The price of petrol is of interest to most families, occupying a key component of weekly expenditure. Over the past decade, it has fluctuated significantly, from around 85p per litre to over £1.40. More recently, prices have been around £1.03 to £1.10, depending on the brand and the location. But, will we see prices falling below that magical £1 per litre mark?
We have recently seen a 2p drop in wholesale fuel prices and it is this which has led to speculation about a further fall in prices at petrol stations to below £1. This, according to the RAC, has a ‘very good chance’ of happening.
A key determinant of petrol prices is the market price for crude oil and it is this which has been contributing towards the low petrol prices. As these prices filter through to the pumps, the RAC suggests that prices may once again come down. Furthermore, with some of the key petrol stations being operated by the big supermarkets, competition for sales and hence on prices may be fierce.
But, now let’s consider another well-informed organisation. According to the AA, the chances of petrol prices falling below £1 are ‘remote’. So, who should we believe? In fact, we can probably believe both. The market price may not fall below £1, but in the run-up to Christmas and in the start of the New Year, we may well see petrol on sale for under £1 as a means to entice shoppers or, as the AA has said, as a ‘marketing gimmick’. As you can see from the picture, Asda has dropped the price below £1 per litre in some of its petrol stations.
You might think this is a little strange, given the inelastic nature of the demand for petrol: after all, as prices of petrol rise and fall, I for one, don’t change my demand. This is also confirmed by HMRC, which reports that total petrol consumption is falling despite the low prices. But, it’s probably less about changing your total demand for petrol and more about from where you buy that total demand. For any one petrol station, the demand may be relatively elastic. It is this which may fuel a price war on petrol. The following articles consider this.
£1 per litre petrol? It’s unlikely The Telegraph, Rozina Sabur (20/11/15)
‘Good chance’ of £1 per litre petrol, says RAC BBC News (20/11/15)
Petrol prices ‘could fall below £1 per litre’ ITV News (20/11/15)
Fuel Prices: ‘Good chance’ of £1 a litre Sky News (20/11/15)
- What are they demand-side and supply-side factors which have helped to cut the price of petrol? Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
- How much of a role has OPEC played in keeping petrol prices down in the UK?
- Why is the demand for petrol price inelastic?
- HMRC suggests that despite low prices, the demand for petrol has been falling. Does this suggest that the demand curve for petrol is upward sloping? Explain your answer.
- If the demand for petrol is falling, can this tell car companies anything about the future demand for vehicles? Which concepts are important here?
- If petrol prices do not fall to reflect falling oil prices, what does this suggest about the profit margins on petrol? Should government intervene?
As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, oil prices have fallen by some 46% in the past five months. In that blog we looked at the implications for fuel prices. Here we look at the broader implications for the global economy? Is it good or bad news – or both?
First we’ll look at the oil-importing countries. To some extent the lower oil price is a reflection of weak global demand as many countries still struggle to recover from recession. If the lower price boosts demand, this may then cause the oil price to rise again. At first sight, this might seem merely to return the world economy to the position before the oil price started falling: a leftward shift in the demand for oil curve, followed by a rightward shift back to where it was. However, the boost to demand in the short term may act as a ‘pump primer’. The higher aggregate demand may result in a multiplier effect and cause a sustained increase in output, especially if it stimulates a rise in investment through rising confidence and the accelerator, and thereby increases capacity and hence potential GDP.
But the fall in the oil price is only partly the result of weak demand. It is mainly the result of increased supply as new sources of oil come on stream, and especially shale oil from the USA. Given that OPEC has stated that it will not cut its production, even if the crude price falls to $40 per barrel, the effect has been a shift in the oil supply curve to the right that will remain for some time.
So even if the leftward shift in demand is soon reversed so that there is then some rise in oil prices again, it is unlikely that prices will rise back to where they were. Perhaps, as the diagram illustrates, the price will rise to around $70 per barrel. It could be higher if world demand grows very rapidly, or if some sources of supply go off stream because at such prices they are unprofitable.
The effect on oil exporting countries has been negative. The most extreme case is Russia, where for each $10 fall in the price of oil, its growth rate falls by around 1.4 percentage points (see). Although the overall effect on global growth is still likely to be positive, the lower oil price could lead to a significant cut in investment in new oil wells. North sea producers are predicting a substantial cut in investment. Even shale oil producers in the USA, where the marginal cost of extracting oil from existing sources is only around $10 to £20 per barrel, need a price of around $70 or more to make investment in new sources profitable. What is more, typical shale wells have a life of only two or three years and so lack of investment would relatively quickly lead to shale oil production drying up.
The implication of this is that although there has been a rightward shift in the short-run supply curve, if price remains low the curve could shift back again, meaning that the long-run supply curve is much more elastic. This could push prices back up towards $100 if global demand continues to expand.
This can be illustrated in the diagram. The starting point is mid-2014. Global demand and supply are D1 and S1; price is $112 per barrel and output is Q1. Demand now shifts to the left and supply to the right to D2 and S2 respectively. Price falls to $60 per barrel and, given the bigger shift in supply than demand, output rises to Q2. At $60 per barrel, however, output of Q2 cannot be sustained. Thus at $60, long-run supply (shown by SL) is only Q4.
