$100/Barrel Oil Threatens to Bring On Stagflation

$100/Barrel Oil Threatens to Bring On Stagflation
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A string of inflationary shocks has challenged the Federal Reserve’s effort to control price increases. Investors are worried the latest could be $100-a-barrel oil. 

Crude’s march closer to that mark has made Americans’ commutes more expensive. Truckers who haul food cross-country are charging grocery stores more for diesel. Jet-fuel-reliant airlines are demanding higher fares. And manufacturers of everything from plastic toys to asphalt could face costlier ingredients.  

Oil’s rise has inspired fresh fears from Washington to Wall Street that energy, which the Fed largely excludes in its policy calculus, could throw off central bankers’ attempted soft landing of the fuel-hungry American economy. Some investors and economists have compared the moment to previous periods in which booming oil prices have helped tip the country into recession. 

“It makes things harder,” said Rob Kaplan, former president of the Dallas Fed. “Just because the agencies or analysts or economists will ‘x’ out oil, the middle-class family doesn’t get to ‘x’ it out.” 

A gallon of regular gasoline averaged $3.88 across the U.S. last week, according to federal record-keepers, up more than 25% since the start of the year. An August surge propelled consumer prices higher at their fastest pace in more than a year.  

Economists fear rising costs will push Americans to slash spending on restaurants, travel and other areas, stalling growth in a condition often known as stagflation. Elevated energy costs could also tighten labor markets by pushing those with low pay or multiple jobs to think twice about long commutes to work.

But the extent of such consequences is far from clear, creating fresh uncertainties for investors who are trying to game out the impact of future interest rates in their bets on stocks, bonds and commodities.

American businesses and consumers are less sensitive to oil-price shocks than they were decades ago, economists say, with efficiency gains slimming down fuel costs’ share of overall spending. Gasoline today is also cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in previous moments of peril. 

Gas prices in today’s dollars peaked at $5.71 a gallon in June 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration. Inflation-adjusted prices were similarly higher than today’s levels as the U.S. grappled with hard-to-shake inflation between 1979 and 1981. 

Economists omit such volatile energy prices from preferred inflation metrics that tend to focus on service costs and labor markets. Oil prices can rise because of new demand, such as the Chinese economic boom of the 2000s, or fall based on supply shocks, such as the Arab oil embargo and Iranian revolution in the 1970s, blurring the signals they send about the U.S. economy.

Even so, the summertime jump in prices caught the eye of central bankers as they watched so-called core inflation moderate and prepared to pause rate increases. 

Fed Chair Jerome Powell called the surge in energy costs a “significant thing” at a press conference Wednesday, saying it “can affect consumer spending. It certainly can affect consumer sentiment.”

“It really comes down to how persistent, how sustained, these energy prices are,” he added.

That outlook is largely beyond the power of U.S. monetary policy. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and Russia propelled a jump in crude prices by extending supply cuts through the end of the year, virtually ensuring that record fuel demand would outstrip worldwide production. 

Benchmark Brent crude, the global pricing standard, has since touched $95 a barrel and closed Friday at $93.27. On Wall Street, even the most bearish analysts now say oil could touch or surpass the $100 mark later this year, but few expect prices to jump much higher in part due to record oil output from the U.S. 

“The fact that the shale revolution was so successful will keep a lid on real prices,” said Nikolai Roussanov, a professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Prices might retreat if Saudi and Russia boost supplies, he added, or if a recession curbs demand.

So far, consumer spending, a key engine of the U.S. economy, has remained resilient in the face of higher borrowing costs and fuel prices. Retail sales excluding gasoline rose 0.2% in August from the previous month, according to the Commerce Department. 

Some economists warn that higher prices will add to the economic toll alongside the resumption of student-loan payments and wind-down of pandemic-era savings. Should Americans work less or ask for higher wages to compensate for filling up their tanks, labor markets could also remain stubbornly tight.  

Outside Las Vegas, Desiree Wood previously split her time between truck-driving, leading a nonprofit that advocates for long-haulers who are women, and ferrying tourists and residents between jobs or casinos. But the run-up in gas prices has recently weighed down her take-home pay from ride-sharing apps such as Uber to as low as $10 or $15 an hour.

“You start questioning: What am I doing to my car?” the 59-year-old said. “It’s not worth it.”

Come October, Wood is taking on a full-time driving gig hauling produce such as zucchinis and berries cross-country. The switch will allow her to stop ride-sharing but also force her to pull back from nonprofit work. 

“I’m eating at home and staying at home and trying not to spend money on anything,” she said.

Some investors hope that if similar stresses spread, slowing U.S. growth, the Fed might lower interest rates next year to juice the economy. But oil-price spikes have previously contributed to much harder landings after the central bank started cutting rates in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in 2008. 

In the latter episode, oil prices skyrocketed to record highs, pushing Americans to cut purchases of gas-guzzling cars and leading to factory slowdowns among domestic automakers, said James Hamilton, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego. That later combined with the subprime mortgage crisis and other factors to wreak economic havoc. 

Benchmark U.S. crude’s 29% run-up in the past three months is smaller by comparison to the price shock from 2007 to 2008, as well as the steep rise from 2020 to 2022 that helped kick off the current inflation bout. 

“It’s a much more modest increase,” Hamilton said. But “that’s enough to make a little difference, and the Fed is watching little differences right now.” 

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