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Like a Fourth of July crescendo of fireworks, our gasoline prices are rising higher and higher. While this is tough on consumers, we're assured by a covey of tongue-clucking industry analysts that nothing can be done about it, for it's simply the law of supply and demand in action -- so suck it up, and pay up.
But hold your BPExxonMobilShellChevron horses right there. Supply and demand? The supply of crude oil has risen this year to its highest level in nearly two decades, even while the demand for gasoline has dropped dramatically, having fallen this month to a 10-year low. Let's see -- supply up, demand down. That's a classic market formula for cheaper prices at the pump. Yet our prices have steadily moved up, rising by two-thirds since the beginning of the year (and by 60 cents a gallon in the past two months alone).
What's going on here is not the "magic of the marketplace," but some hocus-pocus by brand-name dealers. What might surprise you, though, is that the wheeler-dealers now jacking up our pump prices don't operate under the BPExxonMobilShellChevron brands -- but the logos of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other Wall Street traders that have been placing vast, unregulated, secretive bets on the future price of oil. They're playing an electronic casino game in a global "dark market" of exotic derivatives and credit swaps.
There does seem to be a consensus forming that last year's financial crash was precipitated by the spike in oil prices last summer, when oil briefly touched $147/bbl. Why this should have happened seems rather obvious. Since most things in a fully developed, industrialised economy run on oil, it is not an optional purchase: for a given level of economic activity, a certain level of oil consumption is required, and so one simply pays the price for as long as access to credit is maintained, and after that suddenly it's game over. François Cellier has recently published an analysis in which he shows that at roughly $600/bbl the entire world's GDP would be required to pay for oil energy, leaving no money for putting it to any sort of interesting use. At that price level, we can't even afford to take delivery of it. In fact, at that price level, we can't even afford to pump it out of the ground, because the tool pushers, roughnecks and roustabouts that make oil rigs work don't drink the oil, and there would no longer be room in the budget for beer.
And so, the actual limiting price, beyond which no economic activity is possible, is certainly a lot lower, and last summer we seem to have experimentally established that to be around $150/bbl. which is something like 256% of global GDP. We may never run out of oil, but we have already run out of money with which to buy it, at least once, and will most likely do so again and again, until we learn the lesson.