But assuming the global economy grows over the coming months, demand shifts to the right: say, to D3. Assume that it pushes price up to $100 per barrel. This gives a short-run output of Q3, but at that price it is likely that supply will be sustainable in the long run as it makes investment sufficiently profitable. Thus curve D3 intersects with both S2 and SL at this price and quantity.
The articles below look at the gainers and losers and at the longer-term effects.
Where will the oil price settle? BBC News, Robert Peston (22/12/14)
Falling oil prices: Who are the winners and losers? BBC News, Tim Bowler (16/12/14)
Why the oil price is falling The Economist (8/12/14)
The new economics of oil: Sheikhs v shale The Economist (6/12/14)
Shale oil: In a bind The Economist (6/12/14)
Falling Oil Price slows US Fracking Oil-price.net, Steve Austin (8/12/14)
Oil Price Drop Highlights Need for Diversity in Gulf Economies IMF Survey (23/12/14)
Lower oil prices boosting global economy: IMF Argus Media (23/12/14)
Collapse in oil prices: producers howl, consumers cheer, economists fret The Guardian (16/12/14)
North Sea oilfields ‘near collapse’ after price nosedive The Telegraph, Andrew Critchlow (18/12/14)
How oil price fall will affect crude exporters – and the rest of us The Observer, Phillip Inman (21/12/14)
Cheaper oil could damage renewable energies, says Richard Branson The Guardian,
Richard Branson: ‘Governments are going to have to think hard how to adapt to low oil prices.’ John Vidal (16/12/14)
Brent crude prices U.S. Energy Information Administration (select daily, weekly, monthly or annual data and then download to Excel)
Brent Oil Historical Data Investing.com (select daily, weekly, or monthly data and time period)
- What would determine the size of the global multiplier effect from the cut in oil prices?
- Where is the oil price likely to settle in (a) six months’ time; (b) two years’ time? What factors are you taking into account in deciding your answer?
- Why, if the average cost of producing oil from a given well is $70, might it still be worth pumping oil and selling it at a price of $30?
- How does speculation affect oil prices?
- Why has OPEC decided not to cut oil production even though this is likely to drive the price lower?
- With Brent crude at around $60 per barrel, what should North Sea oil producers do?
- If falling oil prices lead some oil-importing countries into deflation, what will be the likely macroeconomic impacts?
One of the key prices in any economy is that of oil. Whenever oil prices change, it can have a knock-on effect on a range of other markets, as oil, or some variation, is used as an input into the production of countless products. The main products that consumers will see affected are energy prices and petrol prices..
Although on the supply-side, we see a large cartel in the form of OPEC, it is still the case that the forces of demand and supply directly affect the market price. Key things such as the demand for heating, economic growth, fears of war and disruption will change the demand and supply of oil. The possibility of militant strikes in oil producers, such as Syria, would normally reduce supply and push up the market price. However, we have actually seen oil prices drop much faster than we have in two years, dropping below $100 per barrel since September 5th. The slowdown of economic growth in Asia, together with the return of Libyan production at a level greater than expected have helped to push prices down and have offset the fears of global production.
The market forces pushing prices down, while good for consumers and firms that use crude oil or one of its by-products, are clearly bad for oil producers. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Countries are urging OPEC to halt its production and thereby shift supply upwards to the left putting a stop to the downward oil price trend. Several countries are concerned about the impact of lower prices, and one country that may be significantly affected is Russia. Some are suggesting that the impact could be as big as 4% of Russia’s GDP, taking into account the ongoing political crisis with Ukraine.
The market for oil is highly susceptible to changes in both demand and supply-side factors. Microeconomic changes will have an impact, but at the same time any global macroeconomic factors can have significant effects on the global price. Expectations are crucial and as countries release information about the size of the oil stocks and inventories, it is adding to the downward pressure on prices. Some oil experts have predicted that prices could get as low as $80 per barrel before OPEC takes significant action, influenced heavily by countries like Saudi Arabia. The following articles consider this global market.
Iran urges OPEC to halt oil price slide Financial Times, Anjli Raval (26/9/14)
Oil overflow: as prices slump, producers grapple with a new reality The Globe and Mail, Shawn McCarthy and Jeff Lewis (27/9/14)
Weak demand, plentiful supply drive decline in oil prices International Distribution (26/9/14)
Oil prices plunging despite ISIS CNN Money, Paul R La Monica (25/9/14)
Oil prices fall on EIA report of big U.S. crude stocks build Reuters, Robert Gibbons (17/9/14)
Sanctions and weaker oil prices could cost Russia 4% of GDP – official RT (25/9/14)
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC
- What are the key factors on the microeconomic side that affect (a) demand and (b) supply of oil?
- Explain the key macroeconomic factors that are likely to have an impact on global demand and supply of oil.
- Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to explain the answer you gave to question 3.
