The financial crisis, economic turmoil, and the stock market sell-off have investors in the doldrums. One bright spot, however, is the recent plunge in oil prices. While this is a welcome development, it is not entirely unexpected. In recent years, easy monetary policy brought us the tech stock bubble, the housing bubble, and the commodities bubble.
High oil prices were largely the result of a weak dollar. They had less to do with strong demand or too little supply. Perhaps it took longer than it should have, but high oil prices finally caused the demand destruction we have been expecting. In reality, this destruction has been going on for months, but it become noticeable only recently. For example, the Department of Transportation just documented a decline of 15 billion fewer miles driven in August 2008 than in August 2007. But it's already late October. No doubt, demand has continued to fall during the last two months as well. Furthermore, as I explained more than a month ago in Forbes magazine, "with global economies slowing, the dollar strengthening and U.S. demand declining, even the threat of hurricanes can't keep oil's price up."
OPEC has long been saying there is plenty of supply. Now it is worried there is too much. Cooler heads at OPEC never wanted to see prices go as high as they did because they feared high prices would cause a global recession—something that is clearly bad for their business. Now they are just as worried that prices will plunge to levels not seen in years. This is why OPEC just announced a 1.5 million barrel per day production cut.
But just as OPEC was unable to keep prices from spiking, it is likely to find that it can't prevent prices from falling. Some OPEC nations with weak economies were already exceeding their quotas, trying to sell as much oil as they could at ridiculously high prices. On paper, these nations are entirely in favor of a production cut. However, in practice, they will find it much harder to stick to their promises.
Some economists fear that lower oil prices will cause Americans to return to their profligate ways—putting conservation aside and buying up SUVs and pick-up trucks once again. This won't happen. Every automobile company has invested millions—if not billions—retooling their factories to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. No one is in favor of going back to old ways.
Lower oil prices and more efficient cars will leave consumers with more cash to spend on other things. This could do as much good as a meaningful tax cut, helping to revive the economy. Combine lower oil prices with a real tax cut and the economy is likely to boom. But if OPEC manages to push oil prices back up to recent highs, the U.S. and the entire world will have an extremely difficult time shaking off this recession.