Hamish McRae: As far as the oil price is concerned, what goes up won't come down

Economic View

It is the dog that has not yet barked – but it is growling louder by the day.

The oil price is now at an eight-month high, with Brent crude touching $120 on Friday. We are seeing the impact at the pumps here in Britain, with the AA reporting the average cost of diesel at 142.9p, within a whisker of its record of 143.04p in 2008.

That raises an immediate domestic question: why are pump prices so high when crude is still $20 below its previous peak? Answer: because in spring 2008 sterling was around $2, whereas now it is $1.58, so in sterling terms oil is back at its peak.

But of course the vastly bigger issue is what the oil price might do to the world economy. It acts as a lead for energy prices more generally, and we are back in the danger zone where expensive energy is becoming a strong headwind against the recovery.

The reasons for the present climb in the price are widely appreciated: continuing strong demand from China, coupled with declining production from mature fields, including the North Sea – and, of course, the threat of disruption of supplies from the Middle East given what is happening in Iran. The cold snap in Europe has not helped either. So we have a situation where supplies are tight, buffer stocks are low, and the emerging world has a relentless demand for more energy.

The main thing holding back the price is the recession in Europe, giving rise to the rather glum possibility that if the Continent manages to drag itself out of recession later this year we will all be clobbered by an even higher oil price. Oh dear.

There are, I think, two quite different stories here, a short-term one and a longer-term one.

In the short term it will be a scramble to get through this year without another oil shock.

You can model all sorts of extreme events – a closing of the Strait of Hormuz for, say, three weeks – and see what that does to the oil price.

The answer is certainly troubling: a surge to perhaps $200 a barrel for several weeks.

But even without an extreme event, oil may well go on climbing to its previous peak, and, most important, fail to fall thereafter as it did in 2009/10.

So this oil shock, if that is the right word, is different to the last shock because the peak will not be followed by a slump. The price will fall because by definition it has to fall after a peak, but what will follow will be more of a plateau.

The good news is that expensive energy will continue to spur conservation, as the world learns more about improving the efficiency of everything. The bad news is that the headwinds to growth will remain as strong as ever.

In narrow UK terms, we will not get as much of a decline in the rate of inflation as we hoped. Put at its simplest, more money spent on filling the car with fuel is less money spent at the supermarket filling it with other stuff. Since the start of this year, according to the AA, the average two-car family is spending an extra £5.84 a month on fuel.

Will energy prices abort the recovery? Well, no, because energy is only one input to economic activity, and while higher prices cut living standards, they also spur wider application of existing, energy-efficient technologies and investment in new ones.

One of the lessons of previous oil shocks is that the world economy does manage to cope. But it will make recovery slower than it otherwise would have been.

The longer-term story is more complex. The developed world is now barely increasing its use of energy, as you can see from the right-hand graph, which comes from the BP Energy Outlook 2030, published last year.

The black block is pretty stable and is projected to remain stable through to 2030. Energy use in the emerging world, the red block, by contrast, continues to grow.

This is what you would expect to happen, for as the weight of economic activity shifts from Europe and North America to South America and particularly Asia, so too will demand for energy.

But – and I find this really interesting – as these countries develop, they manage to cut their energy use relative to their increased output. In doing this, they are following exactly the same path as the present developed countries did before them, as you can see from the left-hand graph.

This shows the amount of energy used per unit of GDP. In the US this peaked in 1918 and the trend has been falling ever since. In the case of China the peak was in the Mao years of the 1960s and 1970s, partly, it should be said, because GDP was so low. The Chinese were using a huge amount of energy to live pretty badly. (We tend to forget that in the 1970s China had a lower GDP per head than India.)

Energy use in China is still high, both in absolute terms and also relative to output: it is about the same now as the US in the early 1980s. But it is falling fast. Energy use in India, always well below the world average, is also declining. It may be that the Indian low-energy growth model is more sustainable than the Chinese high-energy version.

Two big messages emerge from all this. The first is that the tight energy situation this year is more serious than most people appreciate.

Even assuming that there is no interruption to Middle East oil supplies, there will be no bonus from a cheaper oil price.

The main reason why oil prices might decline would be a collapse in demand in the eurozone, and none of us would want that. This does not mean that there can be no growth here or elsewhere in the developed world; simply that the oil price will be a headwind.

The other message is that the key to a sustained global economic recovery will be energy efficiency, not so much in the developed world, though we should do much more, but in the emerging world.

If sustained high oil prices reinforce that message, they will have done some good after all.

Statistics, statistics – frankly, they should all be taken with a pinch of salt

Consumers to the rescue again? There has been such a run of bad news about the UK economy recently that it was a surprise and a bit of a relief to see retail sales in January bounce sharply upwards.

Headline sales were up 0.9 per cent in volume, and if you exclude car fuel, they were up even more, 1.2 per cent. That is a lot, particularly since it comes on the back of a strong December.

However, my own feeling is that all economic statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Just as the run of GDP data last year was, as far as I  am concerned, implausibly bad and will eventually be revised upwards, so these numbers paint too rosy a picture of the economy.

Inflation has come down a little but it will remain higher than the increase in earnings until the autumn, so real incomes are still shrinking. Therefore, it would be sensible to expect some subdued figures for sales in the next couple of months.

Still, this does confirm one thing: consumption is not falling off a cliff.

Since it accounts for two-thirds of final demand, that is positive for growth this year.

Whether or not you buy the Bank of England view that growth will pick up through the year, and next year will run at about 3 per cent, the forecast from the National Institute that the economy might actually shrink this year looks increasingly off-beam.

We are now just over a month from the Budget and there will be the usual crescendo of lobbying, advice and abuse that traditionally precedes this event.

This data will give a little more ammunition to the "steady as we go" camp.

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