The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently coordinated the release onto the oil market of some of the strategic oil reserves of the United States, Japan, and ten other countries that hold reserves. The release was motivated by the rapid run up in oil prices from about $95 a barrel at the beginning of 2011 to over $120 a barrel in April of this year. I will discuss the fundamental determinants of the sharp fluctuations in oil prices, the role of “speculators”, and why it was unwise at this time to release oil from these reserves.
After the initial huge increase in oil prices following the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the magnitude of the fluctuations in these prices has been impressive. In 2008 dollars (i.e., adjusted for inflation), prices were about $40 a barrel in 1973, rose to $75 in 1981, fell to around $20 in the mid 1980s, and then stayed low until the early part of this century. These prices rose spectacularly to reach over $140 a barrel before the financial crisis hit, then fell sharply, and they have been recovering rapidly since the world economy again began to grow more rapidly.
Fundamentals in the oil market, that is, the supply and demand for oil, explain the vast majority of the large fluctuations in oil prices. Demand for oil changes over time because of recessions that reduce world output and hence demand for oil, and also because of world economic growth, especially in the developing world. Economic development raises oil demand because the demand for cars, and hence gasoline, increases rapidly with development, and because manufacturing and other sectors increase their demand for oil-based inputs.
(photo credit: Jaula De Ardilla)