Something Had to Give: How Oil Burst the American Bubble

As the oil import bill kept rising, the value of the dollar kept falling, and inflationary pressures kept building, the country’s central bankers responded in classic fashion by raising interest rates. This naturally resulted in substantially higher monthly payments for homeowners with variable-rate mortgages. For many families already stretched to the limit, this would prove the final blow. Forced to default on their mortgages, they then precipitated the subprime crisis by, in effect, puncturing the bubble.

Even then, the economy might have had a chance had that crisis not come in tandem with the $100 barrel of oil. By December, consumers were cutting back on nonessential purchases, producing the most disappointing holiday retail season since 2001. When questioned, many indicated that the high cost of gasoline and home-heating fuel had forced them to economize on Christmas gifts, winter vacations, and other indulgences. “If gasoline prices go up, that means there’s less to spend on everything else,” said David Greenlaw, chief U.S. fixed-income analyst at Morgan Stanley.

The high price of gasoline was bad news for another pillar of the economy as well: the auto industry. While Japanese companies were busy rolling out hybrid vehicles and small, fuel-efficient conventional cars, Detroit stuck doggedly to its now-obsolete business model of producing large SUVs and light trucks, which had, in recent years, been the source of most of its profits. Once the price of oil went stratospheric, of course, Americans predictably stopped buying the gas guzzlers, signing what looked like an instant death certificate for an improvident industry. In 1999, for example, Ford sold more than 428,000 mid-sized Explorer SUVs; in the first 11 months of 2007, the equivalent number was 126,930 Explorers (and even that puts a gloss on the corpse, as November was one of the worst months in recent automotive history). An auto industry in decline naturally means that many ancillary industries will be facing contraction, if not disaster.

Popping the Bubble

hen came January 2. Although oil retreated from the $100 mark by the end of that day on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the damage had been done. Stocks on the New York Stock Exchange plummeted, suffering their worst loss on a New Year debut since 1983. Gold, meanwhile, soared to an all-time high – a sure indication of international anxiety about the vigor of the U.S. economy.

Since then, stock market panics have hit major financial centers around the world. Only a dramatic last-minute decision by the Federal Reserve to reduce overnight lending rates by three-quarters of a point before the markets opened on January 22 averted a further, potentially catastrophic slide in stock prices. Many analysts now believe that a recession is inevitable – possibly a long and especially painful one. A few are even mentioning the “D” word, for depression.

Whatever happens, the American economy will eventually emerge from this crisis significantly weaker, largely because of its now-inescapable dependence on imported oil. Over the past decade, this country has squandered approximately one and a half trillion dollars on imported oil, much of which has been poured down the tanks of grotesquely fuel-inefficient vehicles that were conveying drivers on ever lengthening commutes from the exurbs to employment in center cities.

Today, a large share of this money is deposited in so-called sovereign-wealth funds (SWFs). Americans should get used to that phrase. It stands for giant pools of wealth that are under the control of government agencies like the Kuwait Investment Authority and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. These SWFs now control approximately $3 trillion in assets, and, with more petrodollars pouring into the petro-states every day, they are projected to hit the $12 trillion mark by 2015.

What are those who control the sovereign-wealth funds doing with all this money? For one thing, buying up choice U.S. assets at bargain-basement prices. In the past few months, Persian Gulf SWFs have acquired a significant stake in a number of prominent American firms, giving them a potential say in the future management of these companies. The Kuwait Investment Authority, for example, recently took a $12 billion stake in Citigroup and a $6.5 billion share in Merrill Lynch; the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority acquired a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup; and Mubadala Development of Abu Dhabi purchased a $1.5 billion share in the privately-held Carlyle Group.

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