Looked at in the short-term, the crash in the West Texas Intermediate crude price is a sign of the deep and profound economic impact of COVID-19 and of the steps that Governments the world over have taken to mitigate the virus. Simply put, less oil is being used because the economy is largely shuttered – particularly in some sectors that are big oil customers, such as air travel and freight.
With demand plummeting and the cost of storing crude high, it is a natural market reflex that the price would drop (even if the scale and pace of that drop are completely unprecedented). For those looking for tangible clues as to how the pandemic is impacting the real economy, therefore, this oil shock provides a perfect case study and a warning – as we all buy less, make less and travel less so does demand for the raw materials that power our world decline. And with it, the price of those commodities.
But there is more going on here, too, and longer-term trends at play. The failure of the Russian and Saudi states (primarily) to co-ordinate their output in order to manage supply against demand – and therefore to stabilise prices – is a fascinating geopolitical rift. For both countries, this has the potential to create knock-on political and economic problems and the capacity of either country’s leadership to manage the consequences of massive reductions in revenue (and therefore available budget for welfare) is unknown.
As to why such efforts at co-ordination and co-operation have failed – in this Total Politics podcast, the academic Adam Tooze posits a fascinating theory. The leaders of oil-producing nations, he speculates, may be reluctant to scale back production as they may have in the past because they believe that we are really are approaching the last few decades of oil dependency. And if that were the case then – leaving aside the temporary blip of negative pricing – selling your oil cheaper than ever before is preferable to holding on to it but discovering that trends other than COVID-19 mean demand has fallen away when you push production back up.
On World Earth Day it is certainly tempting to project onto this crash in price a longer-term trend. And this should serve as a reminder to leaders in business and politics that more local, greener energy sources can produce benefits in terms of resilience and reliability – as well as the environmental dividends that are more often front-of-mind. But it would be a mistake to premise too much on one price shock.
The truth is that even on the most optimistic schedule the world is many decades away from such long-term collapse in dependency on a secure supply of oil. And the most pessimistic timelines for some lifting of lockdown in most advanced economies are measured in weeks and months rather than decades. So, as we see economies re-opening – patchily, probably, and with some long-term behavioural changes around social distancing – demand will tick-up, and with it the price.
But what this crisis within a crisis tells us is that global, existential challenges like that created by COVID-19 have the scale and the capacity to wreak havoc even in those markets that we have long believed to be underpinned by rules that prevent total collapse. This is a sobering thought, not only as we consider where else the virus might impact supply chains but also as we reflect on what other crises may be around the corner. Once COVID-19 is behind us, smart leaders in politics and in business will be focussed on the lessons – about risk and about resilience – that they have learned from it.
For companies and states alike, the capacity to manage markets when external events create freefall is likely to be front of mind – but this demands more international co-operation, transparency and collective effort. Building the institutions and mechanisms that might stand a chance of success where governments have, in this instance, failed means a type of politics that has not been in the ascendency over the last five to ten years. And as this price shock shows, even where our best national self-interests would be served by international collaboration it is still much harder to achieve in practice than in theory.