International wholesale gas prices have soared in recent months. This followed a cold winter in 2021/22 across Europe, the bounceback in demand as economies opened up after COVID and, more recently, pressure on supplies since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting restricted gas supplies from Russia. The price of gas traded on the UK wholesale market is shown in Chart 1 (click here for a PowerPoint). Analysts are forecasting that the wholesale price of gas will continue to rise for some time. The higher price of gas has had a knock-on effect on wholesale electricity prices, as gas-fired power stations are a major source of electricity generation and electricity prices.
In the UK, domestic fuel prices were capped by the regulator, Ofgem. The cap reflected wholesale prices and was designed to allow electricity suppliers to make reasonable but not excessive profits. The cap was adjusted every six months, but this was been reduced to three months to reflect the rapidly changing situation. Prices are capped for both gas and electricity for both the standing charge and the rate per kilowatt hour (kWh). This is illustrated in Chart 2 (click here for a PowerPoint).
The effects of the cap were then projected in terms of a total annual bill for a typical household consuming 12 000 kWh of gas and 2900 kWh of electricity. Chart 3 shows the typical fuel bill for the last four price caps and, prior to the mini-Budget of 23 September, the projected price caps for the first and second quarters of 2023 based on forecasts at the time of wholesale prices (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, wholesale gas and electricity prices account for an increasing proportion of the total bill. The remaining elements in cost consist of profits (1.9% assumed), VAT (5%), operating costs, grid connection costs and green levies (around £153). The chart shows that, without government support for prices, the price cap would have risen by 80.6% in October 2022 and was projected to rise by a further 51% in January 2023 and by another 23% in March 2023. If this were to have been the case, then prices would have risen by 481% between the summer of 2021 and March 2023.
This was leading to dire warnings of extreme fuel poverty, with huge consequences for people’s health and welfare, which would put extra demands on an already stretched health service. Many small businesses would not be able to survive the extra fuel costs, which would lead to bankruptcies and increased unemployment.
Future wholesale gas prices
Energy market analysts expect wholesale gas prices to remain high throughout 2023, with little likelihood that gas supplies from Russia will increase. Some European countries, such as Germany, have been buying large amounts of gas to fill storage facilities before winter and before prices rise further. This has added to demand.
The UK, however, has only limited storage facilities. Although it is not an importer of gas from Russia and so, in one sense, storage facilities are less important at the current time, wholesale gas prices reflect international demand and supply and thus gas prices in the UK will be directly affected by an overall global shortage of supply.
What would have been the response to the projected rise in gas prices? Eventually demand would fall as substitute fuels are used for electricity generation. But demand is highly inelastic. People cannot readily switch to alternative sources of heating. Most central heating is gas fired. People may reduce consumption of energy by turning down their heating or turning it off altogether, but such reductions are likely to be a much smaller percentage than the rise in price. Thus, despite some use of other fuels and despite people cutting their energy usage, people would still end up spending much more on energy.
Over the longer term, new sources of supply of gas, including liquified natural gas (LNG), may increase supply. And switching to green energy sources for electricity generation, may bring the price of electricity back down and lead to some substitution been gas and electricity in the home and businesses. Also improved home insulation and the installation of heat pumps and solar panels in homes, especially in new builds, may reduce the demand for gas. But these changes take time. Chart 4 illustrates the situation (click here for a PowerPoint).
Both demand and supply are relatively inelastic. The initial demand and supply curves are D1 and S1. Equilibrium price is P1 (point a). There is now a fall in supply. Supply shifts to S2. With an inelastic demand, there is a large rise in price to P2 (point b).
Over two or three years, there is a modest fall in demand (as described above) to D2 and a modest rise in supply to S3. Price falls back somewhat to P3 (point c). Over a longer period of time, these shifts would be greater and the price would fall further.
Possible policy responses
What could the government do to alleviate the problem? Consensus was that the new Conservative Prime Minister, Liz Truss, and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, would have to take radical measures if many households were to avoid severe hardship and debt. One proposal was to reduce VAT on domestic energy from 5% to zero and to cut green levies. Although this would help, it would make only a relatively small dent in people’s rising bills.
