U.S. crude prices stand at around $91 a barrel after surging some 40% since Dec. 1 and earlier this week touched their highest level since 2014. Prices for Brent crude, the global benchmark, have also soared and are near 7-year highs.
Rapidly rising oil prices can be a troubling development for markets, as they cloud the economic outlook by increasing costs for businesses and consumers. Higher crude also threatens to accelerate already-surging inflation, compounding worries that the Fed will need to aggressively tighten monetary policy to tamp down consumer prices.
“The stock market would really run into trouble if we went north of $125 per barrel and stayed there for a while because that would overheat high levels of inflation,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital Securities. “That means that the Fed would have to be a lot more aggressive and that certainly would not be a pleasant scenario for the stock market.”
Rising tensions between Russia – one of the world’s largest oil producers – and Ukraine recently helped drive the rally in oil, which had been supported by a recovery in demand from the coronavirus pandemic.
Capital Economics analysts said earlier this week that crude oil and natural gas prices would surge if the conflict in Ukraine escalated “even if they fall back relatively quickly as the dust settles.”
Elevated oil prices contributed to the rise in U.S. inflation, which grew at its fastest pace in nearly four decades last month: While overall consumer prices rose 7.5% year-over-year in January, the index’s energy component rose by 27%.
Each “sustained” $10 increase in the price of oil per barrel adds about 0.3 percentage points to the overall consumer price index, on a year-over-year basis, according to analysts at Oxford Economics.
“The largest impact of higher oil prices is on consumer price inflation and it adds further to the pressure for the Fed to be more aggressive,” Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics, said in emailed comments to Reuters.
The benchmark S&P 500 is down over 8% this year while the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note has risen by 40 basis points to over 1.9%. Investors are pricing the Fed funds rate to rise to above 1.50% by the end of 2022, from near zero now, according to Refinitiv’s Fedwatch tool.
CONSUMER SPENDING IMPACT
Rising crude is already raising costs for businesses and drivers. The national U.S. average for gasoline recently stood at $3.48 a gallon, automobile group AAA said earlier this week, up 18 cents from a month earlier and 98 cents from a year ago.
As gasoline prices rise, investors are monitoring trends for consumers, whose spending accounts for over two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. Data on Wednesday showed U.S. retail sales increased by the most in 10 months in January, but last week’s consumer sentiment reading came in at its lowest level in more than a decade in early February.
“The risk is that if gas prices at the pump start going up that means less discretionary spending for consumers at a time when a lot of their fiscal benefits from the last couple years are fading,” said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors.
Investors are gauging the effect of higher oil on companies’ earnings. Typically, rising oil prices are estimated to lift overall S&P 500 earnings by about $1 per share for every $5 increase in the price of crude, according to David Bianco, Americas chief investment officer at DWS Group, with benefits to energy firms outweighing the drag on earnings of airlines and other companies potentially hurt by higher crude costs. That amounts to about 0.4% of total S&P 500 earnings expected for 2022.
The S&P 500 energy sector is up 22% so far in 2022 while fund managers in the latest BofA Global Research survey reported their highest allocation to energy stocks since March 2012.
But with oil prices already near seven-year highs, and energy stocks comprising a far lower share of the market than a decade ago, those slim bottom-line benefits may be overshadowed by inflation worries if crude keeps charging higher, some investors said.
“Higher oil prices, without a recession, raise S&P profits,” Bianco said. “But not as much as it used to and you definitely don’t want this happening when the Fed is fighting inflation.”