Apr 30, 2011

Pick One: SPR or Recession - ASPO

ASPO - Brookings Institution presentation in early 2009, UCSD economist James Hamilton suggested that the government think of using the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to counter high oil prices.

Although the suggestion failed to gain traction at the time, recent upheaval in the Middle East is once again putting the future of the SPR back on the agenda.

Should the reserve be drawn to cool oil prices which have surged on the back of lost Libyan crude output?

I must admit I was somewhat cool to the idea when Hamilton published his Brookings paper, but his suggestions often prove prescient and therefore deserve closer examination. Indeed I became much more convinced when I saw a Federal Reserve presentation on short term oil prices, which largely concluded that the institution has little insight into short term oil price movements.

Given the potential impact of oil prices on the economy, the Fed does not have the luxury of such ignorance.

The SPR was established in 1975, after the first oil crisis, with the purpose of providing a critical petroleum reserve to the US which could be drawn in the event of war or embargo. This seems sensible enough. A large and militarily critical power like the US should avoid being held hostage to energy exporters like the Gulf states and Russia. But the oil-price spikes of 2008 show that oil prices can substantially damage the US economy even without hostile acts by other countries.

The SPR holds 727 million barrels of crude oil, about 40 days of US consumption and 70 days of oil imports.
In addition, the US has about 1.1 billion barrels of commercial crude oil inventories.
All in all, the US has sufficient domestic crude oil stocks to cover about six months of imports.

But it is one thing to hold such reserves, another to deploy them.