Oil at $100 isn’t as painful now… for the US

Brent is nearing $ 80 per barrel and some analyst see $ 100 not far off. That raises the question about how much of a dent high oil prices will make in the US economy.

$ 100 oil is not as painful as it once was. There are a few reasons for that. The US is now a significant oil exporter, helping to lessen the damage to its trade balance. Also, the economy uses less energy per unit of GDP than it used to, becoming slightly more efficient with each passing year.

In the past, high oil prices dragged down the US economy, acting as a tax that redistributed wealth from the US to oil-exporting countries in the Middle East, for example. But, the shale revolution has allowed the US to become one of the largest oil producers in the world, and more recently, an exporter of more than 2 million barrels per day (depending on the week). Now, to a large extent, higher oil prices redistribute wealth within the US, still damaging the vast majority of motorists, but benefitting a variety of industries related to the oil industry.

That has narrowed the impact on the country’s trade deficit. For example, in 2005, when oil prices bounced around in the $ 60s per barrel, the US petroleum trade deficit hit $ 230 billion. In 2017, when WTI was in a similar price range, the US petroleum trade deficit was just $ 62 billion.

According to Bloomberg Economics, $ 100 oil would knock off 0.4 per cent from US GDP in 2020 compared to if oil traded at just $ 75 — not trivial by any means, but not devastating either. “The price of a barrel will have to go much higher before global growth slips on an oil slick,” economists Jamie Murray, Ziad Daoud, Carl Riccadonna and Tom Orlik said.

A survey of economists by CNBC found a mixed picture with some responding that higher oil prices are largely “a wash” for US economic growth. It is a notable shift in tone and substance from the past, when higher oil prices as an economic headwind was taken as a given. “We think the effect will round to a wash,’’ Michael Feroli, chief US economist with J.P. Morgan Chase, told CNBC. He noted that higher oil prices would reduce GDP by 0.2 per cent, but that would be offset by an increase of 0.2 per cent in capital spending.

That conclusion was echoed by St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard who agreed that higher oil prices spark more activity in the energy sector, offsetting some of the losses elsewhere.

“This will also encourage US production, and compared to years past, oil prices have a more neutral effect on the US economy,’’ Bullard said. “It used to be a big oil shock was probably bad news, … but now I think it’s neutral.”