Another proposal was to give people cash payments to help with their bills. The more generous and widespread these payments, the more costly they would be.
One solution here would be to impose larger windfall taxes on oil and gas producers (as opposed to retailers). Their profits have soared as oil and gas prices have soared. Such a move is generally resisted by those on the right of politics, arguing that it could discourage investment in energy production. Those on the centre and left of politics argue that the profits are the result of global factors and not because of wise business decisions by the energy producers. A windfall tax would only take away these excess profits.
The EU has agreed a tax on fossil fuel companies’ surplus profits made either this year or next. It is also introducing a levy on the excess revenues that other low-cost power producers make from higher electricity prices.
Another proposal was to freeze retail energy prices at the current or some other level. This would make it impossible for energy suppliers to cover their costs and so they would have to be subsidised. This again would be very expensive and would require substantially increased borrowing at a time when interest rates are rising, or increased taxation at a time when people’s finances are already squeezed by higher inflation. An alternative would be to cap the price North Sea producers receive. As around half of the UK’s gas consumption is from the North Sea, this would help considerably if it could be achieved, but it might be difficult to do so given that the gas is sold onto international markets.
One proposal that was gaining support from energy producers and suppliers is for the government to set up a ‘deficit fund’. Energy suppliers (retailers) would freeze energy prices for two years and take out state-backed loans from banks. These would then be paid back over time by prices being capped sufficiently high to cover costs (which, hopefully, by then would be lower) plus repayments.
Another policy response would be to decouple electricity prices from the wholesale price of gas. This is being urgently considered in the EU, and Ofgem is also consulting on such a measure. This could make wholesale electricity prices reflect the costs of the different means of generation, including wind, solar and nuclear, and would see a fall in wholesale electricity prices. At the moment, generators using these methods are making large profits.
The government’s response
On September 23, the government held a mini-Budget. One of its key elements was a capping of the unit price of energy for both households and firms. The government called this the Energy Price Guarantee. For example, those households on a variable dual-fuel, direct-debit tariff would pay no more than 34.0p/kWh for electricity and 10.3p/kWh for gas. Standing charges are capped at 46p per day for electricity and 28p per day for gas. These rates will apply for 2 years from 1/10/22 and should give an average annual household bill of £2500.
Although the government has widely referred to the ‘£2500 cap’, it is the unit price that is capped, not the annual bill. It is still the case that the more you consume, the more you will pay. As you can see from Chart 3, the average £2500 still represents an average increase per annum of just over £500 per household and is almost double the cap of £1277 a year ago. It will thus still put considerable strain on many household finances.
For businesses, prices will be capped for 6 months from 1 October at 21.1p per kWh for electricity and 7.5p per KWh for gas – considerably lower than for domestic consumers.
The government will pay subsidies to the retail energy companies to allow them to make sufficient, but not excess, profit. These subsidies are estimated to cost around £150 billion. This will be funded by borrowing, not by tax increases, with the government ruling out a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas extracting companies. Indeed, the mini-Budget contained a number of tax reductions, including scrapping the 45% top rate of income tax, cutting the basic rate of income tax from 20% to 19% and scrapping the planned rise in corporation tax from 19% to 25%.
- Why are the demand and supply of gas relatively inelastic with respect to price?
- Why are the long-run elasticities of demand and supply of gas likely to be greater than the short-run elasticities?
- Find out how wholesale electricity prices are determined. Is there a case for reforming the system and, if so, how?
- Identify ways in which people could be protected from rising energy bills.
- Assess these different methods in terms of (a) targeting help to those most in need; (b) economic efficiency.
Global oil prices (Brent crude) reached $128 per barrel on 9 March, a level not seen for 10 years and surpassed only in the run up to the financial crisis in 2008. Oil prices are determined by global demand and supply, and the current surge in prices is no exception.
A rise in demand and/or a fall in supply will lead to a rise in the price. Given that both demand and supply are relatively price inelastic, such shifts can cause large rises in oil prices. Similarly, a fall in demand or rise in supply can lead to a large fall in oil prices.