- What type of intervention could OPEC take to stabilise oil prices?
- Why is the Russian economy likely to be adversely affected by the trend in oil prices?
- Changes in the global macroeconomy will directly affect oil prices. Is there a way that changes in oil prices can also affect the state of the global economy?
Oil is a commodity like any other – its price is affected by demand and supply. Back in 2003, with the impending war in Ira and strikes in Venezuela, oil prices increased and continued to do so as further supply concerns developed in Saudi Arabia, Russia and Nigeria. This upward trend continued until 2008, when with the growing banking turmoil and demand for oil falling, the price began to decline. However, the crisis in Libya is only making matters worse. Its credit-rating has been downgraded with the potential for it to be lowered further and concerns are deepening about the country’s crude exports. As Libya is the world’s 12th largest exporter of oil, these supply concerns have started to push up oil prices once more.
With inflation rates already high and political turmoil pushing oil prices up further, consumers and firms are feeling the squeeze. These changes have also been reflected on stock markets across the world. Analyst, Michael Hewson at CMC Markets said:
‘Given the fact that we have seen massive gains in stock markets over the last few months, investors have been nervous about a possible correction for some time… The tensions in the Middle East with Libya imploding and concerns that the unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia could provide a catalyst for (this) correction.’
The disruption in the Middle East has caused companies such as Eni of Italy and Repsol YPF of Spain to shut down production, leading to output losses of some 22% of Libya’s production. As supply contracts from this region, prices will inevitably rise. However, the Saudi oil Minister has said that he is ready to boost production to offset any decline, but that at present there is no oil crisis. So, what can we expect to happen to oil prices in the coming months? It will all depend on changes in demand and supply.
Libyan crisis threatens to spark oil crisis Financial Times, Javier Blas and David Blair (22/2/11)
Libya protests: oil prices rise as unrest continues BBC News (22/2/11)
Oil producers, users sign charter as prices spike Associated Press (21/2/11)
Oil shock fears as Libya erupts Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (22/2/11)
Arab protests pose energy threat BBC News, Damian Kahya (22/2/11)
All eyes on Bahrain as Gulf tremors frighten oil markets Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (22/2/11)
Saudi Arabia seeks to calm market with words not oil Reuters (22/2/11)
Saudi Arabia says oil market needs no intervention Associated Press (21/2/11)
Peace in Bahrain is key to stopping oil prices from surging Live Oil Prices (22/2/11)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Crude Oil Price Chart WTI
- What are the key factors that influence the supply of oil? How will each factor affect the supply curve?
- What are the key factors that influence the demand for oil? How will each factor affect the demand curve?
- Putting your answers to questions 1 and 2 together and using your knowledge of recent events in the oil market, explain the changes in oil prices.
- How are oil prices affected by OPEC?
- How have rising oil prices affected the stock market? What’s the explanation for this relationship?
- How might higher prices affect the economic recovery? Think about the impact on consumers and firms.
Changes in the price of oil have effects throughout the economy. And it’s not just on the obvious things, such as petrol prices, energy bills and rail, bus and air fares. Most companies are significantly affected by the price of oil, as oil is a key input into their production, whether for transporting their inputs or the goods they produce, or as plastics or other petrochemicals. This is why the price of oil receives so much attention: we’re all affected by it. You will have seen the price of petrol changing dramatically over the past year or so and this is largely due to changing oil prices. The price of oil peaked at $147 a barrel in July 2008 and fell as low as $32 a barrel in December 2008.
So what is it that causes these changes in oil prices and what does it mean for the world’s economies? Read the following articles, which discuss these issues, and look at recent developments in the oil industry.
First fall in oil use since 1993 BBC News (10/6/09)
Trump’s world view Fox News, Interview between Greta van Susteren and Donald Trump (30/6/09) Oil settles above $71; China to boost reserves The Associated Press, Dirk Lammers (29/6/09)
Nigeria worries push up oil price BBC News (29/6/09)
Oil up to near $72 on dollar fall, Nigeria attack Town Hall, Pablo Gorondi (30/6/09)
Chinese demand forecast to boost oil price The Star Phoenix, Joanne Paulson (30/6/09)
Lower oil price hits Total profit BBC News (6/5/09)
Oil price hovers at $70 amid pipeline attacks Financial Times, Miles Johnson, Javier Blas, London (27/6/09)
What is going on in the oil market? BBC News (27/10/08)
Rising oil prices poses threat to recovery, Alistair Darling warns Telegraph (12/6/09)
Fears of oil crunch recede as recession knocks down global demand The Independent, Sarah Arnott (30/6/09)
- How is the price of oil determined? Give 2 examples of factors that could cause (a) the price of oil to increase and (b) the price of oil to decrease.
- How are company profits affected by the changing price of oil?
- OPEC is an oil cartel. What are the factors that make collusion more likely to succeed? Do they apply to OPEC?
- When prices of oil increase, why do we still use similar amounts of energy; still buy petrol? What’s so special about this commodity? Think about elasticity.
- How is the price and consumption of oil affected by the macroeconomic situation?