Gasoline Prices Are Not Rising, the Dollar Is
Panic is in the air as gasoline prices move above $4.00 per gallon. Politicians and pundits are rounding up the usual suspects, looking for someone or something to blame for this latest outrage to middle class family budgets. In a rare display of bipartisanship, President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner are both wringing their hands over the prospect of seeing their newly extended Social Security tax cut gobbled up by rising gasoline costs.
Unfortunately, the talking heads that are trying to explain the reasons for high oil prices are missing one tiny detail. Oil prices aren’t high right now. In fact, they are unusually low. Gasoline prices would have to rise by another $0.65 to $0.75 per gallon from where they are now just to be “normal”. And, because gasoline prices are low right now, it is very likely that they are going to go up more—perhaps a lot more.
What the politicians, analysts, and pundits are missing is that prices are ratios. Gasoline prices reflect crude oil prices, so let’s use West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil to illustrate this crucial point.
As this is written, West Texas Intermediate crude oil (WTI) is trading at $105.88/bbl. All this means is that the market value of a barrel of WTI is 105.88 times the market value of “the dollar”. It is also true that WTI is trading at €79.95/bbl, ¥8,439.69/barrel, and £67.13/bbl. In all of these cases, the market value of WTI is the same. What is different in each case is the value of the monetary unit (euros, yen, and British pounds, respectively) being used to calculate the ratio that expresses the price.
In terms of judging whether the price of WTI is high or low, here is the price that truly matters: 0.0602 ounces of gold per barrel (which can be written as Au0.0602/bbl). What this number means is that, right now, a barrel of WTI has the same market value as 0.0602 ounces of gold.
During the 493 months since January 1, 1971, the price of WTI has averaged Au0.0732/bbl. It has been higher than that during 225 of those months and lower than that during 268 of those months. Plotted as a graph, the line representing the price of a barrel of oil in terms of gold has crossed the horizontal line representing the long-term average price (Au0.0732/bbl) 29 times.
At Au0.0602/bbl, today’s WTI price is only 82% of its average over the past 41+ years. Assuming that gold prices remained at today’s $1,759.30/oz, WTI prices would have to rise by about 22%, to $128.86/bbl, in order to reach their long-term average in terms of gold. As mentioned earlier, such an increase would drive up retail gasoline prices by somewhere between $0.65 and $0.75 per gallon.
At this point, we can be certain that, unless gold prices come down, gasoline prices are going to go up—by a lot. And, because the dollar is currently a floating, undefined, fiat currency, there is no inherent limit to how far the price of gold in dollars can rise, and therefore no ultimate ceiling on gasoline prices.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke uses a “core CPI index” that excludes food and energy to guide monetary policy. From Big Ben’s point of view, rising gasoline prices are not a problem. For the rest of us, they are becoming a big problem.
Over the centuries, gold has been “the golden constant”. Eventually, all prices equilibrate with gold. This is why gold represents the best available standard in terms of which to define the value of a monetary unit. Forty-one years ago, when the value of the dollar was defined in terms of gold at $35/oz, WTI was selling for $3.56/bbl.
Right now, the threat posed by rising gasoline prices is not just to family budgets. An even greater danger is that the government will use escalating oil prices as an excuse to do something stupid.
After President Nixon abrogated the Bretton Woods monetary arrangement in stages starting in September 1971, both gold prices and oil prices started to rise. The government responded by imposing wage-price controls. This made a bad situation much worse.
This time around, the stupid policies being considered to “deal with” rising gasoline prices include additional cuts in payroll taxes and higher taxes on energy producers.
During the 1970s, the toxic combination of a weak dollar, high tax rates, and onerous regulations introduced a new word into America’s economic vocabulary: stagflation. Reaganomics banished this word to the history books. Now, President Obama and Fed Chairman Bernanke are teaming up to give stagflation another try. It is not likely that Americans will like it any more this time around than they did 40 years ago.