A rapid rise in the price of oil has resurrected memories of the petroleum shocks that jolted the American economy four times in the past three decades. But those shocks are likely to remain just memories, economists said Friday, because the U.S. is now far more able to withstand the pain of oil inflation.
True, American consumers are starting to notice the impact of the nine-year high in oil prices in their home-fuel bills and airline tickets and at the gas pump. But the inflationary impact has been remarkably mild.
"Oil has been the primary driver of whatever inflation we've seen in the past year, but still the effect hasn't been that huge," said James O'Sullivan, economist at
in New York.
During 1999, when oil prices nearly doubled, the
Consumer Price Index
grew at a tame 2.7%. Excluding food and energy, consumer inflation fell to a 35-year low of 1.9%.
Oil has been rising largely because the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
has reduced its output over the past year, and there is growing concern that the group will continue to curtail its output this year.
At the same time, world demand for oil, which had been depressed during the Asian financial crisis, is rebounding. Stockpiles are falling to 10-year lows, according to a recent report from the
International Energy Agency
, a group that tracks the world's oil markets.
New York Mercantile Exchange
, the main market for crude oil in the U.S., prices have been rising relentlessly for days. On Friday, crude oil for delivery in March rose 23 cents to $28.20 per barrel. Crude had traded at about $24 per barrel just two weeks ago, and at $16.30 per barrel exactly a year ago.
O'Sullivan said that this week's continuation of oil's upward trajectory will nominally increase inflation. But he and other economists expressed strong doubts that such increases would cause the shocks to the U.S. economy that price spikes created during the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990-91 Gulf War.
That's largely because of other factors that have enabled many businesses to swallow higher oil prices without passing them on to consumers, such as Internet commerce, access to low-cost foreign goods and services, and the continuing boom in worker productivity.
"The fact that the consumer price index looks so good is a testament to the fact that oil does not have the same ability to shock the economy that it used to," said James Glassman, senior economist at
in New York. "People often look at oil prices as a sort of tax on countries that import more than they export, such as the U.S., but that's not so much the case anymore."
One reason is that many oil-rich nations in places like the Middle East and Latin America have, in a sense, grown up. In contrast to the 1970s, when scantily developed nations' oil profits usually poured directly into financial assets, those nations are now among the world's purchasers of U.S.-produced goods and services.
"The money gets recycled," said Glassman. "U.S. consumers get hurt some in the near term, but exporters of high tech, autos, and other goods and services also benefit."
That doesn't mean pricey oil causes no economic damage. The question, however, is how long oil can remain so high.
Many market watchers are forecasting that prices will average anywhere from $19 to $23 per barrel in 2000, but are reluctant to predict just how long oil will stay in the $30-per-barrel range.
"Over the long term, we know that $30 is just as unsustainable as $11 was
last year. But whether we stay near these levels for two weeks or six months is hard to say," said Fred Leuffer, senior energy analyst at
in New York.
Economists say that the longer it stays high, the more potential there is for some damage to the economy.
"Because of the tight labor situation in the U.S., and recovering prices for many imported non-oil goods, business are finding it harder to absorb the higher oil prices," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at
Wells Fargo Bank
in Minneapolis. "It's very time-sensitive. If oil stays this high for more than a few weeks, it will compound the lagging inflationary effect that we're still feeling from last year's oil gains."
But there is also motivation for producers to start building output and lowering prices in the near term. Most analysts think OPEC and other producers would be hurting themselves if they allow prices to continue rising, because higher prices would cause demand would drop off.
"Prices at these levels definitely work against the long-term interest of oil producers," said George Beranek, oil-industry analyst at
Petroleum Finance Company
, a Washington-based consulting firm.
Leuffer agreed, noting that OPEC likely learned that lesson during other oil crunches, when high prices caused a drop in demand and a push toward energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.
"One thing OPEC realizes now that they didn't realize in 1972 is that oil demand can be very elastic. Higher prices dampen demand," said Leuffer.
At some point, he added, OPEC and non-OPEC producers are bound to eventually ease the price tension, or they will risk a decline in the world's appetite for oil.