The oil price collapse that took U.S. crude prices sub-zero for the first time in history may turn out to be a silver lining for the world economy, possibly offering a springboard for recovery when coronavirus lockdowns finally end.
Cheap oil lowers transport and manufacturing costs while putting money into consumers' pockets for discretionary spending -- essentially loosening financial conditions. Yet it can also be destructive, hitting stock markets and oil producers' budgets while fanning deflation risk.
So which one is it this time?
Oil's fall, alongside stimulus from the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks, has sharply eased financial conditions, according to a liquidity index compiled by consultancy CrossBorder Capital.
CrossBorder Capital's managing director Michael Howell estimates the Fed stimulus added 10 points to the index last month. But oil's impact has been greater -- every 10% drop in futures boosts the index 3-4 points, meaning this year's 60%-70% fall equates to twice what the Fed did in March, Howell says.
But given the moves are driven by an unprecedented demand collapse, expected this year at almost 30 million barrels per day (bpd), can markets and the economy benefit?
Yes and no.
On the negative side, the oil moves will have tightened financial conditions via equity falls, higher corporate bond yield and declining energy sector capital expenditures. And gasoline might be cheap but it will not induce anyone to take a long trip just yet.
But that tightening effect has been partly mitigated by monetary and fiscal stimulus. And the uptick in Howell's index is a good omen for the economy - he says it usually front-runs purchasing managers indexes (PMIs) by three to six months.
"What it's telling us is that there's likely to be some kind of V-shaped rebound in the economy when coronavirus lockdowns end," Howell added.
Another set of liquidity indicators tracked by Steve Donzé at Pictet Asset Management look at oil through the prism of "excess liquidity" -- essentially when falling production prices free up resources for financial asset investing.
Current 14%-16% excess liquidity -- up from around 7% at the end of 2019 -- implies a 50% equity price/earnings re-rating in six months, Donzé said.
"The time lag makes all the difference here – remember the time lag between peak policy response in December 2008 and market bottom in March 2009," he added, referring to the 2008-2009 crisis.
Equity and credit markets reacted relatively calmly to this week's oil rout; possibly prices already reflected massive year-to-date falls while corporate debt, including some junk bonds, is being backstopped by the Fed.
All that will not apply to swathes of oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia which will be forced to raid rainy-day savings to keep economies afloat. But on the flip side are developing countries such as Turkey and India which will enjoy lower import bills and easing inflation pressures.
But one thing that has changed since previous oil collapse episodes is the United States' emergence as a large net crude exporter, with oil and gas drilling comprising 0.5% of annual GDP and 4% of business investment, according to Morgan Stanley.
That means cheap oil is no longer as unequivocally positive for the world's largest economy -- in fact a 50% decline in oil would shave 25 basis points off U.S. GDP, Morgan Stanley analysts estimated last month.
Eventually though, the effect could be positive. Just a 40% fall in retail gasoline prices would free up $125 billion in disposable income for Americans on an annualized basis -- or 0.6% of GDP, Morgan Stanley told clients.
So while the outcome is net negative for near-term U.S. growth, the consumer savings cushion "would act to strengthen the rebound on the other side of the slowdown," they added.
The other worry is the oil collapse complicates the fight to stave off deflation across the developed world.
However, U.S. and euro zone inflation forwards are down only 10 bps and 5 bps respectively in the past two weeks, despite bigger oil falls, UniCredit noted. It attributed that to the countering force of massive central bank stimulus.
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