The Price of Oil

November 28, 2021

by Stephen Stofka

On Friday, fears of another wave of Covid lockdowns caused a sharp decline in equity and commodity prices worldwide. The decline was fueled by short-term traders who did not want to hold their positions over the holiday weekend and sold into a thin market. Crude oil prices fell 12% and closed the day below $70, and below the price of oil in the summer and early fall of 2018. Did we forget how high prices were just a few years ago? Rising oil prices helped fuel voter discontent that Democrats rode to take back control of the House that year.

Below is a graph of West Texas Intermediate, one of two oil benchmarks used domestically and shipped around the world. The price is adjusted to 2020 constant dollars.

As the price of oil broke out of its price channel in the early 2000s, companies began to develop more effective horizontal drilling techniques (Mead & Stiger, 2015, 4). In 2013, U.S. production reached a 24-year high and both political parties claimed credit. Oversupply led to a 50% price decline in 2014. Drivers liked the prices at the pump but states which had enjoyed the boom were hurt by the bust. Republican candidates promised better times in these red states if they were elected.  

In a democracy, politicians must play a game of voter persuasion. They spend millions in opinion polls  to test the temperature of voter passions, to discover the emotional buttons that will win votes. They rig Congressional districts to maximize the voter sentiment in one party’s favor. Like heralds marching into battle, candidates wave their principles and values for all to see. We have chosen this system, this political game, as the best alternative to armed conflict in the streets. Many of us were alarmed when the January 6th rioters championed a return to the violence that shook the foundations of civil society in France during the 19th century. Seventy years of successive revolts in that country left many bodies in the streets. We have far more sophisticated weapons and lots of them. Do we want that bloodbath?

As bread was a rallying cry in the French Revolution, the price of oil sparks political passions in the U.S. Higher prices impact rural folk more than urban residents, blue collar businesses more than white collar firms. When workers have to pay $100 – $200 to fill up a 40 gallon tank on a service truck, they complain. If their party is in power, it’s the fault of speculators and they will soon forget the pain when prices decline.  Voters protest loudest at high oil prices when their party is not in power. Politicians promise that their policies will bring down oil prices. They know their promises are as real as unicorns but voters like unicorns and fairy tales.


Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

Mead, D., & Stiger, P. (2015). The 2014 Plunge in Import Petroleum Prices: What Happened. BSL: Beyond The Numbers, 4(9), 1-8. Retrieved November 27, 2021, from

Savings And Inflation

November 21, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Two billionaires, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, pause before the packaged meat in a grocery store. This past week the price of rib eye steak, their favorite, has gone up a lot. Elon has had a busy week and wants a good rib eye so he picks out a steak and puts it in his basket. Warren would also like a rib eye but can’t bring himself to spend that much on a meal he will cook at home. He decides to buy the top sirloin and marinate it for a few hours. For whatever reason, Warren has reacted to a rise in the price of one good by substituting another good. Economists call this the substitution effect.

The next day Mary is shopping at that same store for a top sirloin steak for dinner. She notices that a few rib eye steaks are on sale for half-price. The expiration date is the next day but she intends to cook it that night so that is not a concern. Just as Warren did the previous day, Mary has responded to a price change by substituting one good for another. What about Elon? His response was to pay the higher price, substituting a different good, his income, for the higher price. Economists call this the income effect, where we substitute money for the higher price. Where does the money come from?

One source is savings, our backup income stream. Savings is the amount of income we have left over after paying taxes and buying stuff. It’s the money we didn’t spend before. After age 40, we become more conscious of the need to save for the later years in life when we stop working. Here’s a chart of per person savings for those over the age of 55. This does not include the equity that people have built up in their homes or investment accounts, but it does show broad trends.

