Last September I posted an article on gas prices (to which someone had a very thoughtful Reddit response), why prices were falling, and how to account for price discrepancies within the United States. Since then, the international price of oil has kept falling and falling. Earlier this week the price even punctured the $50 a barrel mark.
This precipitous fall in the price of oil has caused conspiracy theorist to claim that the United States is secretly engineering markets to put pressure on our international enemies such as Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. Do I think that the United States is doing this? Yes, absolutely. But do I think this is a conspiracy? Hardly.
Exhibit A is the recent appointment of Department of the Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David S. Cohen, to the Number Two spot at the CIA (Deputy Director). The White House is not hiding anything about this guy. They say he administered anti-terrorism funding programs, particularly against ISIS, as well as sanctions against Iran and now Russia. Economic espionage is official government policy, and it does not seem to me that they are trying to hide that at all from anyone.
Oil producing countries, particularly the members of OPEC, have been using the price and quantity of oil as a foreign policy tool for decades. Exhibits B & C, the 1967 & 1973 Oil Embargoes, where Arab countries used their leverage in the energy market to place political pressure on the United States. The United States, too, has used oil as a political tool in the past. Many historians claim that Pearl Harbor was the result of Japan’s hand being forced by an Allied embargo on oil reaching Japan.
To return to the economic, not political, side of things, the market for oil is an oligopoly. There are a few large suppliers, and there are significant barriers to entry (primarily being that certain countries simply do not have the natural resource underneath them in the ground). More specifically, the market for oil resembles a Dominant Firm Oligopoly, with Saudi Arabia being the dominant firm. As the world’s largest producer of oil (13% of world production), it commands a great deal of pricing power – power that smaller “firms,” such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Qatar cannot match. So theoretically, Saudi Arabia could sell its oil at a lower price, and the other countries would have to lower their posted price, or else their clients would turn to Saudi Arabia, which has plenty of oil to supply if it wants to.
And that is exactly what Saudi Arabia is accused of doing, through an arrangement made with the United States (many people point to a meeting Secretary of State John Kerry had in Saudi Arabia back in September). The conspiracy theorists claim that Saudi Arabia is selling its oil at a lower-than-market rate by keeping productions levels too high relative to international demand in order to drive down the price of oil internationally, in an effort to put pressure on the governments of Iran, Syria, Russia, and Venezuela. These countries all conveniently happen to be enemies of the United States and Saudi Arabia, and they are all also conveniently highly-dependent on oil prices for government revenue and social pacification.
Saudi Arabia, from a purely economic point of view, has an incentive to cut production, which would send prices higher. Higher prices mean higher profits, which is better for their economy. Other oil producing nations feel the same way. However, the stars may have aligned this time for the US and Saudi Arabia to strike a deal and keep prices down. The US gets the assist of pressure on its enemies; and not just Russian and Iran. At the meeting between Kerry and the Saudis in September, the Saudis agreed to join the US coalition against the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, may have bought itself support in its fight against the Assad regime in Syria, and the low prices will put pressure on producers in the United States and Canada, where it costs a lot more money to get the stuff out of the ground than it does in Saudi Arabia. Everyone at the table (a table set for two) gives a little and takes a little.
So do I think that the United States and Saudi Arabia are at least in part engineering the fall in oil prices for their own political motives? Yes, absolutely. But do I think that this is a conspiracy? Absolutely not. This is just business as usual for the United States, where an economist is going to be our Number Two Spy.
This is part three of a four-part series of posts on the Economics of Oil. Other posts:
This post is apologetically months and months overdue, but I am glad that I am now completing it and posting it because I am passionate about this subject, and with all eyes on Lima now and Paris next year, it remains vitally important.
Back in October 2010 I wrote a writing sample for a job application called, “The Economics of International Climate Change.” I didn’t get the job, not even an interview, but ironically, I had to drive past the Company every day for my job at Ernst & Young in Tysons Corner that I did wind up taking. Given the attention on climate change in New York this week, I have resurrected the writing sample from the bowels of my external hard drive (an indispensable item for a Peace Corps Volunteer, I assure you) and re-tooled it here for this blog.
