May 18, 2018

Trump's oil policy tightrope

President Trump speaking at the White House during a meeting. Photo: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

President Trump is in a tight spot as he tries to pressure Iran with revived sanctions while avoiding political blowback for Republicans, and himself, from higher energy prices that hit businesses and consumers.

The big picture: There are simply too many variables to say with any certainty where oil prices — which are at their highest levels since late 2014 — will go moving forward. But Trump’s hawkish posture could bring domestic economic ripples.

Starkly put: "The Trump administration faces a conundrum," writes Barclays analyst Michael Cohen in a note Friday.

  • "Given President Trump's tweet of 20 April expressing frustration with OPEC, the administration cannot tighten the sanctions regime on both Iran and Venezuela and still have lower gasoline prices for consumers," he writes, referring to the tweet blaming OPEC for "artificially high" prices.

Climbing: Gasoline prices are heading upward and AAA reports that the nationwide average is now $2.91-per-gallon, up from $2.34 at this time last year.The federal Energy Information Administration, in a May 8 report that landed before Trump's Iran announcement later that day, predicted that the average household will spend $300 more on motor fuel costs this year.

Worrying: Reuters reported Thursday afternoon that big U.S. retailers and their investors are expressing concern about the effect of higher fuel costs.

  • "In a media call after its quarterly report on Thursday, Walmart Inc. said some consumers may be feeling pressure from higher gas prices, though demand remained strong," they report.
  • The story also notes that Walmart and Home Depot also say that higher freight costs are putting pressure on their margins.

Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of the multinational oil giant Total, said Thursday that prices could be at $100 "in the coming months."

  • "We are in a new world. We are in a world where geopolitics are dominating the market again," he said, per AFP, at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • Yes, but: Commodities analysts generally predict prices well below that. The new Barclays note, for instance, boosts their price forecast but still expects Brent crude to average $70 this year and $65 in 2019.

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