These changes are then amplified by speculation. Traders try to get ahead of price changes. If people anticipate that oil prices will rise, they will buy now, or make a contract to buy more in the future at prices quoted today by buying on the oil futures market. This then pushes up both spot (current) prices and futures prices. If demand or supply conditions change, speculation will amplify the reaction to such a change.
What has happened since 2019?
In 2019, oil was typically trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. It then fell dramatically in early 2020 as the onset of COVID-19 led to a collapse in demand, for both transport and industry. The price fell below $20 in late April (see charts: click here for a PowerPoint).
Oil prices then rose rapidly as demand recovered somewhat but supply chains, especially shipping, were suffering disruptions. By mid-2021, oil was once more trading at around $60 to $70 per barrel. But then demand grew more strongly as economic recovery from COVID accelerated. But supply could not grow so quickly. By January 2022, Brent crude had risen above $80 per barrel.
Then worries began to grow about Russian intentions over Ukraine as Russia embarked on large-scale military exercises close to the border with Ukraine. People increasingly disbelieved Russia’s declarations that it had no intention to invade. Russia is the world’s second biggest producer of oil and people feared that deliberate disruptions to supply by Russia or other countries banning imports of Russian oil would cause supply shortages. Speculation thus drove up the oil price. By 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brent crude had risen to $95.
With the Russian invasion, moves were made by the EU the USA and other countries to ban or limit the purchase of Russian oil. This increased the demand for non-Russian oil.
On 8 March, the USA announced that it was banning the import of Russian oil with immediate effect. The same day, the UK announced that it would phase out the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022.
The EU is much more dependent on Russian oil imports, which account for around 27% of EU oil consumption and 2/3 of extra-EU oil imports. Nevertheless, it announced that it would accelerate the move away from Russian oil and gas and towards green alternatives. By 8 March, Brent crude had risen to $128 per barrel.
The question was then whether other sources of supply would help to fill the gap. Initially it seemed that OPEC+ (excluding Russia) would not increase production beyond the quotas previously agreed by the cartel to meet recovery in world demand. But then, on 9 March, the UAE Ambassador to Washington announced that the county favoured production increases and would encourage other OPEC members to follow suit. With the announcement, the oil price fell by 11% to £111. But the next day, it rose again somewhat as the UAE seemed to backtrack, but then fell back slightly as OPEC said there was no shortage of oil.
This is obviously an unfolding story with the suffering of the Ukrainian people at its heart. But the concepts of supply and demand and their price elasticity and the role of speculation are central to understanding what will happen to oil prices in the coming months with all the consequences for poverty and economic hardship.
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate what has happened to oil prices over the past two years. How has the size of the effects been dependent on the price elasticity of demand for oil and the price elasticity of supply of oil?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to show what has been happening to the price of natural gas over the past two years. Are the determinants similar to those in the oil market? How do they differ (if at all)?
- What policy options are open to governments to deal with soaring energy prices?
- What are the distributional consequences of the rise in energy prices? (see the blog: Rise in the cost of living.)
- Under what circumstances are oil prices over the next six months likely (a) fall; (b) continue rising?
The suffering inflicted on the Ukrainian people by the Russian invasion is immense. But, at a much lower level, the war will also inflict costs on people in countries around the world. There will be significant costs to households in the form of even higher energy and food price inflation and a possible economic slowdown. The reactions of governments and central banks could put a further squeeze on living standards. Stock markets could fall further and investment could decline as firms lose confidence.
Russia is the world’s second largest oil supplier and any disruption to supplies will drive up the price of oil significantly. Ahead of the invasion, oil prices were rising. At the beginning of February, Brent crude was around $90 per barrel. With the invasion, it rose above $100 per barrel.
Russia is also a major producer of natural gas. The EU is particularly dependent on Russia, which supplies 40% of its natural gas. With Germany halting approval of the major new gas pipeline under the Baltic from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, the price of gas has rocketed. On the day of the invasion, European gas prices rose by over 50%.
Nevertheless, with the USA deciding not to extend sanctions to Russia’s energy sector, the price of gas fell back by 32% the next day. It remains to be seen just how much the supplies of oil and gas from Russia will be disrupted over the coming weeks.
Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat and maize, between them responsible for 14% of global wheat production and 30% of global wheat exports. A significant rise in the price of wheat and other grains will exacerbate the current rise in food price inflation.
