Oil Price Rise Causes Global Shift in Wealth

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

High oil prices are fueling one of the biggest transfers of wealth in history. Oil consumers are paying $4 billion to $5 billion more for crude oil every day than they did just five years ago, pumping more than $2 trillion into the coffers of oil companies and oil-producing nations this year alone.

The consequences are evident in minds and mortar: anger at Chinese motor-fuel pumps and inflated confidence in the Kremlin; new weapons in Chad and new petrochemical plants in Saudi Arabia; no-driving campaigns in South Korea and bigger sales for Toyota hybrid cars; a fiscal burden in Senegal and a bonanza in Brazil. In Burma, recent demonstrations were triggered by a government decision to raise fuel prices.

In the United States, the rising bill for imported petroleum lowers already anemic consumer savings rates, adds to inflation, worsens the trade deficit, undermines the dollar and makes it more difficult for the Federal Reserve to balance its competing goals of fighting inflation and sustaining growth.

High prices have given a boost to oil-rich Alaska, which in September raised the annual oil dividend paid to every man, woman and child living there for a year to $1,654, an increase of $547 from last year. In other states, high prices create greater incentives for pursuing non-oil energy projects that once might have looked too expensive and hurt earnings at energy-intensive companies like airlines and chemical makers. Even Kellogg's cited higher energy costs as a drag on its third-quarter earnings.

With crude oil prices nearing $100 a barrel, there is no end in sight to the redistribution of more than 1 percent of the world's gross domestic product. Earlier oil shocks generated giant shifts in wealth and pools of petrodollars, but they eventually faded and economies adjusted. This new high point in petroleum prices has arrived over four years, and many believe it will represent a new plateau even if prices drop back somewhat in coming months.

"There's never been anything like this on a sustained basis the way we've seen the last couple of years," said Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard University economics professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. Oil prices "are not spiking; they're just rising," he added.

The benefits, to the tune of $700 billion a year, are flowing to the world's oil-exporting countries.

Two of those nations -- Iran and Venezuela -- may be better able to defy the Bush administration because of swelling oil revenue. Venezuela has used its oil wealth to dispense patronage around South America, vying for influence even with longtime U.S. allies. And Iran could be less vulnerable to sanctions designed to pressure it into giving up its nuclear program or opening it to inspection.

The world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, is using its rejuvenated oil riches to build four cities. Projects like these are designed to burnish the country's image, develop a non-oil economy and generate enough employment to maintain social stability.

One is King Abdullah Economic City, a mega-project on the kingdom's west coast. According to Emaar, a real estate development firm in Dubai, the city will cost $27 billion and be spread across an area three times the size of Manhattan. A contractor who works there said a wide, palm tree-lined boulevard cuts a dozen miles across an ocean of sand and ends at the Red Sea. Construction workers in hard hats are navigating excavators, dredging land and digging foundations for a power plant, a desalinization plant and a port. The project will eventually include an industrial district, a financial island, a university and a residential area, and is expected to house 2 million people.

Despite mega-projects like this, Saudi Arabia is running a budget surplus. It has paid down much of the foreign debt it accumulated in the late 1990s and is adding to its foreign-exchange reserves.

Russia, the world's No. 2 oil exporter, shows oil's transformational impact in the political as well as the economic realm. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, less than two years after the collapse of the ruble and Russia's default on its international debt, the country's policymakers worried that 2003 could bring another financial crisis. The country's foreign-debt repayments were scheduled to peak at $17 billion that year.


CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity