The price of oil has fallen nearly 60% since peaking in June, and lately there’s been a lot of ink and pixels devoted to the question of whether oil prices will plunge even further or whether they will shoot right back up. An even bigger issue is whether prices will stay at these very low levels.
While I doubt oil prices will fall much more — how much further could they reasonably tumble? Perhaps another $20 or so? — history suggests we can expect prices to remain low for the foreseeable future. What’s playing out right now in the oil market is likely the same supply-demand dynamic we’ve seen over and over: several years of extremely high oil prices followed by decades of low prices. The twin oil shocks of the 1970s, for instance, resulted in 20 to 25 years of low prices.
Of course, things are different today — but not that much different. Over the past six or seven years, oil has been relatively expensive, often trading at over $100 a barrel. During that time, both the supply and demand sides of the equation have responded.
It is a basic tenet of economics that regulations almost always have unintended consequences. While Adam Smith may have been one of the first to understand this, he could not have possibly foreseen the morass of expensive and unwanted consequences that could come from conflicting emission and fuel standards enacted by the state of California and federal programs, such as for greenhouse gases and Corporate Average Fuel Economy.
Both the state and federal regulations have worthy goals: to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions and lower petroleum consumption. Yet taken together, the federal standards effectively cancel out the California standard. Instead of promoting fuel reduction as intended, the California standard allows for the production of less-efficient vehicles, while facilitating a massive transfer of cash via credit trading. It also forms a de facto industrial policy that sends us down a path toward electric vehicles that may or may not be the best technological or environmental choice for the future.
Americans are spending more money at the pump than ever before. According to a recent estimate by the Energy Department, the average U.S. household spent nearly $3,000 on gasoline last year. Earlier this month, theU.S. Energy Information Administration forecast that the price for regular gasoline will average $3.63 a gallon this summer — a slight decline from last summer, not far from the record levels set in 2008. Why do oil prices remain so stubbornly high?
According to some in Washington, the blame lies with “speculators” — investors who buy and sell oil futures contracts to bet on the price of oil. As they see it, these scheming speculators — which may be individuals, but can also be mutual funds, hedge funds, or other investment institutions — inject billions of dollars into commodity exchanges in pursuit of a limited number of barrels, which in turn drives up the price of oil. Speculators, critics say, rake in piles of money at the expense of ordinary people who are going broke fueling their cars and heating their homes. Read More »
In his State of the Union, President Obama set a goal to “cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.”
Many Americans get nervous when we hear the government wants to step into our homes. We think we make prudent choices without conferring with Uncle Sam. We shop sales. We clip coupons. We refinance our mortgages. So is the president right? Do we systematically waste energy? And if so, can he help us save? Read More »
This time last year, Washington’s AAA credit rating was downgraded, as Congress held hostage an agreement on a debt ceiling increase while looking for a long-term debt reduction plan. A year later, not much has changed.
Congress is no closer to reaching consensus on reining in our nation’s debt. The Bi-Partisan Tax Commission laid out the harsh reality: Closing the deficit would require both tax increases and cuts to key programs like Social Security. Read More »