 1973 commodity prices also surged dramatically, which coupled with a doubling in the price of oil, resulted in a deep recession. So, is this 1973 or 2003?
Reason's Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books). This column first appeared at Reason.com.