Oil is a critical source of energy. In the past, a major oil price shock meant devastation for economic growth.
“Our obsession with oil prices comes with good reason,” writes Morgan Stanley economist Ellen Zentner. “Abrupt and sharp increases in oil prices have played a key role in precipitating recessions in 1973-75, 1980-81, 1990-91, 2001 and 2008-09.”
Recent turmoil in Iraq has sent oil prices much higher. But economists aren’t ready to freak out just yet.
“Over time, however, those shocks to the relative price of oil have spurred innovations that have led to a more efficient use of energy inputs,” continued Zentner. “Alongside growing use of other energy inputs, those innovations have reduced the world economy’s dependence on oil.”
Zentner presented this chart showing how a decreasing amount of energy has been needed to generated a dollar’s worth of GDP in the world.
It may not be immediately intuitive how this could be.
Zentner offers a more micro level example that anyone who’s been in a car can appreciate.
US households have also adjusted consumption patterns over time. When gasoline prices rise, drivers tend to reduce mileage in response and/or seek out more fuel efficient vehicles. This altered behaviour, coupled with shifting demographic factors and a slow labour market recovery since the financial crisis, has weighed on vehicle miles driven and lessens the aggregate impact of price increases at the pump. In the 12 months ended May 2014, average vehicle miles driven remained below the previous peak (reached in November 2007) for a 76th straight month. In 1990, consumers devoted 3.8% of total consumption to motor fuels. By 2013, that share had fallen to 2.3% (Exhibit 3).
Here’s her chart. It shares a similar downward slope as the chart above.
It’s certainly worth noting that innovation isn’t just about fuel efficiency. Technological developments have enabled U.S. oil drillers to extract fossil fuels from shale in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere using unconventional methods. Indeed, thanks to the shale boom, we might not even see Middle East-triggered oil price spikes we’ve seen in past.