History Suggests Oil Shock Raises Probability of U.S. Recession

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(Bloomberg) — Historically, a surge in crude-oil prices of this magnitude have ended U.S. economic expansions and tipped the U.S. economy into recession, according to Pictet Asset Management.

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In the past 50 years, every time oil prices, adjusted for inflation, rose 50% above trend, a recession followed, data from Luca Paolini, chief strategist at Pictet, show. Brent, the international gauge for prices, climbed well above $110 a barrel this week, crossing that threshold on worries about disruption to Russia’s exports after the country invaded Ukraine.

Brent has rallied around 50% this year to top $118, trading around decade highs. Futures in New York rose by more than $24 this week alone, the highest weekly dollar increase on record.

Read more: Short Sellers Are Betting Oil Won’t Go Much Higher From Here

Fear is already playing out in the stock market as the war rekindled inflation concerns and clouded the outlook for corporate profits. The S&P 500 Energy Sector has been one of the few bright spots, continuing its rein as the top performing group in the index, up 35% in 2022. Oil-and-gas companies like Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips have posted double-digit gains this year, benefitting from a rise in oil prices.

But investors question how long the strength in energy stocks will last, as the group is now the third-most shorted industry on the S&P 500, with short sellers betting that the oil boom will soon be over.

“I don’t expect an economic disaster, but what we’re seeing in oil prices will have a significant impact on growth,” Paolini said.

To be sure, oil-price shocks have ended economic expansions like those in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s. But other downturns weren’t directly caused by a sharp rise in oil prices, like the 2001 recession and the global financial crisis.

Few economists say the U.S. is in danger of recession since the economy is underpinned by a strong labor market, solid consumer spending and better-than-expected corporate profits. But many expect growth to slow further if inflation continues to rise. The war in Ukraine has injected further volatility into markets just as the Federal Reserve enters a rate-hike cycle.

“The best thing for markets is for the Fed to lift rates gently and adjust policy in case the war in Ukraine evolves in the wrong way,” Paolini said. “Waiting to raise rates would be the wrong thing to do because the economy could suffer significantly if inflation rises even further.”

Read more: Powell Affirms Fed on Track for March Hike, Will Move With Care

(Updates oil futures and sector prices throughout.)

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