A New Ceiling for Oil Prices

LONDON – If one number determines the fate of the world economy, it is the price of a barrel of oil. Every global recession since 1970 has been preceded by at least a doubling of the oil price, and every time the oil price has fallen by half and stayed down for six months or so, a major acceleration of global growth has followed.

Having fallen from $100 to $50, the oil price is now hovering at exactly this critical level. So should we expect $50 to be the floor or the ceiling of the new trading range for oil?

Most analysts still see $50 as a floor – or even a springboard, because positioning in the futures market suggests expectations of a fairly quick rebound to $70 or $80. But economics and history suggest that today’s price should be viewed as a probable ceiling for a much lower trading range, which may stretch all the way down toward $20.

To see why, first consider the ideological irony at the heart of today’s energy economics. The oil market has always been marked by a struggle between monopoly and competition. But what most Western commentators refuse to acknowledge is that the champion of competition nowadays is Saudi Arabia, while the freedom-loving oilmen of Texas are praying for OPEC to reassert its monopoly power.