Even as Washington policy councils debate whether to take advantage of the windfall gain from the collapse of OPEC by imposing a tax on oil imports or gasoline, there are pressures building up elsewhere in the economy that are the direct result of the upheaval in the oil industry. Some of these pressures are bound to merit Congressional attention sooner or later. It would be wise for Congress to be aware of these pressures as they plan their legislative agenda for 1986.
Just as the oil price shocks of the 1970s had far-reaching effects that were felt throughout the economy, the recent fall in the price of oil will have its own ripple effects. The immediate impact of the $10-a-barrel fall in the price of oil is the savings to individual households as the price of heating oil and gasoline declines by about 25 cents a gallon. While much of the savings for the consumer is at the expense of U.S. oil companies, the reduction in the cost of imported oil, which amounts to a savings of about $20 billion a year (or $100 a person), is a pure gain for the United States as a whole at the expense of OPEC countries.
Households will feel secondary benefits as competitive pressures within the energy industry bring down the price of natural gas, coal and other substitutes for oil. The net effect of this chain of lower prices as it works its way throughout the economy is the possibility of lower inflation and higher real growth than would have been possible without the fall in the price of imported oil.
The U.S. economy will benefit indirectly from the even greater windfall effect in Europe and Japan of the OPEC price collapse. For those countries that import virtually all their oil, the lower price of energy will really help to pick up the pace of economic activity. All the Treasury's jawboning at the recent meetings of the G5 nations has been relatively ineffective at getting Europe and Japan to stimulate their economies. Now we may see a strong resurgence abroad that will help bring down the dollar smoothly and stimulate our export industries.
Of course all these gains come at the expense of the oil-producing nations. Their losses will be particularly hard-felt in the oil-producing debtor nations such as Mexico. But other debtor nations will benefit not only from the price reduction in oil, but also from the increased demand for their products as economic activity picks up in Europe, Japan and the United States. The major international banks would find that the improved prospects of the oil-importing debtors outweigh the added risks of increased credit to Mexico and the other oil- exporting debtor nations.
But managing the financial losses of smaller U.S. banks will be more difficult. It's just a matter of time before the sharp decline in oil prices has a serious adverse effect on the banking industry in such states as Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. We've already seen this happen in some of the farming states where the slump in agricultural prices has caused bank failures to sky- rocket in recent months.
At current oil prices, many previously profitable oil wells and oil fields will go out of production. Losses and bankruptcies will result not only among small oil producers, but also among oil servicing and supplying companies, drilling rig owners, and even unrelated businesses and real estate owners in the oil producing areas. Small and medium- sized business loans tend to be with local banks, and the oil related loans represent a large fraction of the portfolios of small banks in the southwest. Bank failures in those states will inevitably follow business bancruptcies.
Depositors are of course protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. Nevertheless, a major run of bank failures could seriously strain the reserves of federal insurance agencies and force the Treasury to assume a more direct role. Lack of confidence in the banking system is very hard to contain as the United States discovered in the 1930s when many previously healthy institutions failed.
These problems would not have arisen if we had a national banking system in which major banks had branches throughout the country. Losses on oil or farm loans would be balanced within a bank's overall portfolio against gains that result elsewhere from the overall stronger economy.
The source of today's potential banking instability is the direct result of legislation enacted by the states during the '30s that explicitly prevents interstate banking. Among the major industrial nations, the United States is unique in restriciting the geographic scope of its major banks. The result is a system of 14,000 local banks that are very sensitive to problems affecting the local economy.
Reciprocal interstate arrangements that allow regional banking are becoming more common. But federal legislation to speed the process toward a national banking system is overdue. In addition our banks could be strengthened by repealing the laws that restrict the range of financial activites in which bank holding companies can engage. Larger financial instiutions that also dealt in the market for equities, insurance and real estate woud have greater financial resources with which to withstand temporary banking losses.
The president has already indicated his support for further deregulation of the banking industry. Now the Senators and Congressmen from the oil producing states should get together and design banking reform that will ultimately offer the best protection for their region against the worst effects of the oil crash.