03/31/2011 12:46 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2011

The Small Silver Lining of $100 Oil

Does anybody other than owners of crude oil reserves win when oil prices spike? Probably not, but at least some businesses lose less than others.

High oil prices tend to trigger a so-called "neighborhood effect" where selected manufacturing businesses that are located closer to their customers get a price advantage over competitors that are located far away. That is because local businesses have lower transportation costs than their out of town, or out of country, competitors.

It's location, location, location that drives the relative cost of shipping certain types of goods. A supplier's close location to his customers will result in low transportation costs. Heavy bulky items with low relative intellectual value per ton shipped tend to show the greatest transportation cost sensitivity and therefore have the biggest neighborhood effect.

On the other hand, light and small items with a high intellectual content aren't very sensitive to increased transportation costs.

And, of course, service businesses don't have any material transportation costs since they sell an intangible, i.e., service, and not physical goods.

The steel industry is an example of an industry that is very sensitive to energy prices and their effect on transportation costs. Manufactured steel is a heavy and bulky item with a relatively low intellectual content per ton shipped. When oil prices spiked in 2008 it was actually cheaper for many U.S. manufacturers to produce and deliver steel than it was for their Chinese competitors. For foreign producers the high expense of shipping steel overwhelmed the advantage of lower overseas production costs.

On the other hand, the semi- conductor industry is relatively insensitive to shipping costs. Semi-conductors don't weigh a lot, are small and, because of the highly engineered nature of the product, have a high intellectual content per ton. As a result, increased transportation costs have very little practical effect on semi-conductor price competitiveness.

In 2008 Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal wrote Will Soaring Transport Costs Reverse Globalization? for CIBC World Markets (their article appears on page 4 of the linked document). When their work was published oil prices were approximately $125 per barrel. Rubin and Tal wrote:

The last thirty years have seen an unprecedented growth in world trade--a phenomenon widely credited with providing the catalyst for the rapid industrialization of economies like China and India. In turn, the reduction in tariffs and non-tariff barriers...was facilitated by the surge in global trade volumes. But in a world of triple-digit oil prices, soaring transport costs, not tariff barriers, pose the greatest challenge to trade...Even back at a $100 per barrel oil price, transport costs outweigh the impact of tariffs for all of America's trading partners, including even its neighbours, Canada and Mexico.

In an era of high oil prices, some domestic industries that compete with foreign imports will see an up-tick in business. On the other hand, some foreign manufacturers will try to defend their market share without selling their goods at a loss by locating plants close to their customers. These manufacturers will invest in new U.S. based production facilities.

However, no one should think that U.S. manufacturers will get a surge in exports orders caused by high oil prices -- after all, if it's expensive to move merchandise into the U.S. it's just as expensive to move merchandise out of the U.S. Its just that some manufacturers will see less price competition from foreign competitors which should in turn translate into increased sales and profits.

It's hard to find anything good to say about high oil prices for the overwhelming majority of Americans. But, if oil prices remain above $100 per barrel for any extended period of time, past experience tells us that there is at least a very small silver lining for some non-energy related American businesses and their workers.