Here I provide some more background on the relation between oil price increases and economic recessions.
When I first began working on my Ph.D. dissertation in 1980, I was intrigued by the fact that the oil embargo of 1973-74 and the collapse in Iranian oil production after the revolution in 1978 were both followed by global recessions. But when I called attention to the fact there had been a sharp increase in the price of oil prior to 6 of the 7 postwar U.S. recessions up to that point, the general response was one of skepticism.
By the time I was presenting evidence of this relation at various seminars in 1981-82, the Iran-Iraq War had produced yet another shock to world oil markets and the NBER declared that the U.S. experienced a new recession immediately on the heels of the previous downturn, meaning that the evidence had now become that 7 out of 8 recessions had followed oil price increases. That research was subsequently published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1983 and the Energy Journal in 1985. My ideas about how this relationship might be explained by disruptive changes in the composition of spending appeared in the Journal of Political Economy in 1988.
We received some more evidence on this relationship when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, causing oil prices once again to double and coinciding with the 9th postwar recession. The price of oil also shot up before the 2001 recession. Add in the conjunction of the oil shock of 2007-08 with our current economic pickle, and my count is now up to 10 out of 11.
For the record, my position has never been that oil prices were the sole cause of all of these recessions. But the evidence persuaded me that oil must have been a contributing factor in at least some postwar recessions.
Given my long interest in this area, the Brookings Institution approached me about the possibility of writing a paper on the causes and consequences of the oil shock of 2007-08. In that paper I compared what happened last year with what we’d seen in the many previous episodes. I presented those findings at a Brookings conference earlier this month, and described some of the results for Econbrowser readers here and here.
One of the things I did in that paper was to examine a number of different models of the effects of oil prices on the economy that had been developed for earlier data, and look at what those models would have predicted to happen in 2007-08. My conclusion was that most of those models held up pretty well. Using any of the estimates surveyed, the oil shock of 2007-08 was big enough to have made a material negative contribution to real GDP over the period 2007:Q4 to 2008:Q3, and the details of what happened over that period are quite consistent with the predictions.
The reason that I think this is an interesting finding is that this period– 2007:Q4 to 2008:Q3– was when the U.S. entered recession #11. The fourth quarter of 2008 saw a very dramatic deterioration in all the economic indicators, but if you focus just on the first 12 months of the recession– 2007:Q4 to 2008:Q3– things wouldn’t have had to be much better before most analysts would have said that the economy was not even in a recession prior to 2008:Q4. For example, real GDP actually grew by 0.7% between 2007:Q3 and 2008:Q3.
Dave Cohen argues that the GDP figures are too optimistic, and I agree. But whatever your preferred measure might be, it wouldn’t take much to nudge 2007:Q4-2008:Q3 into a range that’s not usually associated with recessions. For example, gross domestic income on average fell by -0.45% over 2007:Q4-2008:Q3. My paper calculated that using any of the models surveyed this would have been a positive number if there had not been the contractionary effects of the oil shock. Alternatively, a 12-month drop in total employment is sometimes used as another indicator of whether the economy is in a recession. We crossed that threshold in the summer of 2008. But if we had not shed 150,000 jobs in auto manufacturing– job losses that I think were pretty clearly tied directly to the oil price shock– employment growth would still have been positive going into the fall of 2008.
Why does it matter whether, in the absence of the oil shock, the experience over 2007:Q4-2008:Q3 might have been a bit better in terms of such measures as GDP or employment? My answer is that the drops in overall spending that were caused by higher oil prices proved to be the knockout punch for an economy that was already wobbly. Whatever your preferred culprit might be for our current difficulties– loan default rates, falling house prices, debt burdens, or pessimistic sentiment– that measure would have had a more favorable value going into the fall of 2008 if we had experienced more favorable fundamentals in terms of income and jobs over 2007:Q4-2008:Q3. And there’s no question that more favorable fundamentals are exactly what we would have had if the price of oil had never gone over $100 a barrel.
The fact that the biggest drop in output didn’t occur until well after the oil price went up, and resulted not from the oil price itself but instead from the interaction with other factors and the dynamic forces unleashed when the overall level of economic activity began to decline, is also exactly the same pattern we saw in each of the previous recessions.
Was the oil shock of 2007-08 the sole cause of the recession? Certainly not. But did it make a material contribution? In my opinion, the answer unquestionably is yes.