May 20, 2020 - Economy & Business

Coronavirus pandemic is making the U.S. a petro-state for now

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Data: Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

The history of low oil prices juicing the U.S. economy was broken during the pandemic-fueled price collapse, Dallas Fed economists argue in a new commentary.

Why it matters: "[O]n balance this oil price decline has weakened rather than strengthened the U.S. economy, making this event different from past episodes of falling oil prices," they write.

What they found: Normally, low gasoline prices stimulate help the economy because people have more money to spend on other things, while high prices act as drag on growth.

  • But these are not normal times! "Shelter-in-place policies greatly and almost instantaneously reduce the gasoline expenditure share, thereby limiting the direct effect of lower oil prices on domestic consumers," they write.

The big picture: These tragically strange circumstances followed more structural changes over the last decade as U.S. production soared and petroleum imports declined.

  • The growth of the U.S. oil industry means that when it deeply cuts investment, which is happening now, it hits the wider economy.
  • That drag on investment "can be large enough to offset any consumption stimulus" from low prices.
  • Meanwhile, in most other industries, the downward pressure on production costs from low prices is actually quite small.

The bottom line: "In the current environment, the sharp reduction in capital expenditures by oil companies explains why this oil price decline, on balance, actually hurt U.S. investment spending — and hence, economic growth — not only in oil-producing regions, but overall."

Go deeper: EIA forecasts U.S. oil boom will reverse amid coronavirus disruption

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