Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Oil Prices And Expectations

Brandon Fuller on the economics of oil:
Harvard economist Martin Feldstein's latest opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal argues that we can implement policies today that will impact the current price of oil. Current oil production responds to expectations about the future, Feldstein explains. Any significant change in expectations about the future price of oil will have an immediate impact on the current supply of oil. Broadly speaking, the expected price of oil changes for one of two reasons:

1. Changes in expectations about the growth of oil demand; and
2. Changes in expectations about the growth of oil supply.

How might changes in expected oil demand lead to higher current prices? As Feldstein points out, "when oil producers concluded that the demand for oil in China and some other countries will grow more rapidly in future years than they had previously expected, they inferred that the future price of oil would be higher than they had previously believed." If oil producers expect higher future prices for oil, they will curb production today (leave some oil in the ground) in hopes of extracting it at higher prices in the future. On the graph, the current supply of oil shifts to the left, to S1, causing the current price of oil to rise to P1 and the current quantity of oil to decline.

How might changes in expected oil supply lead to higher current prices? Again, from the editorial: "[C]redible reports about the future decline of oil production in Russia and in Mexico implied a higher future global price of oil." If producers expect oil supply growth to weaken in the future, the expected future price of oil rises, and oil producers leave some oil in the ground today in order to extract it at higher future prices. Once again, we'd expect the supply curve for oil to shift to the left, causing the price of oil to rise (to P1) and the quantity of oil to decline.

An increase in expected oil supply or a decrease in expected oil demand would lead to lower current oil prices. If oil producers think that future cars will be much more fuel-efficient than previously believed, they'd expect relatively weak growth in oil demand, and correspondingly lower future prices. In this case, producers respond by pumping more oil today in an effort to avoid lower future prices. Similarly, as Feldstein points out, "increasing the expected future supply of oil would also reduce today's price."
Some good insights from Econ 101 and the short-term effects on the price of oil policy changes may have.

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