While Americans wince as they fill up their sport utility vehicles with $2-a-gallon gasoline, market forces are smiling on the Saudi Arabias and Exxon Mobils of the world.
A transfer of wealth of historic proportions is taking place as worldwide spending on oil is expected to grow this year by about $295 billion, or 27 percent, compared with 2003, according to government data. Consumers and businesses are paying substantially more for gasoline, heating oil, diesel and other products derived from crude as demand and prices surge.
While the corresponding windfall of profits for oil-exporting nations and petroleum companies is sapping strength from the international economic recovery, its not causing the kind of financial shock that followed the oil crises of the 1970s.
Still, experts warn that the market constraints underlying high and volatile energy prices suggest that higher oil prices could be here to stay. Theres not a consensus out there, but the question is being asked more now than it has been at any time in the last 20 years, said Jim Burkhard, director of global oil at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.
Rising oil costs are linked as much to Americas apparent drive-at-any-price car culture and Chinas raging industrial expansion as they are to the worlds unusually thin supply cushion, a condition that has magnified anxieties about potential supply disruptions in Venezuela, Russia and Nigeria.
Consumption continues to rise in spite of higher prices that are expected to slow global economic growth by about 0.5 percent in 2005. Much sharper financial pain will be felt in poor, developing countries that are net oil importers.
As with most things, the global impact is not spread evenly around the world, said Jeffrey D. Lewis, manager of international finance research at The World Bank. Lewis predicted that, without emergency funding, much of the organizations $2.5 billion aid to struggling nations this year will have to be reallocated to fuel purchases by local governments, leaving health and education programs grossly underfunded or scrapped altogether.
With oil futures marching to the $55 a barrel level this month up from about $30 a year ago the list of winners is topped by Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway, Iran, Venezuela and other leading exporting nations. Saudi Arabia alone supplies about 12 percent of the worlds daily oil fix.
Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch/Shell Group and the rest of the private petroleum giants are also flush with cash as profits and stock prices soar. The same goes for oil field services firms such as Schlumberger Ltd. and Baker Hughes Inc., as well as the countless smaller providers of the equipment, ships and workers needed to produce and transport some 82 million barrels a day.
The extra $295 billion spent on oil this year comes courtesy of, but not without complaint from, motorists, homeowners, manufacturers, airlines and truckers most of whom are (no shocker here) Americans.
United States consumers are expected to shell out an additional $40 billion this year just to heat their homes and fuel their cars and trucks. The greatest financial squeeze is felt by low- and fixed-income families, who spend about three times as much of their wealth on energy as do middle-income families.
European economies are generally worse off, with the prospects for rising inflation and unemployment in the region somewhat higher, according to a report by the International Energy Agency and the International Monetary Fund.
European countries do not have as much of their own oil production as the United States, where roughly 2 out of every 5 barrels consumed is pumped domestically.
To keep consumption in check, European nations levy significantly higher fuel taxes than the United States, which helps to explain why the total imports of Germany, France, Italy and Spain are about a third smaller than Americas. Even so, the four countries combined will spend about $25 billion more for oil in 2004 than they did in 2003.
In Germany, Europes largest economy, experts are worried that the countrys nascent financial turnaround could falter next year, in part because of higher energy prices, but also because of an indirect oil-price pinch as exports to China and the United States taper off. This comes at a time when Germanys unemployment rate is around 10 percent and consumer demand has barely risen in three years.
In Asia, the picture is somewhat mixed.
In China, where daily oil imports have risen an estimated 35 percent, or roughly 700,000 barrels a day, and have helped propel global demand and prices to unexpectedly high levels, the rising cost of fuel is merely contributing to a minor slowdown of the countrys economic boom. Put another way, mammoth industrial growth is dwarfing any negative impact caused by higher energy prices.
In Japan, the countrys near-total dependence on imports is offset significantly by the economys relatively high fuel efficiency. But, like Germany, it is very concerned about the weakening financial power of its trading partners due to soaring oil prices.
East Asian countries are likely to be hit harder, according to the Asian Development Bank, which recently predicted the regions growth would decline by 0.8 percent in 2005.
To limit fuel consumption, the Philippines has banned unofficial use of government vehicles, Thailand has ordered gas stations to close early, and South Korea has cut back field maneuvers for its 650,000 troops.
With some exceptions, the worlds mushrooming oil tab falls hardest on developing nations, particularly those in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which tend to be the most dependent on imports and the least energy efficient.
We in the rich countries complain a lot about higher prices, but it is not our countries that will be hurt the most, said Fatih Birol, chief economist of the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
Yet despite the severe economic hardship likely in low-income energy importers such as Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan and Ethiopia, according to World Bank estimates, the oil price spike of 2004 has not delivered nearly as much economic punishment in the developed world as the energy shock of a generation ago, which was marked by recessions and fuel shortages.
A major difference is that the per-barrel cost of crude peaked at $80 in 1981, or about $25 more than the current futures price, in inflation-adjusted terms. Greater fuel efficiency has also helped blunt the effects of higher energy prices this time around.
The U.S. economy is holding up better than most, several economists said, because billions of petro-dollars flowing out of the country eventually are recycled back through it as Saudi Arabia and others buy U.S. Treasury securities, in addition to investing in their own countries.
Developing countries are likely to have a harder time attracting such investment, particularly if their financial prospects are weakened by rising oil costs, according to the World Banks Lewis. So far, though, emerging markets such as Brazil, India, South Africa and others have not had to borrow money in order to cover higher fuel bills, he said.
Even if todays high energy prices have less abrupt and dire consequences than the oil crises of the 1970s, a meaningful economic shift is taking place, according to William Ferer, president and director of research at W.H. Reaves, a New Jersey-based firm that invests in the oil sector.
Thats because while the amount of energy needed to run factories and drive trucks is lower as a percentage of the total cost of production and transportation, the world now consumes 45 percent, or 25 million barrels, more oil a day than it did 30 years ago. Moreover, the industrys grip has been extended to many more parts of the world.
The countries and companies responsible for quenching this ever-increasing oil thirst are raking in the dough.
Based on Energy Department estimates, the value of Russian exports will rise by about $28 billion in 2004, while the value of Norwegian exports is on track to grow by $10 billion. The Russian and Norwegian industries rely on extensive investment from private companies, which are sharing in the growing wealth.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries alone is expected to see its oil export revenues rise by $115 billion, or 47 percent, in 2004, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
But while OPECs members share the riches, they differ somewhat on how to spend the money.
Venezuela has been funneling billions of dollars into social programs for the poor, although some say this largesse from President Hugo Chavez could backfire if the state-run oil companys exploration and production budget suffers as a result.
In Saudi Arabia, the government is taking a more cautious approach to spending its petro-dollars than it did 30 years ago, when much of the funds went toward highways, airports and subsidized education and health care. This time, Crown Prince Abdullah has said the bulk of the surprise bonanza will go toward paying down the countrys $176 billion debt.
Private oil companies are also reaping fatter profits money theyre using to pay down debt, buy back stock and raise dividend payments to shareholders, whove already seen their investments flourish at a time when most major stock indexes have stagnated.
Shares of Exxon Mobil, the largest integrated oil company, are up 30 percent from a year ago, while those of Schlumberger, one of the largest oil field services providers, are up 37 percent. By comparison, the Dow Jones industrial average is up about 2 percent.
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