Business & Economics
The High Cost of Falling Oil Prices
As anyone who drives a lot–or has a TV, reads the paper, or just generally pays attention–knows, the price of gas has gone down recently. Way down! More specifically the price of Brent crude oil, a major global type, dipped below $60 a barrel Tuesday for the first time in more than five years. That means the price of crude oil has dropped by more than $50 a barrel since its peak, which was just in June. Additionally, nationwide the average price of a gallon of gas has dropped from a high of $3.70 in April 2014 to the current low of $2.53. There are several reasons for this drop; there are also numerous issues that have already begun to arise from the drop in price and many more potential problems if the price of oil remains low or falls even further.
Why is the Price of Oil Falling?
First, the obvious questions: why are oil prices suddenly dropping and why is it happening so rapidly? To answer these queries one must look into account, supply, and demand.
Too Much Supply
First is supply. Specifically, there is too much oil out there, or at least that’s the perception. This buildup is the result of several actors overproducing when the market is not ready to absorb their goods.
- OPEC: OPEC stands for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC is an intergovernmental organization aimed at fixing oil prices of its member countries to ensure each has a fair and stable market for its product. The organization is made up of countries from South America, North Africa, and the Middle East. OPEC gained its greatest notoriety, and also put its fairness into question, with two embargoes in the 1970s that dramatically increased prices at the time. In a surprising about face however, in late November 2014, members elected to continue production at current levels. Why would OPEC elect to continue producing at high rates when basic economic wisdom called for a smaller supply? First, several members of OPEC have only just recently been able to ramp production back up to earlier levels. Libya, for example, was in a long struggle with rebels before it recently was able to reopen two key ports critical for oil exportation. Saudi Arabia was already burned before by trying to reduce supply to match demand back in the 1980s. Instead of keeping prices high it saw a significant loss in market share.
- U.S. Energy Boom: OPEC members increasingly have to tangle with the United States. While reports vary on which country is ranked where, the United States is unquestionably the world leader in energy production when natural gas and bio-fuels are included along with oil manufacturing. Biofuels and natural gas aside, the United States still ranks second in oil production behind Saudi Arabia, it being responsible for approximately 12 percent of the world’s output. The reason for the spike in American production is the now well documented shale boom that transformed places like North Dakota into energy and job hot spots. The video below details some of the pros and cons of the U.S. oil boom.
- Other Players: Along with OPEC and the United States there are several other major players in the Oil Industry. Chief among them is Russia, which sits closely behind at number three on the world’s production list. Russia is incredibly dependent on its energy sector, which generates up to 50 percent of the funds necessary to underwrite its budget. Along with Russia there are a few other non-OPEC countries, namely China, Canada, Brazil and Mexico.
Clearly then, higher supply is impacting world oil prices, but it is not alone. Equally as important is demand. After all, you can make as much of something as you like, but if no one wants it you are never going to make any money. So it is, in a sense, with oil.
A major decline in demand has occurred in two generally reliable regions–Asia and Europe–but specifically in Germany and China, due to economic slowdowns. In other key places such as the United States, similar sags in demand have been seen, but for different reasons. In the U.S., use of gasoline by companies plummeted following the financial crisis and has never returned to pre-crisis levels. Additionally, after numerous experiences being burned by unstable prices America has shifted away from high gas consumption toward more efficient technology like hybrids.
What It Means Now
So what does this all mean then? For some countries this drop in oil prices is very bad. Russia in particular has a lot to lose with plunging oil prices. As alluded to earlier, up to 50 percent of its economy is dependent on oil prices and those prices have plummeted. As a result, Russia’s currency–the Ruble–has recently collapsed, losing a massive amount of value in just a couple of days. The collapse, coupled with western sanctions over Ukraine, is threatening to send Russia into a recession. The big question then is whether Russians are still willing to support Putin’s tactics when their standard of living starts to decline?
Other countries such as some of the members of OPEC also have a lot to lose as a result of the crisis. Like Russia, much of their budgets are predicated on their oil revenue. Thus countries like Iran and Nigeria that had relied on oil prices at much higher rates to maintain a sound budget now find themselves being forced to make cuts or face deficits–and even potentially defaults. It is even worse for another member: Venezuela.
Venezuela, despite having huge oil reserves, is facing an impending crisis that could be even worse than Russia’s. At least in Russia’s case it has reserve currency and little debt. Venezuela on the other hand has neither and was already dealing with shortages of other goods earlier this year. This situation has the makings of a powder keg. Some of these countries may also have to consider giving up stipends or canceling social programs funded by oil production. Some of these programs were instrumental in countries like Saudi Arabia potentially avoiding Arab Spring-style uprisings. The video below touches on the problems dropping oil prices imposes on Russia and Venezuela.
What about the United States? As mentioned earlier it has recently become either the biggest or second biggest producer of oil itself. What would a prolonged drop in the price of oil mean to the stars and stripes? Well, as is often the case, the United States may provide the most difficult answer. In certain ways this is a good thing. For example, Americans spending less on gas have more money to spend on other consumer goods, which could help spur faster economic growth.
Conversely, lowered prices could also mean some firms could no longer compete in the market. Many have speculated that lowered prices could dampen the U.S. oil boom currently taking place. In fact in has been widely circulated that OPEC’s decision to keep production high is basically a stare down between it and the United States where one side will eventually be forced to lower production to artificially inflate prices to stay in business. Additionally, employment is a major concern. Lost jobs here could be especially painful as they account for many of the jobs created since the recession.
At the end of the day it is still unclear what will be the long term results of the drop in oil prices. In fact, as of right now it is still unclear how long these drops will be maintained at all; however, as the price continues to plunge and producers continue to forge ahead it seems fair to at least speculate. Really it’s just amazing that after all the war and talk of renewables globally that the world finds itself on such a precipice again concerning the familiar black gold. It seems then for now the impact of oil’s price drop will be left, much like its value is calculated, up to speculation.