11/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Oil and a Never-Ending Recession

The turmoil since August 2007 has not been blamed directly on oil prices but there's a link.
"The US has experienced six recessions since 1972. At least five of these were associated with oil prices. In every case, when oil consumption in the US reached 4% percent of GDP, the U.S. went into recession. Right now, 4% of GDP is US$80 a barrel oil. So my current view is that if the oil price exceeds US$80, then expect the U.S. to fall back into recession," wrote Steven Kopits, managing director for U.K.-based energy-consulting and -research firm Douglas-Westwood LLC in New York.

Kopits is a poster boy on all the "peak oil" websites and doomsayer blogs, but his metric on the link between recessions and oil price is interesting. If Kopits is correct, so much for "green shoots." They will be trampled under foot over and over again unless there is a sudden spike upwards in GDP growth disproportionally more so than oil price increases.Here is the roller-coaster cycle he points out: Higher oil prices mean recessions, recessions mean less consumption then lower oil prices, which leads to less exploration and supply which leads to higher oil prices and recession again.

Solutions? Stop driving

The reality suggests that there are only two antidotes to this vicious cycle. Gradual price increases mitigate the negative effect of oil price increases. Recessions follow jumps of 50% within one year. The Saudis and OPEC plus other producers would have to play a role in modulating prices. Or else consuming nations must reduce consumption dramatically through legislation, taxation and rationing. Or crude oil expenditures should not exceed 4% of GDP and this must be mandated by governments.

Here are some other Kopits' views affecting oil and economic conditions:

Kopits on supply: "If I dispassionately just look at the numbers, the oil supply has not improved that much since the 4th quarter of 2004. And I don't see anything on the horizon that makes it appear that we're going to break out into a really new level of production that's far different than what we have today."

Kopits on demand: "Consumption will tend to grow faster in developing economies for two reasons. First, by their nature, developing economies should grow faster than mature ones, and this has been generally true of east Asia and strikingly so in the case of China. So faster economic growth means faster growth in demand for oil. Further, oil consumption growth follows an "S"-curve. At low levels of GDP, oil demand growth is quite slow. Once a country has reached middle class income levels, per capita oil consumption stabilizes. However, in the middle, as a country becomes middle class, oil demand growth can be explosive. Take South Korea, for example. South Korean per capita oil consumption peaked in 1996; however, in the previous 12 years, the country's consumption increased nearly fourfold. China is now firmly on the S-curve. Based on South Korean experience, we would expect Chinese oil demand to stabilize at around 50 mbpd around 2032-2035."

(China currently 8 million per day, US 20 million, Japan 5 million).

Kopits on price: "If you have a flat -- or heaven help us, declining -- supply of oil, then the emerging and fast-growing economies will have no choice but to start bidding away the oil from the advanced or slow-growing economies. That is consistent with what we've seen in the data starting in about 2006. For China to grow, it will have to take away the oil of Japan, the US and Europe, just as it has in the last three years."