In a significant shift in thinking, several economists contacted by CNBC now believe a rise in oil prices may not produce very much, if any, drag on U.S. growth.
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Some even contend that the nation’s new oil-producing prowess make a rise in prices “a wash” for growth.
This is a complete about-face for old metrics where it was practically automatic for economists to mark down growth when oil prices rose.
But the rise of the United States to become the world’s second-largest oil producer has changed the calculus for how rising energy prices affect the economy. Consumer pain at the pump is now seen as an offset to an extent by increases in capital spending by U.S. oil companies and by gains in the growing number of regions producing energy. And what once would have been a massive surge in the oil trade deficit, which would subtract from gross domestic product, is now offset to a large degree by U.S. oil exports.
“We think the effect will round to a wash,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist with J.P. Morgan Chase. “Our prior modeling would likely have produced a slightly more adverse impact, perhaps annualizing to a quarter point off growth for two consecutive quarters.”
Now, Feroli sees a roughly 0.2 percent decrease from lower consumer spending offset by a 0.2 percent gain in capital spending.
To be sure, economists contacted by CNBC said they could not be sure if the positives would offset the negative at any oil price. A return to prices over $100 a barrel could overwhelm the consumer and exert a strong negative drag on the overall economy.
In addition, oil has an outsized effect on American consumers’ psyche, beyond the actual costs. A sustained period of $3 a gallon for gasoline could weigh on confidence and spending. Finally, there could well be a mismatch in the timing of an offset to lower consumer spending from capital spending so that one quarter shows a drag while the next one exhibits a boost.
John Ryding of RDQ Economics is not quite ready to say it’s a wash, but he offered: “You’re not looking at the kind of magnitude that we used to think about oil prices hurting the U.S. I think that it’s less than a third of the impact that it used to be.”
Ryding said the biggest issue will be one of distribution. Higher oil prices amount to a wealth transfer from consumers to shareholders, and from oil-consuming regions to oil-producing regions. But this time, a lot more of the money will stay within American borders with the question of how petrodollars get divided inside the country.