Chief economist update: When good oil goes bad

Let me take you down (no, I'm not going to Strawberry Fields) back to early 2016, when the US and the European Union decided to lift financial and oil sanctions on Iran.

Almost immediately Tehran announced it's bringing back production to 3 million bpd - the production level before sanctions were imposed - sending oil prices down to fresh 12-year lows - WTI oil down 1.8% to US$29.42/barrel and Brent oil down 1.9% to US$28.94/barrel.

Despite my (and to name drop, 'The Economist' magazine and Dr. Nouriel Roubini's ) protestations that this is a good thing, equity markets floundered.

Lower oil prices may be bad for energy companies and oil producing and exporting countries but they're a blessing for others. The reason being that lower oil prices are, net positive for growth. They increase household disposable income, lifting consumption and by extension, economic growth.

They reduce business input costs, increasing margins, lifting profits and by extension, business investment in plant, equipment, and staff.

Higher oil prices are a de facto tax on income that limits consumption while at the same time increasing the costs of production that by extension lowers overall economic growth.

We've all been witnesses to this. The drop in oil prices from around US$115/barrel in mid-2014 (reaching a high of around US$145/barrel in 2008) to around US$25/barrel in 2016 has given us the synchronised global growth upswing of 2017.

Now oil prices have turned on its head. Crude oil's on the rise. The price of the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil has risen by 17.6% to US$71.08/barrel this year to date and by 171.9% since the US$26.14/barrel low recorded in February 2016. Brent oil's performance is similar - up 15.6% so far this year and 196.7% up from January 2016's low of US$26.01/barrel.

With the limits on production by OPEC and non-OPEC countries - led by Saudi Arabia - still in place and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently reporting that crude inventories by a greater than expected 2.2 million barrels in the latest week, the upward momentum in crude oil prices remains.

Recent reports that US President Donald Trump would reimpose sanctions against Iran after 180 days (unless a "deal" is agreed upon) would only put a rocket under the price of crude oil.

Not even the continued expansion in US oil rigs - which has a positive correlation with oil prices - could arrest further gains in what we now could again call, the black gold.

As at 4 May, the Baker and Hughes rotary oil rig count has reached 834 rigs - its highest level since March 2015 - up 11.6% so far this year after surging by 42.3% in 2017.

The synchronised global growth upswing is certainly aiding and abetting this state of affairs. Another positive is that a persistent rise in the price of crude oil would be a gift to central bankers and make their wishes for higher inflation come true.

Then again, just like I argued some years back that a sliding oil price will check a sliding oil price, a rising one will do the same.

However, the implications are less optimistic. The 'de facto' taxation imposed by higher oil prices could slow/halt the already slowing global growth momentum while at the same time raising inflationary pressures.

And that's not a good oil.

Read more: USBrentIranOPECWTIEuropean UnionSaudi ArabiaTehranDonald Trump
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