Why The Fed Cares (A Lot) About Oil Prices

March 12, 5:00 pm EST

Remember, when oil prices began the fourth-quarter plunge from $76 down to as low as $42, we talked about the damage it would do to the inflation outlook, and how it may provoke a response from the Fed, which it has.

With today’s inflation data, you can see the impact of (yet another) oil price crash.  Headline inflation in the U.S. was running near 3% late last summer, the highest level since 2012. Now it’s 1.5%.


The Fed likes to talk about their assessment of inflation, excluding the effects of volatile oil prices. But they have a record of acting on monetary policy when oil is moving, especially in this post-crisis environment where deflation has been a persistent threat throughout.  They acted in 2016.  And they’ve acted in 2019.

Why?  They have the tools to deal with inflation.  They raise rates.  But the tools are limited to deal with deflation.  They cut rates.  But when rates hit zero, they have to get creative (like QE, negative rates, etc.).  And the consequences of losing the deflation battle are big.  When people hold onto their money thinking things will be cheaper tomorrow than they are today, that mindset can bring the economy to a dead halt. It’s a formula that can become irreversible.

So, we can see why the Fed has been pro-active in response to falling oil prices, falling stocks and falling inflation.  It can all lead to falling confidence.  And that can put them in the position of fighting the dangerous spiral of deflation.

That said, oil is on the rebound.  And as we discussed last month (here), with the quieting of controversy surrounding the Saudi government, it looks like a V-shaped recovery could be in store for oil prices (as we’ve seen with stocks).

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