Oil barrels. Photo: Miguel Gutierrez/AFP/Getty Images
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Your petrol bill may fall, but is cheap oil all good news?

The falling oil price may sound like a positive thing, but it follows a series of worrying events in global economics.

he past few months have brought a spree of frightening developments in the global economy. There’s been the slow crash of the Chinese property market, the eurozone’s slide into deflation and the relentless strengthening of the US dollar, to start us off. But there is no doubt what the biggest and most baffling development of all has been: the collapse in the price of oil, from more than $100 per barrel as recently as last September to less than $50 per barrel today.

Oil, it goes without saying, is the single most important commodity there is. Quite literally, it greases the wheels of the global economy. It is a commodity that is unequally distributed: a few countries have a lot of it – the Saudi Arabias, Russias and Venezuelas of the world – while most countries have none. Some have about enough for their needs (notably, these days, the US) but most have to import almost everything. It’s no surprise that the price of oil is one of the critical drivers of both the rate of global growth and the way it is shared between nations.

So, why has the oil price collapsed and what does it mean for the world economy? The answer to the first question is easy: nobody really knows. Since the 2008 financial crisis, people have become used to the idea that economists are useless at predictions. The number of analysts who warned that the growth of credit in the mid-2000s was not sustainable can be counted on two hands. The number that got the timing right can be counted on one. But the number of analysts who predicted the collapse in oil is even smaller. As far as I can tell, it was approximately zero.

Of course, after the event, all kinds of plausible explanations have been on offer. The simplest is that this kind of price action is typical of any commodity investment cycle. The capital equipment required to extract oil on a large scale is vast and costly and it takes years to install. When prices are high, as they were until recently, governments and companies compete to plough billions of dollars into rigs and pipes. The result is a glut of investment, followed by a glut of supply when the new kit comes on stream. And so the price collapses, leading to frantic cost-cutting and a dearth of new investment – sowing the seeds for the supply shortage that will kick-start the next cycle.

It’s a neat enough theory in general, and yet its very neatness raises the question of why no one saw the latest price crash coming. Few of the relevant investment plans were secret, after all, and there is a huge and profitable industry devoted to speculation on the price of oil – with every incentive to find them out.

Naturally, there are other explanations: conspiracy theories about the Saudis and Americans conniving to hurt the Russians, or the Saudis going rogue in order to hurt the Iranians – but the speed of the collapse suggests it may have as much to do with a sudden drop in demand as a sudden glut of supply.

What will the collapsed price mean for the global economy? For many, the answer is that oil producers will suffer nasty recessions – but their suffering will be far outweighed by the boost to growth in oil-consuming countries. If, however, the collapsing price reflects weak demand from the eurozone, China and the rest of the emerging markets, the result may not be so palatable.

Certain market prices have an uncanny knack for foretelling economic weakness in the short term. For instance, is it a coincidence that the price of industrial metals such as copper – “Dr Copper”, as it is known on the financial markets, for its supposedly prodigious analytical powers – is also on the slide? Even more ominous is that the oil price drop has been accompanied by a steep decline in the interest rates that the world’s investors demand in order to lend to governments. When the UK government can borrow for five years at 1 per cent and Germany at less than zero (you read that right: investors are currently paying the German government for the privilege of lending to it), it does not suggest great confidence in the future of the economy.

At a conference a few years ago, someone in the audience asked me what would happen when the Bank of England eventually put interest rates up again. Like any economist, I gave a long, rambling and non-committal answer. When I had finished, the excellent compère turned to the crowd and said: “Let me put that a bit more simply: it means your mortgage will get more expensive.”

I know how he would summarise the effect of the current collapse: “It means your petrol bill is going to get cheaper.” Unfortunately, it may mean a lot more than that.

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue