How High Oil Prices Lead to Recession

There is ample evidence that spikes in oil prices leads to recession, at least in the US, which is an oil-importing nation. James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of the last 11 US recessions were associated with oil price spikes. How does this happen? An analogy can perhaps help explain the situation. This analogy also sheds light on a number of related economic mysteries:

  1. How can oil have a far greater impact on the world economy than its share of the world GDP would suggest? After all,  BP’s World Energy Outlook to 2030 shows the world cost of oil is only a little over 4% of world GDP.
  2. How can high oil prices continue to act as a “drag” on the economy, long after the initial spike is past?
  3. Why isn’t a service economy insulated from the problems of high oil prices? After all, its energy use is relatively low.

The Oil Analogy

An oil product, such as jet fuel, is in some ways analogous to a specialized employee, with skills different from what human employees have. Let’s think of an airline. It has human employees–pilots, copilots, flight attendants, baggage workers, mechanics, and airport check-in personnel. None of these human employees can actually provide the energy to make the jet fly, however. It takes jet fuel to do that.

What happens if the price of jet fuel triples? Jet fuel is now more that than triple the price (near $3.00 gallon) it was in the late 1990s (under $1.00 gallon, at today’s prices).

Figure 1. Jet fuel price in December 2012 $. Jet fuel price per gallon is Spot Gulf Coast price from EIA; price adjustment based on CPI-Urban, from US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Figure 1. Jet fuel price in December 2012 $. Jet fuel price per gallon is Spot Gulf Coast price from EIA; price adjustment based on CPI-Urban, from US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The high cost of jet fuel is analogous to the jet fuel employees’ union demanding triple the wages they were paid previously. So what is the airline to do? With very high aviation fuel prices, many tourists who might buy airline tickets will be “priced out” of the market for long distance travel. The airline can sell some airline tickets at higher prices, but not as many.

One thing airlines can do is to cut the number of flights, taking the least fuel-efficient planes out of service and reducing flights on routes with the most unfilled seats. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, airlines spend 34% of revenue on fuel. With such a high fuel cost, even with these changes, airline ticket prices will remain high. But perhaps with fewer flights, the airline can make a profit.

If an airline cuts its number of flight, this leads to an “across the board” cut in the goods and services the airline buys. The airline will use less jet fuel (and thus use fewer “jet fuel employees”). If it is able to retire quite a few fuel-inefficient jets, “jet fuel employees” will be cut to a greater extent than human employees. It will use fewer human workers, at all levels: pilots, copilots, flight attendants, and ground workers of all types. The airline will reduce its electricity usage because it needs fewer gates in airports for its operations. The airline will also need less gasoline because it will operate fewer baggage-transport vehicles and other ground vehicles.

In many ways, the airline is simply shrinking in size to reflect reduced demand for its high-priced services. When this happens in multiple industries, the result looks very much like recession. I described this situation earlier in a post called How is an oil shortage like a missing cup of flour?. In that post, I said that if oil supplies are short, the situation is not too different from a baker who does not have enough flour to make a full batch of cookies. If he still wants to make cookies, he needs to make a smaller batch, and so needs to cut back on all of the other ingredients as well.

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Why High Oil Prices Are Now Affecting Europe More Than the US

The world is presently sharing a limited supply of oil. When oil prices rise, oil production doesn’t rise very much, if at all.

Figure 1. Brent oil spot price and world oil supply (broadly defined), based on EIA data.

The issues then become: Which buyers get the oil? What uses get priced out of the market?  Which countries are disproportionately affected?

It seems to me that this time around, Europe, and in particular the Eurozone, is the area of the world getting hit the hardest by high oil prices. Part of this has to do with the relative level of the Euro and the US dollar. If we look at the price of Brent oil (a European oil) in Euros (Figure 2), we find that prices are as high now as they were in mid-2008.

Figure 2. Dated Brent average monthly oil prices, expressed in Euros, based on IndexMundi data.

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