What A Strike On Iran Means To Oil Prices And The Global Economy

Raymond wrote:

About a month ago you wrote an article looking at geopolitical risks, and identified a strike on Iran as the most pressing current situation. Any updated thoughts on that?

Yes, I wrote to subscribers last weekend about what an Israeli strike on Iran could mean to oil prices. I concluded that it would probably bring a spike higher, but that such a spike might finally be the blow-off top needed to get the price moving lower again “once everybody sees that no barrel of oil was harmed in the making of this movie.”

Also over the weekend, Barron’s agreed with the general idea that the price of oil is near a top. In his article “Bye, Bubble? The Price of Oil May Be Peaking,” Andrew Bary wrote:

In the next decade, oil indeed may hit $200 a barrel. But prices could fall to $100 a barrel by the end of this year if Saudi Arabia makes good on its pledge to increase production; global demand eases; the Federal Reserve begins lifting short-term interest rates; the dollar rallies, and investors stop pouring money into the oil market. China raised prices on retail gasoline and diesel fuel by 18% Thursday, in a move that is expected to curb demand.

Keep in mind that neither Mr. Bary nor I were discussing the longer-term trend in oil prices, which is higher for the simple reason that rising demand is meeting static or declining supply. We were discussing the potential for medium-term price relief.

Others are not nearly as sanguine. The BERR Assessment made clear to The Oil Drum Europe that current high energy prices and associated inflation are not “a transient blip when the UK seems to be in a terminal dive towards insolvency” from an accelerating deficit in oil and gas surpluses. Euan Mearns wrote:

We should hopefully by now have reached a point where all stake holders in UK, European and Global energy are able to grasp the simple fact that we are now in the early stages of a full blown global energy crisis. The focus is currently on oil but this will soon turn to concerns over natural gas and coal supplies.

This crisis has been turned into a state of emergency by the indifference of political leaders in the UK (and throughout the world), fluttering in the wind of poorly informed public opinion while they have prevaricated about expanding renewable energy resources and building new nuclear power stations. All warnings of this pending energy crisis have been ignored in favor of pursuing popular policies that created the illusion of prosperity whilst the fundamentals of our nation’s security and well being have been draining away.

That’s the fragile backdrop against which we need to consider the impact of a strike on Iran.

The worst case scenario is that a strike would finally push the needle firmly to stagflation, the poisonous pairing of stagnant growth with rising inflation.

On that front, perhaps nobody has written more pointedly than Nouriel Roubini:

Stagflation requires a negative supply-side shock that increases prices while simultaneously reducing output. Stagflationary shocks led to global recession three times in the last 35 years: in 1973-1975, when oil prices spiked following the Yom Kippur War and OPEC embargo; in 1979-1980, following the Iranian Revolution; and in 1990-91, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Even the 2001 recession — mostly triggered by the bursting high-tech bubble — was accompanied by a doubling of oil prices, following the start of the second Palestinian intifada against Israel.

Today, a stagflationary shock may result from an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This geopolitical risk mounted in recent weeks as Israel has grown alarmed about Iran’s intentions. Such an attack would trigger sharp increases in oil prices — to well above $200 a barrel. The consequences of such a spike would be a major global recession, such as those of 1973, 1979, and 1990. Indeed, the most recent rise in oil prices is partly due to the increase in this fear premium.

Mr. Roubini concludes that without such a jarring negative supply-side shock, global stagflation is “unlikely” because of robust growth from Chindia and other emerging markets.

That leaves us with speculating on the odds of a strike against Iran.

The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said that Israel is likely to attack Iran in the time between the November presidential election in the U.S. and the inauguration of the new president. Mr. Bolton also said that he does not believe the U.S. will participate in the attack.

That’s not the tone struck by CBS. It reported yesterday:

Israelis are mounting a full court press to get the Bush administration to strike Iran’s nuclear complex.

CBS consultant Michael Oren says Israel doesn’t want to wait for a new administration.

“The Israelis have been assured by the Bush administration that the Bush administration will not allow Iran to nuclearize,” Oren said. “Israelis are uncertain about what would be the policies of the next administration vis-à-vis Iran.”

Israel’s message is simple: If you don’t, we will. Israel held a dress rehearsal for a strike earlier this month, but military analysts say Israel can not do it alone.

“Keep in mind that Israel does not have strategic bombers,” Oren said. “The Israeli Air Force is not the American Air Force. Israel can not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.”

The U.S. with its stealth bombers and cruise missiles has a much greater capability. Vice President Cheney is said to favor a strike, but both Mullen and Defense Secretary Gates are opposed to an attack which could touch off a third war in the region.

It’s easy to see why I still consider the Iran strike issue to be the most pressing geopolitical concern for investors.

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