Libya and world oil

In 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, a barrel of oil reached $147 and amidst the turmoil in the Middle East there are concerns that this figure will reach over $200 a barrel. If this transpires there is a real risk of a double-dib recession especially in the US and Europe – if not New Zealand. In Libya, as rebels took control of the port of Tripoli its critical oil supplies remained squeezed, production from most of Libya’s oil fields was down to very low levels. The country’s wealth largely comes from oil and whoever controls the oil fields will ulitmately control the country.

Libya in the Global Oil Market

The Economist website has some good statistics about the oil industry. Libya sends 1.4m barrels/day to global markets which is around 2% of global demand. This makes Libya the thirteenth largest oil exporter. Saudi Arabia the worlds biggest exporter, and country with significant spare capacity, is already pumping an extra 600,000 barrels per day to make up for the shortage on world markets.

A recovering global economy had convinced traders that demand for oil was going to rise by about 2 percent in 2011. Some industry experts and Wall Street visionaries were predicting a gradual return to $120 and even $150. The thinking was that investors would pour money into the commodity markets. This was due to the huge increase in demand from developing countries which was threatening to obliterate OPEC’s spare capacity – see graph below.

If prices keep climbing, consumers will in all likelihood tighten their belts. If prices stay high for long, the impact could be severe: every oil shock of the past 40 years has helped push the global economy into recession. Nariman Behravesh, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, said that every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil reduces economic growth by two-tenths of a percentage point after one year and a full percentage point over two years – New York Times.

However, as the world is so dependent on oil there is little room for supply disruptions. Spare capacity is at 5 million barrels a day which is approximately 6% of what the world consumes every day. Although this is 4% higher than in 2008 it is still worringly low when one considers the demand pressures coming from developing countries like China and India. However that is not even taking into account the loss of about one million barrels a day exported from Libya. If Libyan oil was to be removed from the oil market it would represent the 8th largest oil shock in history – see graph below.
Much now hinges on what happens next in the Middle East. The price spikes that accompanied the two Persian Gulf wars did not have deep impacts because of they did not last long enough. But several oil price increases have preceded economic downturns. The biggest shock followed the 1973-74 OPEC embargo, which quadrupled oil prices and helped produce stagflation, a period of slow growth, high unemployment and inflation. The 1979 Iranian revolution caused another shortage, and again American motorists were forced to wait in long lines for gasoline. Oil prices surged, but they did not stay elevated for long, as Mexico, Nigeria and Venezuela expanded production and OPEC lost its unity. Oil prices remained low for years, and the economy through the later half of the 1980s and most of the 1990s was generally strong. New York Times

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