Everyone is looking for someone to blame for high prices of oil and other mineral and agricultural commodities. Speculators (among others) are high on the list, followed by the Federal Reserve. While I don’t think blame is necessarily the right concept here, I have been arguing that low real interest rates have worked to raise real commodity prices through a number of channels. Each of these channels could be called “speculation,” if speculation is defined as behavior based on expectations of future prices.
A number of commentators, including Don Kohn and Paul Krugman, have argued that low interest rates and speculation cannot be the sources of the problem, because oil inventories are low. It is true that low interest rates, other things equal, should in theory increase firms’ desire to hold inventories.
US crude oil inventories do not appear to be especially low in the graph above, showing June 1998-June 2008 (from Bloomberg). But it is true that they are not especially high either.
We are talking about relatively integrated world markets, however, so it is world inventories that should matter most. According to the International Energy Agency’s Oil Market Report, oil inventories held in developed countries have been above average during most of the last year, as the next graph shows. They rose sharply in January 2008, which happens to be the month when the very aggressive cuts in US interest rates took place. These numbers are far from conclusive, but still…
The theory is meant to explain the mystery why prices of virtually all mineral and agricultural prices are high, not just oil, and in some ways fits others better. Inventories of some commodities are indeed high now. The price of gold, the last graph shown, is a good example. Here the evidence supports the theory (1) that easy monetary policy has driven up the price, and (2) that one channel is low interest rates making it more attractive to stockpile the yellow metal. But, as with oil, the biggest inventory is the one underground.
[Thanks to Pravin Chandrasekaran.]
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