The price of oil appears to be levitating toward $50 a barrel like a moth to a street lamp as economists watch in awe, fear and frustration -- awe because oil prices have risen 57 percent in 12 months and nearly 90 percent from pre-Iraq-invasion levels; fear because oil price shocks helped plunge the nation into recession four times since the early 1970s; and frustration because much of the run-up has been driven by irrational fears of supply disruption.
Yes, economists say, in inflation-adjusted terms, oil remains well short of the spikes of the late 1970s and '80s. Indeed, after lapping at $49.40 Friday it slipped back to close at $47.86. And yes, the price could collapse altogether if speculative traders give up their fixations on Iraqi turmoil and potential terrorism.
But some are venturing that oil at this level could indeed be very bad news. "With current recoveries vulnerable in the U.S. and in a U.S.-centric global economy, the current oil shock could lead to recession in 2005," warned Stephen S. Roach, Morgan Stanley's chief economist.
Orange juice and lumber prices are also through the roof. Cement is in dangerously short supply. But it is pricey oil that has an exceptionally corrosive impact on the economy. Already the nation's largest airlines are reeling under the weight of skyrocketing jet fuel costs. General Motors is cutting back production plans and ponying up ever-richer incentives to move rising inventories of gas guzzlers, especially the Hummer H2. Trucking and overnight-delivery companies are tagging customers with fuel surcharges, which in turn will be passed on to consumers as higher auto, milk and furniture costs.
Wall Street has been scaling back its growth forecasts, but Goldman Sachs economists warned clients that an oil-induced slowdown is not likely to deter the Federal Reserve Board from raising interest rates. In Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's mind, the inflationary impact of rising oil prices will outweigh concerns over slower economic growth, they ventured. Rising interest rates and slowing growth trigger memories of Carter-era stagflation.
Whether you believe things will turn that ominous depends largely on your sense of the economy's underlying strength. J.P. Morgan economists cited solid global business spending and stabilizing demand in Asia in their prediction that growth will stay steady, albeit a bit slower than anticipated.
"We're all concerned about the increases in crude oil prices, but I don't expect the strength of our recovery to be hampered by that," Joaquin Almunia, the European Union's commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, sniffed Friday.
Roach, on the other hand, had already declared this "the Mythical Recovery," and price shocks of the past have crippled economies that were already staggering.
"Unfortunately, the Oil Shock of 2004 fits that script to a T," he concludes.