Western world leaders have placed great emphasis on climate change. Their contention: if the current accumulation of greenhouses gasses is not allayed then climate change is sure to wreak havoc upon vulnerable populations around the world. However, stemming the accumulation of greenhouse gasses requires a trade off with economic output that many people around the world are not willing to part with. This opposition is led by emerging nations, particularly India, Brazil, and China.
Technically, there is a rather simple solution to preventing climate change. Once environmental scientists reach consensus on what the acceptable level of greenhouse gasses like carbon in the atmosphere is (a consensus which surveys of the relevant literature reveals has been quite elusive) then governments must simply charge a price – either by taxing emitters or issuing tradable emission permits – so that the quantity of emissions is reduced to levels scientists deem appropriate. The economics of this solution is elegant in its simplicity. Sources of greenhouses gasses (electric generation, automobiles, etc.) will “pay the price” until it is cheaper for them to abate the deleterious emission than paying the tax or buying permits. They can achieve this abatement by either decreasing output or producing their products in a way that emits less greenhouse gas. These methods will increase the price of the products, so demand will re-equilibrate to a lower quantity, ensuring that the markets remain efficient while still preventing the advance of climate change.
Clearly the citizens of the world will have to pay for this protection of the environment. High gas mileage vehicles, alternative energy, and other abatement methods are costly for an economy. The institution of a comprehensive international environmental treaty would certainly decrease global output for years to come. Herein lays the heart of the opposition to such an arrangement. Low-income countries which are rapidly expanding their economies towards prosperity would have to languish in poverty for years to come, while high-income countries already enjoy relative prosperity even though they caused the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gas accumulation.
On one hand, the appeal to fairness by countries led by China seems valid [and given recent developments, no one can argue that China is not at least pretending to search for a solution]. Every person in the world has the right to economic prosperity, so countries that already enjoy high standards of living should bear the burden of global environmental stewardship while the rest of the world catches up. But there is something unsatisfying about this approach. It is arguable that knowingly damaging the environment is just morally wrong, so emerging market countries do not have any legitimate base to pollute their way to prosperity no matter the prosperity of others. It is simply unfortunate that developed countries did not know about the harms of greenhouse gas during the Industrial Revolution, because then they would have altered their behavior decades ago and prevented this crisis in the first place.
Despite these fundamental ethical dilemmas, a solution to the international deadlock on a climate change treaty is still feasible from an economic point of view. It would be prohibitively expensive for developed countries to abate all of the environmentally required greenhouse gasses on their own. It is in the economic best interest of the developed world to recruit the support of emerging nations. Therefore, developed nations should offer transfer assistance to developing nations in exchange for abating emissions. Developing nations should be willing to accept aid which exceeds their economic costs of reducing emissions, while developed nations should be willing to pay to the developing world anything less than the cost they would have to bare in order to assuage climate change all on their own. Coming to the terms of this agreement will surely take intense deliberation between nations, but there is nothing fundamentally barring its fruition.
Just to make you feel like I posted this article back when all eyes were on the UN in New York, here are some great pictures I gathered from the climate march that was held concurrently in Manhattan:
Just to take things from 2010 pseudo-academic Eric to nearly 2015 blogger Eric, I want to really quickly boil down my point here. If we want to strike an international global climate change treaty the rich countries will need to pay the poor countries. Just like water, countries take the path of least resistance to prosperity. We did back during the Industrial Revolution, not knowing the harms of the chemicals we were emitting. Now developing countries are doing it to, but they can’t afford to stop. They are poor, and their people need economic growth to achieve quality of life. So the only way to get their leaders to agree to enforce greenhouse gas emission limits is by compensating them for the economic growth that we are asking them to deliberately pare down. How is this deliberate, you may ask? If they want their prosperity to not follow the path of least resistance, they are going to have to go slower and use more expensive technologies.