The first of the Boomer generation turned 55 in 2001, a tumultuous year marked by the 9-11 attack, the dot-com bust and the buildup to the Iraq war. During the 2000s, economists and financial advisors warned that the Boomers had not saved enough. The Boomers complained that higher payroll taxes (Tax Policy Center, 2019), used to support earlier generations who had not paid in enough to Social Security, had reduced their ability to save. When the financial crisis reduced the value of both homes and investments, Boomers realized that their savings were too low. During the following decade, many worked past retirement age. Cautious spending by this age group restrained economic growth following the crisis and kept inflation in check during the recovery.

In the spring of 2020, Covid hospitalizations and death shot up in New York City and other urban hotspots. The Trump administration shut down most of the economy for several weeks. Congress and the administration passed emergency measures to provide relief to people who had lost their jobs. Savings shot up and incomes dropped. The pattern for all adults was the same as for older Americans.

As stores reopened and the economy recovered, it was inevitable that some of those savings would be drained away to buy stuff. The abrupt decline in savings has put pressure on prices. Are inflationary pressures temporary or  more permanent? Older generations have built up a reserve buying power that they did not have at the onset of the financial crisis twelve years ago.

There are 70 million Boomers who are spending down their accumulated savings. The Millennial generation, now 72 million strong, is the counterbalancing force to that dis-savings. Older Millennials are crossing the age-40 threshold when people start thinking that they had better put something away for the future. This tug of war in spending and savings between these two generations could continue to put upward pressure on prices for several more years.


Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Tax Policy Center. (2019, July 18). Payroll tax rates. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from From 1970 to 1990, payroll tax rates increased by 50%.

Prices Rising

November 14, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Put a bunch of people in a crowded theater, then yell “Inflation!” and no one runs for the exits. Instead they all turn to each other and start arguing. The recent rise in prices has prompted much discussion on the dynamics and causes of inflation. In the first six months of this year, the Fed cautioned us to compare 2021 prices to those of 2019 to get a more accurate picture of inflation. That longer term perspective began at 2.0% in January and slowly rose to 3.0% in June (BLS Series CUUR0000SA0). However, it keeps inching up and topped 3.7% in October. The one-year inflation rates have topped 6%. There are several causes including supply bottlenecks and higher demand but how long will it last? Is it temporary or more permanent? What should the Fed do? Is this the return of 1970s inflation?

This will be a two-parter so that I don’t strain anyone’s attention. First some background. Inflation is an increase in the overall price level. Why do prices go up? Because buyers buy stuff. How do people get the money to buy stuff? By working. In the 1950s, a British economist William Phillips studied a seventy year period of data and established an inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation. If more people are not working, they don’t have the money to buy stuff and prices don’t go up much. During the 1960s, unemployment declined more than 3% to 3.4% and inflation rose from 1% to 5%. This interplay confirmed Phillips’ hypothesis and policymakers believed that they could make a tradeoff between unemployment and inflation, balancing the two to produce an optimal economy. In the 1970s, high inflation and high unemployment dashed those hopes. Later, the Phillips hypothesis was revised, matching the relationship of the change in the inflation rate to unemployment.

Still other revisions included the role of the public’s expectations of inflation. I’ll take a real life example from the late 1970s. The price of a stereo with turntable and speakers is expected to go up in price by 20% next year. A store is offering credit with a 20% interest rate. If a consumer buys it now rather than saving up until next year, the amount of interest equals the change in price. A consumer gets to use the stereo for a year for free! Consumers start moving their future buying decisions toward the present and this ratchets up demand and inflation. 

Let’s go back to the definition of inflation as an increase in the overall price level. Where does that start? It may be the price of a commodity that we all use every day. During the 1970s, the sharp increase in the price of oil certainly had an effect. However, there was a sharp increase in oil in the summer of 2008 and there was not a prolonged bout of inflation. In fact, it may have contributed to the ongoing job loss that began in 2007 and added fuel to the developing housing crisis. Every time people think they got inflation figured out, it ducks and weaves like a boxer.

