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Why Low Oil Prices Haven’t Helped The Economy

Why Low Oil Prices Haven’t Helped The Economy

Many analysts had anticipated that a dramatic drop in oil prices such as we’ve seen since the summer of 2014 could provide a big stimulus to the economy of a net oil importer like the United States. That doesn’t seem to be what we’ve observed in the data.

There is no question that lower oil prices have been a big windfall for consumers. Americans today are spending $180 B less each year on energy goods and services than we were in July of 2014, which corresponds to about 1 percent of GDP. A year and a half ago, energy expenses constituted 5.4 percent of total consumer spending. Today that share is down to 3.7 percent.

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Consumer purchases of energy goods and services as a percentage of total consumption spending, monthly 1959:M1 to 2016:M2. Blue horizontal line corresponds to an energy expenditure share of 6 percent.

Related: Natural Gas Trading Strategies 

But we’re not seeing much evidence that consumers are spending those gains on other goods or services. I’ve often used a summary of the historical response of overall consumption spending to energy prices that was developed by Paul Edelstein and Lutz Kilian. I re-estimated their equations using data from 1970:M7 through 2014:M7 and used the model to describe consumption spending since then. The black line in the graph below shows the actual level of real consumption spending for the period September 2013 through February of 2016, plotted as a percent of 2014:M7 values. The blue line shows the forecast of their model if we assumed no change in energy prices since then, while the green line indicates the prediction of the model conditional on the big drop in energy prices that we now know began in July of 2014.

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