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A crude indicator of the economy (Part 1)

Oil prices have been plummeting in recent months. Indeed, many commentators are saying that this is the major economics news story of 2014. In June 2014 Brent crude was around $112 per barrel. By December the price has fallen to around $60 – a fall of 46%. But what are the implications for fuel prices?

Just because the crude oil price has fallen by 46%, this does not mean that prices at the pump should do the same. Oil is priced in dollars and the pound has depreciated against the dollar by just over 7% since June, from around £1 = $1.69 to around £1 = $1.57. Thus in sterling terms, crude oil has fallen by only 42%.

More significantly, the cost of crude is a relatively small percentage of the price of a litre of petrol. At a price of 132p per litre (the July average price), crude accounted for around 27% of the price, or around 36p per litre. At a price of 114p per litre, the price in late December, crude accounts for around 19% of the price, or around 21.5p per litre. The largest element of price is fuel duty, which is charged at a flat rate of 57.95p per litre. In addition there is VAT at 20% of the pre-VAT price (or 16.67% of the retail price). Finally there are the refining, distribution and retail costs and margins, but these together account for only around 16p per litre.

What this means is that the 46% cut in oil prices has led to a cut in petrol prices of only around 14%. If petrol prices were to reach £1 per litre, as some commentators have forecast, crude oil prices would have to fall to under $40 per barrel.

Although petrol and diesel prices have fallen by a smaller percentage than oil prices, this still represents a significant cut in motoring and transport costs. It also represents a significant cut in costs for the petrochemical industry and other industries using large amounts of oil.

For oil-importing countries this is good news as the fall in the oil price represents an increase in real incomes. For oil importing countries, and especially those such as Russia and some OPEC countries where oil constitutes a large proportion of their exports, it is bad news. We explore these effects in Part 2.

Videos
UK petrol prices hit four-year low BBC News, John Moyland (10/12/14)
Petrol prices plunge ahead of Christmas holidays Belfast Telegraph (19/12/14)
Petrol price plummet – could fuel drop to below a pound a litre in the New Year? Channel 5 News on YouTube (17/12/14)

Articles
UK motorists benefit from petrol price drop Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (23/12/14)
Petrol to drop to £1 a litre, says Goldman Sachs The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (9/12/14)
Oil prices: How low will they go in 2015? International Business Times, Shane Croucher (22/12/14)
Plummeting oil price may lead to petrol falling below £1 a litre RAC news (17/12/14)
Pump Prices: Cheap Petrol Comes With A Warning Sky News (19/12/14)

Data and information
Fuel prices in Europe Drive Alive (20/12/14)
Weekly road fuel prices Department of Energy & Climate Change (23/12/14)
Prices at the pump – why are they falling and will this continue? ONS (18/12/14)
Fuel Prices Explained RAC
UKPIA Statistical Review 2014 United Kingdom Petroleum Industry Association

Questions

  1. Why does the price of petrol fluctuate less in percentage terms than the price of crude oil?
  2. What factors will affect whether UK petrol prices fall to £1 per litre?
  3. If crude oil prices fell by 20%, in which of these two cases would there be a bigger percentage fall in petrol prices: (a) petrol price currently 140p; (b) petrol price currently 110p? Explain.
  4. Distinguish between a specific tax and an ad valorem tax. Which of these is (a) fuel duty; (b) VAT? Illustrate your answer with a supply and demand diagram.
  5. What determines the price elasticity of demand for petrol and diesel? Is the long-run elasticity likely to be higher or lower than the short-run elasticity? Explain.
  6. Distinguish between demand-pull and cost-push inflation. Given that oil price changes are correlated to inflation, would you characterise recent falls in inflation as reductions in demand-pull or cost-push pressures, or both: (a) in a specific oil-importing country; (b) globally?
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