The price of oil opened this month above $83 per barrel. And Goldman Sachs is predicting further increases to $90 by the end of this year. Meanwhile, prices for natural gas, coal, and electricity have climbed to record highs as a result of shortages in Asia, Europe and the United States.
So, what are the sources of these price pressures? And what can policymakers do to alleviate them?
On the surface, the shortages bear some semblance to the early 1970s, when OPEC cut oil production during the Yom Kippur War and food production globally was impacted by higher costs for fertilizer.
However, the underlying forces today are more complex. They involve both the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that has boosted demand globally and energy policies in China and Europe that have curbed production of coal and other fossil fuels. J.P. Morgan researchers call it the “COVID-green” energy crisis.1
In the United States, oil prices have rebounded from the lows near $20/barrel reached in the spring of 2020 when businesses were shuttered, and they are now above levels before the pandemic hit. One reason is OPEC cut production by 10% during the weak spell, and it has not restored it thus far. Another factor is shortages of LNG abroad have caused businesses to switch to oil, which has added to price pressures.
Outside the United States, the problems are more severe and governments are feeling pressure to respond.
In China, some provinces are rationing electricity due to a shortage of coal, which has curtailed industrial output. The shortage stems from the government’s efforts to control pollution and also to halt coal imports from Australia following that country’s agreement to develop a nuclear-powered submarine with the U.S. Press reports indicate the government is beginning to relax restrictions on coal production in some areas.
In Europe, the supply of natural gas has been impacted by climatic conditions and green policies to reduce carbon emissions. Europe had an unusually cold winter and a lengthy calm spell over the North Sea during the summer that reduced output of electricity-generating wind turbines. According to energy expert Daniel Yergin, European governments are nervous about shortages continuing into winter, and they are scrambling to make subsidies available to households and commuters.
This situation has fueled tensions within the European Union (EU). Critics have blamed the price hikes on EU policies to combat climate change when there is a shortage of fossil fuels. EU climate chief Frans Timmermans counters that the transition away from fossil fuels will help to alleviate energy crises rather than exacerbate them. This debate is expected to continue at the European Commission Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in the first two weeks of November.
In the United States, investors are now focused on the effect higher energy prices will have on inflation. According to The Wall Street Journal, JPMorgan Chase economists believe they will boost inflation by 0.4 percentage points in coming months.
Thus far, U.S. bondholders have been remarkably patient as CPI inflation reached a 13 year-high of 5.4% in September. Ten year Treasury yields currently range from about 1.5%-1.6%, which means bond investors are willing to accept negative interest rates in real terms, presumably because they believe inflation is temporary.
But, there are indications that central banks are reassessing their view. In a previous commentary, I noted that Fed Chair Jerome Powell and ECB President Christine LaGarde acknowledged that global supply chain disruptions in shipping and hauling have intensified and could keep inflation elevated for a while longer.
If oil prices also stay high, the Fed at some point will have to decide how to respond. Its record over the past fifty years has been mixed. The Fed raised interest rates materially during the first two oil shocks in the 1970s when inflation was running at double digits. Thereafter, it did not tighten monetary policy when oil prices surged because inflation was much lower and it viewed higher oil prices as a tax on consumers.
The most likely outcome this time is the Fed will not react on grounds energy prices are volatile and beyond its control.
David McColl, an energy specialist at Fort Washington Investment Advisors, Inc. thinks this could be prudent. The reason: He believes financial markets for oil and natural gas have become disconnected from the physical markets. McColl observes that markets for natural gas tend to correct to price spikes once storage levels are full at 90%, and they are relatively high today at 76%.
The main risk of not responding, however, is gasoline and heating oil are major components of consumer spending, and they will likely impact consumer expectations of inflation. Indeed, the latest New York Federal Reserve survey taken in August showed that consumer inflation expectations reached 5.2% for the next twelve months and a median of 4% per annum for the next three years—the highest levels since 2013.
Finally, while monetary policy is on hold, the Biden administration reportedly is reviewing whether to tap into the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to curb increases in oil prices. No decisions have been taken so far and the impact of doing so would likely be short-lived. Nonetheless, it could become a “Hail Mary” option if there are public protests about higher prices for gasoline and heating oil in coming months.
A version of this article was posted to TheHill.com on October 15, 2021.
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