Monday, June 09, 2008

Oil Prices and Their Impact

The oil market continues to amaze and bewilder me. As I argued to a friend yesterday, it is not so much why prices are high today, but why they were so low for so long. After hitting the mid- to high-30 dollar range in 1979, we saw the nominal price of oil fall to around $10 per barrel in 1999. The theory of exhaustible natural resources (a la Hotelling) would predict that the real price should increase at the real rate of interest (actually, the price net of marginal extraction cost). With 1979 as a base, that theory currently fits the data quite well: using the CPI as our inflation measure, a $35 price in 1979 becomes $100 in today's dollars; growing that at 1.5% as an estimate of the real rate of interest over the period would yield a price today of $156. Not too far off.

So again, what is surprising is why prices were so low for so long, and why all of a sudden they have increased by so much.

I still am amazed that we are not seeing more demand elasticity than we are. I suspect it will kick in. Along those lines, this article has a quote from John Casesa, who was one of my students in 1984-86. He now runs an auto industry consulting firm. John notes that the auto industry is changing forever: "The trend away from these vehicles (SUVs) is irreversible."

Thus, once the longer term demand effects kick in, with a whole range of consumer and producer substitutions away from crude oil, the reductions in demand will be permanent.

Soon, I will do a posting on a possible explanation for the sudden increase in oil prices that relies on this permanent and significant set of substitution effects. I will present an argument that once certain forces pushed the price of oil past a certain level, the desire by some oil producers to keep prices low to enhance future demand disappeared.

The story is complicated and I am not sure I am all that comfortable with it, but it is worth pursuing.

But for now, let us economists just sit back and watch economic forces at work.

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