Oil Prices Are Cratering. That’s Not a Good Thing.

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My usual view on oil prices is that they don’t matter very much for the U.S. economy. The U.S. produces about as much crude oil as it consumes, so when prices go down, there are economic benefits from consumers enjoying lower prices that approximately offset the lost income to companies and workers and regions involved directly in oil production. It’s about a wash, as the economist Ernie Tedeschi told me on March 9, as oil prices were falling to about $30 a barrel.

But now, prices are around $20 a barrel, and there is a problem with that usual trade-off: It depends on consumers buying gasoline in their usual quantities, being pleased about the low prices, and spending the money they saved on something else, like restaurant meals. That consumer benefit can’t be expected to materialize in the stay-at-home economy, for obvious reasons. But the negative effects from oil-price drops — lost jobs and lost income in places like North Dakota and Texas — can still be expected to materialize. You can also expect a drop in business investment, as oil producers lose interest in drilling new wells.

“All oil-price drops hurt domestic oil producers to some degree, but below a certain price, oil wells just aren’t profitable to keep running,” said Tedeschi, who works at the investment firm Evercore ISI, this week. “This is particularly true of fracking where wells are exhausted more quickly, so producers find themselves at a choice point more frequently.”

In addition to weak global demand, the other driver of the huge oil-price drop is a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Russia has often coordinated its oil-production decisions with the OPEC group of oil-producing countries, but it refused to collaborate on a production cut in the face of the demand drop. The Saudis responded by announcing they would increase oil production, despite the fact that global production is already so far out of whack with consumption that the world could run out of space to store oil in a few months. These two countries are relatively well positioned for a price war: Saudi Arabia is able to produce oil more cheaply than any other major producer, while Russia has a diverse economy that makes it more able to ride out a period of very low oil prices than countries whose economies are almost entirely dependent on oil. Unlike the demand drop, this price war is a circumstance that might be addressed through diplomacy, but so far the Trump administration has been either unwilling or unable to prevail on the Saudis not to ramp up production.

That price war is likely to be economically disastrous for oil-dependent economies like Iraq and Algeria. For the U.S., you can expect the effects to be negative, but modestly so, because of our highly diversified economy. You can see that sentiment in the financial markets over the last week: Oil prices remain at some of the lowest levels we have seen since 2002, and that hasn’t stopped stocks from rebounding sharply from the coronavirus-driven crash. And when it is possible to ease social-distancing restrictions and return to more economic normalcy, low gasoline prices may start producing some of those offsetting consumer benefits we would normally expect. But states whose economies are heavily weighted toward oil production can expect some additional drag from the low prices as they try to restart their economies and return people to work.

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