high oil prices

High Oil Prices: Even $200 Oil Won't Cause a Recession

Last Friday's weak unemployment numbers, with only 120,000 jobs created, brought renewed wails that high oil prices were causing a recession.

Having heard this refrain so many times, I thought I'd dig a little deeper.

After all, a peak of $145 per barrel in the West Texas Intermediate oil price pretty well coincided with the onset of the 2008 recession.

The question is whether or not high oil prices are always correlated with an inevitable downturn.

For instance, when you look closer, oil was not to blame in 2008. Other factors were much more serious culprits, including the housing crisis (by then in market collapse) and the banking crisis that followed.

Between them they are the hallmarks of financial crisis that brought on the nasty recession.

To find out why, we need to do a little arithmetic.

High Oil Prices and the Economy

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks down personal consumption expenditures (PCEs) on energy versus other items on a month-by-month basis.

The PCE on energy goods (which include natural gas and electricity) rose from 5.05% of total PCE in 2004 to 5.88% in 2007 and 6.31% in 2008. When oil prices peaked in July 2008 PCE hit a maximum monthly level of 7.01%.

Thus taking the increase from 2007 to the highest month in 2008, energy PCE rose by 1.13 % of total PCE, or about $115 billion on an annualized basis.

That sounds like a lot of money, but it's well under 1% of GDP.

For example, it's less than the estimated $152 billion cost of former President Bush's ineffective 2008 tax rebate stimulus.

Indeed, it is one-seventh the size of President Obama's stimulus the following year, which didn't have much visible effect. Thus the high oil prices of 2008 might have made the difference between marginal growth and marginal decline, which according to the "butterfly effect" of chaos theory could have caused other larger changes.

However, high oil prices were certainly not sufficient to push an otherwise healthy economy into recession.

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