The Relationship Between Oil Prices and Inflation
The connection between oil prices and inflation is a cause-and-effect relationship. The increase in oil prices contributes to inflation, with both direct and indirect effects. While this correlation has been historically significant, it has weakened over the years, primarily due to the changing economic landscape.
Crude oil plays a pivotal role in the global economy, and fluctuations in its prices can significantly impact inflation, which measures the overall increase in prices across the economy.
Inflation Spike in 2022
In March 2022, the United States experienced a 40-year high in inflation, mainly due to supply disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrently, crude oil prices reached a decade high because of sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies, stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Direct and Indirect Impact
Energy, including oil, accounted for approximately 7.3% of the U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) in December 2021, with energy commodities making up about 4% of this index. Moreover, the indirect effects of rising oil prices are seen in the prices of products made with petrochemicals, particularly plastics. As oil prices increase, so do the prices of items dependent on plastic materials.
Transportation costs also contribute to consumer prices, and approximately half of the retail price of gasoline is attributable to the cost of oil. Consequently, fluctuations in oil prices influence these prices. To gauge the impact, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell stated that, as a rule of thumb, a $10 per barrel increase in crude oil prices leads to a 0.2% rise in inflation and a 0.1% setback in economic growth.
A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in September 2021 suggested that a three-month surge in crude oil prices to $100 per barrel would raise the annual inflation rate by 3 percentage points, with the effect diminishing as oil prices retract.
The decade-high oil prices in March 2022 were primarily a response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, leading to a ban on imports of Russian oil by the U.S.
Crude Oil's Impact on Inflation and Energy Landscape
Historically, crude oil had a more substantial impact on inflation, particularly in the 1970s when it was more intensively used per unit of economic output. In the past, the U.S. economy consumed over a barrel of crude oil for every $1,000 of gross domestic product (GDP). By 2015, this had decreased to about 0.4 barrels per $1,000 of GDP.
Reduced reliance on energy, especially crude oil, has contributed to disinflation – the decrease in the inflation rate. Although the importance of oil as an economic input has decreased, there remains a strong correlation between spot oil prices and market indicators of long-term inflation expectations.
Some analysts argue that the changing energy landscape, with the introduction of less environmentally damaging but more costly renewable energy sources and the shift from global supply chains to domestic or regional ones, may disrupt the previously established correlation between oil and inflation.
Goods Producers and Oil Prices
Historically, oil prices had a more substantial influence on the Producer Price Index (PPI), which measures the prices of goods at the wholesale level, than on the Consumer Price Index, which tracks the prices consumers pay for goods and services. Between 1970 and 2017, the correlation between oil prices and the PPI was 0.71, significantly stronger than the 0.27 correlation with the CPI. This difference can be attributed to the fact that services hold a relatively higher weight in the U.S. consumption basket, relying less on oil as a production input. The Federal Reserve's preferred inflation gauge, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index, has a lower gasoline weighting compared to the CPI.
The historical correlation between oil prices and inflation has weakened since the 1970s, primarily due to the shift from manufacturing to the service sector, which consumes energy less intensively. While oil prices continue to play a pivotal role in manufacturing and shipping, they have a more significant impact on the cost of goods compared to services. This is reflected in the stronger correlation between oil prices and the Producer Price Index as opposed to the Consumer Price Index. The evolving energy landscape and changes in global supply chains may further alter this relationship in the future.