Oil prices have been falling in recent months. By early June they had reached a 17-month low. The benchmark US crude price (the West Texas Intermediate price) fell to $83.2 at the beginning of the month, and Brent Crude (the North Sea reference price for refining into petrol) fell to $97.7 (see chart). (For a PowerPoint of the chart below, click here.)
At the same time various commodity prices have also been falling. The IMF all commodities price index has fallen by 7.2% over the past 12 months and by 6.2% in May alone. Some commodities have fallen much faster. In the 12 months to May 2012, natural gas fell by 44%, wheat by 25%, lamb by 37%, Arabica coffee by 36%, coconut oil by 45%, cotton by 47%, iron ore by 23% and tin by 29%.
Although part of the reason for the fall in the price of some commodities is increased supply, the main reason is weak world demand. And with continuing problems in the eurozone and a slowdown in China and the USA, commodity price weakness is likely to continue.
So is this good news? To the extent that commodity prices feed through into consumer prices and impact on the rate of inflation, then this is good news. As inflation falls, so central banks will be encouraged to make further cuts in interest rates (in the cases where they are not already at a minimum). For example, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut its cash rate last week from 3.75% to 3.5%. This follows on from a cut from 4.25% on 1 May. In cases where there is no further scope for interest rate cuts (e.g. the US Federal Reserve Bank, whose interest rate is between 0% and 0.25%), then the fall in inflation may encourage a further round of quantitative easing.
But falling commodity prices are also a reflection of bad news, namely the low economic growth of the world economy and fears of turmoil from a possible Greek exit from the euro.
A day after this was written (9/6/12), a deal was agreed between eurozone ministers to provide support of up to €100 billion for Spanish banks. This helped to reduce pessimism about the world economy, at least temporarily. Stock markets rose and so too did oil prices, by around 1%. But if pessimism increases again, then the fall is likely to resume.
Oil prices hit a 17-month low on China slowdown fears BBC News (8/6/12)
Oil gives up gains without signs of Fed move BloombergBusinessweek, Sandy Shore (7/6/12)
Oil Heads for Longest Run of Weekly Losses in More Than 13 Years BloombergBusinessweek, (8/6/12)
Gold plunges as Bernanke gives no hint of stimulus Live5News(7/6/12)
Oil Price Tumbles Below $83 on Weak Economy Money News(8/6/12)
World food price index expected to fall for May Reuters(6/6/12)
Oil price losing streak continues Guardian, Julia Kollewe (8/6/12)