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How to Handle an Oil Shock

The global oil market is a volatile place, and the fate of countries that have treated adverse shocks as temporary and reversible, and were then proven wrong, has seldom been encouraging. Gulf producers, by going on a borrowing binge, could be setting themselves up for future pain.

CAMBRIDGE – The global oil market is a volatile place. But, abstracting from high-frequency fluctuations, average annual world prices (in US dollars) plummeted about 60% between 2012 and 2016. So how do countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Venezuela cope with a collapse in the price of their dominant (and in some cases, only) export?

A textbook response suggests that a government should adjust fiscal expenditures in response to permanent (or very persistent) drops in export and budget revenues. A government can finance external and fiscal deficits if the shock is perceived as short-lived.

Highlighting the dramatic economic effects of oil producers’ reversal of fortune, the figure below compares the sum of the balances (surplus or deficit) in the general government’s budget and the external balance, as measured by the current account, for 18 oil producers, with both components scaled to nominal GDP. In the majority of cases, the twin surpluses of 2011, prior to the peak in oil prices, gave way to substantial twin deficits in 2016. A swing amounting to 30 percentage points of GDP (and sometimes much larger) is not uncommon in this group.

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