Without any change in policy, inflation automatically transfers income around the economy. Real, or inflation-adjusted, wages may remain the same but workers pay higher taxes on the nominal gains in wages. Economists call this seigniorage. The price of goods is higher so sales taxes are higher. Older people with savings earn higher interest income but those who want to borrow pay more in interest. Banks bank more profits on the difference, or spread, in the interest they pay on deposits and what they charge for loans. At higher mortgage rates, people can buy less house with their money because mortgage payments in the early years of a mortgage are mostly interest.

At higher rates of interest businesses cut back expansion plans and unemployment increases. This may help curb price pressures but people begin to adopt coping strategies than can prolong or exacerbate inflation. This creates a tug of war over the direction of prices. Next week I’ll review some of these behaviors and data trends from the past decades.


Photo by Vicky Ng on Unsplash

My Permanent Record

November 7, 2021

by Steve Stofka

“This will go on your permanent record, young man,” my fifth grade teacher told me. As children we struggle to envision next month. A permanent record sounds like more than a month, for sure. Throughout our lives, we will buy goods and services and interact with others who are strangers. That requires a lot of trust and trust depends on reputation, a permanent record that companies, institutions and politicians work hard to shape. In the thirty years since the dawn of the internet, we are flooded with information, most of which has no reputation. We can only trust the institutions or people that relay that information to us. How do they build their reputations?

In Carlsbad, New Mexico is a series of one hundred underground caves that forms the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. During a tour, the guide turns off the lights and visitors stand in total darkness. Our vision dominates our navigation through the world. Without it we gather in other data, the sound of a throat clearing, the scuffle of a sneaker on the path through the cavern. We become aware of the musty smell of water trickling down through the rock and the smell of bodies nearby. We may notice the sound of our own heartbeat or pay attention to our toes inside our shoes.

Then the guide turns on a flashlight and we turn our heads to notice whatever the beam of light falls on. We notice the ripple and folds of rock, the different textures and colors of that one spot which the flashlight beam illuminates. How quickly we brush aside all this other sense information that we were just experiencing. Several visitors remarked on this phenomenon. Most of us organize our world primarily through sight.

The screen on our computers or phones is our attention flashlight. Through a series of algorithms Facebook, search engines and social media have learned to tune that light to our interests, our values, what we treasure and what is a threat to us. What engages our emotions or enrages our sensibilities? What music, clothes, activities do we like? They learn our habits and preconceptions, then feed us information that fits those preconceptions because they want us to linger. Just don’t go away, they say. The algorithms don’t care whether capitalism is good or bad, Republicans or Democrats, whether hip-hop is better than soul. All that matters is that we watch the screen and shine our flashlight on the nearby ads. Our attention is the product.

The Industrial Revolution spurred the need for standardization, for the making of products and machines with interchangeable parts (Mass Production, 2021). Human labor is not easily standardized so the task itself must be standardized so that human labor can be harnessed to the task. Generalization leads to specialization and this makes people more productive (Heilbroner, 1997, 80). More productivity leads to higher wages and greater consumption.

Beginning in the 19th century, mass marketing grew into a powerful tool when TV gained wide popularity after World War 2. Media outlets had vague information on the tastes of their audience but ads were a scattershot approach to reach consumers. The advertiser’s message would often fall on deaf ears because the advertiser didn’t know much about me, my unique combination of tastes, my interests and desires. They promoted their products and services, their reputation.

The media giants now have a permanent record of my attention history and buying habits. My unique combination of preferences has been sliced and diced into standardized characteristics that are important to an advertiser. A giant corporation becomes like the proprietor of a general store in a small town. They know my opinions, the news I read, the sports I like and the shows I watch. This digital reputation has become my permanent record.


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Heilbroner, R. L. (1997). Teachings from the worldly philosophy. New York, NY: Norton & Company.

Mass Production. (2021). Retrieved November 6, 2021, from Scholastic Grolier Online.