The Oil Trap: Opinion

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If you really want to understand the U.S. economy and its prospects in 2012 there is one chart you need to look at.

Track over the past year the stocks of the Big Three oil-service companies: Schlumberger ( SLB), Halliburton ( HAL) and Baker Hughes ( BHI).

What you're going to see are some big losses. BHI and HAL are both down almost 45%, despite a recent break to the upside, and SLB is down by 25%.

I started my reporting career in the Houston oil patch of the late 1970s. This is complex, expensive technology. Schlumberger is just as much a tech stock as Intel ( INTC), and information technology has helped enable the fracking revolution of the last decade.

These three stocks are important economic bellweathers because of something very important that has happened in the U.S. economy since 2009.

Despite the industry's political rhetoric, drillers are finding and delivering more oil and gas than in decades. The U.S. is not in OPEC yet, but the 50% collapse in natural gas prices, and the more recent 25% cut in oil prices, are hitting us hard.

We have an energy glut.

This boom-and-bust cycle is as old as the industry. Since before John D. Rockefeller came up with the idea for Standard Oil in the 1860s, new discoveries have always risked overproduction and economic trouble for producers. The economic consequences of fracking are nothing new.

We are used to seeing high energy prices as bad news, and they are for anyone who uses energy. For manufacturers, for those engaged in transport, for consumers, high energy prices crowd out other purchases and depress the economy.

But in the oil patch, higher energy prices are good, very good. You may remember the 1970s as a very bad time for the U.S. economy. Houston knew better. Their economy collapsed in the 1980s just as that of the rest of the country took off.

Still, fracking is an expensive technology. Regardless of how you feel about its environmental impacts, fracking a well -- drilling horizontally, then pushing sand and water into the formation under high pressure -- costs more money than just dropping pipe in the ground and pumping.

In other words, U.S. oil and gas production is more marginal, with a lower profit margin and a higher marginal cost per-barrel, than oil from any previously untapped field. When prices decline, as they have, oil-patch profits are squeezed right away. Some wells are capped, new wells are delayed, the oil economy stalls.

That is what has happened over the last year, and although optimists may point to last week's pop in the prices of all these stocks as a very bullish sign for the oil patch, it's also a bearish sign for manufacturers and other users of oil.

This is the oil trap. The energy industry grows from new production, while the rest of the economy contracts under it. And vice versa. It's like a Chinese finger puzzle, one the oil industry can't get us out of, one they insist there is no cure for.

That's the economic lesson of our time. The boom-and-bust cycle of the energy industry, perpetuated by technology, still holds us in its grip as it has for almost 150 years.

At the time of publication, Blankenhorn held shares of Intel.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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