Russia is also a significant supplier of metals, such as copper, platinum, aluminium and nickel, which are used in a wide variety of products. A rise in their price has begun and will further add to inflationary pressures and supply-chain problems which have followed the pandemic.
The effect of these supply shocks can be illustrated in a simple aggregate demand and supply diagram (see Figure 1), which shows a representative economy that imports energy, grain and other resources. Aggregate demand and short-run aggregate supply are initially given by AD0 and SRAS0. Equilibrium is at point a, with real national income (real GDP) of Y0 and a price index of P0.
The supply shock shifts short-run aggregate supply to SRAS1. Equilibrium moves to point b. The price index rises to P1 and real national income falls to Y1. If it is a ‘one-off’ cost increase, then the price index will settle at the new higher level and GDP at the new lower level provided that real aggregate demand remains the same. Inflation will be temporary. If, however, the SRAS curve continues to shift upwards to the left, then cost-push inflation will continue.
These supply-side shocks make the resulting inflation hard for policymakers to deal with. When the problem lies on the demand side, where the inflation is accompanied by an unsustainable boom, a contractionary fiscal and monetary policy can stabilise the economy and reduce inflation. But the inflationary problem today is not demand-pull inflation; it’s cost-push inflation. Disruptions to supply are both driving up prices and causing an economic slowdown – a situation of ‘stagflation’, or even an inflationary recession.
An expansionary policy, such as increasing bond purchases (quantitative easing) or increasing government spending, may help to avoid recession (at least temporarily), but will only exacerbate inflation. In Figure 2, aggregate demand shifts to AD2. Equilibrium moves to point c. Real GDP returns to Y0 (at least temporarily) but the price level rises further, to P2. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram.)
A contractionary policy, such as raising interest rates or taxes, may help to reduce inflation but will make the slowdown worse and could lead to recession. In the diagram, aggregate demand shifts to AD3. Equilibrium moves to point d. The price level returns to P0 (at least temporarily) but real income falls further, to Y3.
In other words, you cannot tackle both the slowdown/recession and the inflation simultaneously by the use of demand-side policy. One requires an expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policy; the other requires fiscal and/or monetary tightening.
Then there are other likely economic stresses. If NATO countries respond by increasing defence expenditure, this will put further strain on public finances.
Sentiment is a key driver of the economy and prices. Expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. So if the war in Ukraine undermines confidence in stock markets and the real economy and further raises inflationary expectations, this pessimistic mood will tend in itself to drive down share prices, drive up inflation and drive down investment and economic growth.
- How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hit the global economy?
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- Five ways the Ukraine war could push up prices
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- Jason Furman cautions against reading too much into the initial market reactions to Russia’s invasion
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- Putin’s war promises to crush the global economy with inflation and much slower growth
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- Roubini: 6 Financial, Economic Risks of Russia-Ukraine War
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- Fed tightening plans now contending with war, possible oil shock
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- The invasion of Ukraine changed everything for Wall Street
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- Why the Russian invasion will have huge economic consequences for American families
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- European gas prices soar and oil tops $105 after Russia attacks Ukraine
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- Five essential commodities that will be hit by war in Ukraine
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- Ukraine: ‘I’m surprised the oil price hasn’t hit US$130 a barrel yet’ – energy trading expert Q&A
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- Ukraine crisis: Warning UK energy bills could top £3,000 a year
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- Putin’s energy shock: The economic realities of invasion
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- Fears of UK food and fuel prices rising due to war
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- Ukraine conflict: What is Swift and why is banning Russia so significant?
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- Ukraine conflict: How reliant is Europe on Russia for oil and gas?
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- Ukraine crisis complicates ECB’s path to higher rates
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- Russia and the West are moving towards all out economic war
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- If there is a negative supply shock, what will determine the size of the resulting increase in the price level and the rate of inflation over the next one or two years?
- How may expectations affect (a) the size of the increase in the price level; (b) future prices of gas and oil?
- Why did stock markets rise on the day after the invasion of Ukraine?
- Argue the case for and against relaxing monetary policy and delaying tax rises in the light of the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine.