A set of possible negative US economic shocks.

The puzzling aspect of recent data on inflation has been the deflation trajectory forged by oil prices. The index on energy by itself has fallen 28.7 percent over the year. Just in January 2016, the energy index declined 2.8 percent as gasoline index did so by 4.8 percent during the same month. The energy index has been dragging down the computational results of inflation severely to the extent that it makes the entire index hard to interpret. The truth of the matter is that oil prices’ downward trend has started, at least, to cast doubts on whether the offset in the overall inflation measure represents a relocation of resources within industries, or the index is masking a worrisome situation of an entire economic sector. In other words, with the decline in energy prices, could energy-related companies lead the US economy toward a slowdown?

By Catherine De Las Salas

By Catherine De Las Salas

Could energy-related companies lead the US economy toward a slowdown?

Current conditions and economic outlook in the United States have economists looking for signs of economic overheating by looking into the theoretical relation between unemployment and inflation. However, following the economic theory may work as a perilous distraction under the present situation. In theory, when the unemployment rate becomes very small, employers increase their salaries which in turn augments consumer spending. Such an increase in consumer spending leads to higher level of prices as the demand for goods surges. Then, given that news of unemployment have been certainly positive for the last six months, economists are cautiously focusing on inflation to determine whether or not the economy is overheating. This logic of analysis might generate bias as it derives conclusions from an arithmetic average on the consumer price index.

We are left with Monetary shocks, oil shocks, or a deterioration of global economic conditions:

More precisely, the fact that energy index offsets currently core inflation keeps economists in their theory comfort zone by ignoring oil sector volatility. On one hand, they see households in a proper position as their liabilities have declined by 12 percent during the so-called “Great Deleveraging” period. Specifically, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York claim that this very fact makes the household sector more resilient to absorb shocks, which seems reasonable. Also, they stress that the financial sector appears strong as the sector counts with larger liquidity buffer now than in preceding years. Further, Fed’s officials see good news in regards to the labor market and unemployment rate, which has dropped to a national average of 4.9 percent –also positive. On the fiscal front, it seems clear to most of the people that events such as the sequester of 2013 are unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Technology shock-wise, no negative shocks appear to linger in the horizon. Therefore, by discarding the set of possibilities on surprising negative economic shocks, the only ones lingering are either monetary shocks, oil shocks, or a deterioration of global economic conditions.

Now, if America trusts their monetary authorities, then the only standing threats are oil shocks and an international economic slowdown. Red flags have been waved during the last six months stressing the levels of debt of petroleum companies. Some estimates coming from point to numbers of around U$200 billion debt that may be approaching default soon. It is worth remembering that in the midst of the Great Recession in 2008 losses on mortgages were around U$300 billion. Although acknowledging the difference between housing sector’s debt and oil companies’ debt is a must for any analysis, the risk is somewhat similar at least regarding magnitude.

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