EC Falling Oil Prices An Economic Warning Sign

On Tuesday morning, I got engaged in a debate on the recent decline in oil prices following my report on COT Positioning in the space. To wit:

“The inherent problem with this is that if crude oil breaks below $48/bbl, those long contracts will start to get liquidated which will likely push oil back into the low 40’s very quickly. The decline in oil is both deflationary and increases the risk of an economic recession.”

It didn’t take long before the debate started.

“Aren’t low oil prices good for the economy? They are a tax cut for the consumer?”

There is an old axiom which states that if you repeat a falsehood long enough, it will eventually be accepted as fact.

Low oil prices equating to stronger economic growth is one of those falsehoods.

 

Oil prices are indeed crucial to the overall economic equation, and there is a correlation between the oil prices, inflation, and interest rates.

Given that oil is consumed in virtually every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the products and services we buy, the demand side of the equation is a tell-tale sign of economic strength or weakness. We can see this clearly in the chart below which combines rates, inflation, and GDP into one composite indicator. One important note is that oil tends to trade along pretty defined trends (black trend lines) until it doesn’t. Importantly, since the oil industry is very manufacturing and production intensive, breaks of price trends tend to be liquidation events which has a negative impact on manufacturing and CapEx spending and feeds into the GDP calculation.

 

“It should not be surprising that sharp declines in oil prices have been coincident with downturns in economic activity, a drop in inflation, and a subsequent decline in interest rates.“

We can also view the impact of oil prices on inflation by looking at breakeven inflation rates as well.

The short version is that oil prices are a reflection of supply and demand. Global demand has already been falling for the last several months, and oil prices are sending warnings that “market hopes” for a “global reflation” are likely not a reality. More importantly, falling oil prices are going to put the Fed in a very tough position in the next couple of months as deflationary pressures rise. The chart below shows breakeven 5-year and 10-year inflation rates versus oil prices.

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