Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The increase in oil prices (to over $40 per barrel) has caused much concern. Political instability in Iraq and Saudi Arabia are largely the cause, with the price of oil futures in particular being lifted as a consequence of the risk factors involved, fear of a cutback in supplies generating worries about future price hikes. Inevitably this stimulates memories of the 1970s, when OPEC, the cartel of major oil producing countries, succeeded in quadrupling oil prices. At that time, the price rises were accommodated by expansionary monetary policies in many Western economies, this fuelling inflation. Cartels are notoriously unstable, however, and it does not appear that this time around OPEC will be able to exacerbate the high price of oil - indeed major players within OPEC are committing themselves to raising supply, thereby dampening the upward pressures on the price.

Oil prices are critical determinants of the prices of many other things, owing to the importance of oil as a fuel for transporting goods. So oil prices matter. But a one-shot increase in the price of oil is not, of itself, inflationary. It does not set off a sustained chain reaction of price increases. In the 1970s, however, governments' responses to the OPEC oil price hike did set off an inflationary episode. At that time, governments reaction to the increase in the price of oil was to expand the monetary base so as to accommodate the oil price shock, that is to try to dampen the decrease in aggregate demand that is consequent to the one-shot price rise. But by expanding the money supply, the authorities merely generated further price increases, setting off an inflationary sequence.

The monetary policy response to the oil price rise now should take heed of the lessons offered by the experience of the 1970s. Interest rates should not be cut to accommodate what is happening in the oil markets. But neither should fears of inflation due to oil price rises necessarily mean that interest rates should be raised. The oil price hike is a one-off event; it does not mean that inflation has re-emerged, and the appropriate response is not a knee-jerk anti-inflationary adjustment of the interest rate.

Whether the Monetary Policy Committee should have raised the interest rate last month is moot. It should not have done so for fear of inflation in the housing market, and it should not have done so for fear of the effects of rising oil prices.