Oil Goes Nonlinear
JANUARY 16, 2016 8:12 AM from The NYT
When oil prices began their big plunge, it was widely assumed that the economic effects would be positive. Some of us were a bit skeptical. But maybe not skeptical enough: taking a global view, there’s a pretty good case that the oil plunge is having a distinctly negative impact. Why?
Well, think about why we used to believe that oil price declines were expansionary. Part of the answer was that they reduced inflation, freeing central banks to loosen monetary policy — not a relevant issue at a time when inflation is below target almost everywhere.
Beyond that, however, the usual view was that falling oil prices tended to redistribute income away from agents with low marginal propensities to spend toward agents with high marginal propensities to spend. Oil-rich Middle Eastern nations and Texas billionaires, so the story went, were sitting on huge piles of wealth, were therefore unlikely to face liquidity constraints, and could and would smooth out fluctuations in their income. Meanwhile, the benefits of lower oil prices would be spread widely, including to many consumers living paycheck to paycheck who would probably spend the windfall.
Now, part of the reason this logic doesn’t work the way it used to is that the rise of fracking means that there is a lot of investment spending closely tied to oil prices — investment spending that has relatively short lead times and will therefore fall quickly.
But there is, I believe, something else going on: there’s an important nonlinearity in the effects of oil fluctuations. A 10 or 20 percent decline in the price might work in the conventional way. But a 70 percent decline has really drastic effects on producers; they become more, not less, likely to be liquidity-constrained than consumers. Saudi Arabia is forced into drastic austerity policies; highly indebted fracking companies find themselves facing balance-sheet crises.
Or to put it differently: small oil price declines may be expansionary through usual channels, but really big declines set in motion a process of forced deleveraging among producers that can be a significant drag on the world economy, especially with the whole advanced world still in or near a liquidity trap.
Oh, and a belated Happy New Year.