Economic Outlook: Marketing Libya

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  April 22, 2011 at 10:59 AM
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Watching prices at the gas pump have been more dizzying than normal of late, with average prices at U.S. pumps approaching the $4 per gallon mark.

The national average price listed by the AAA Friday morning was nearly $3.85 per gallon, with the pricing map showing at least nine states with prices ranging from $3.92 to $4.52 per gallon -- the heavily populated states of California, New York, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan among them.

Prices at one station in the nation's capital had already hit $4.99 per gallon.

Pricing at the pump generally defies the emotional reasoning of the frustrated consumer and it has defied logic on more levels than that recently, rising 22.8 percent in the past two months.

Incidentally, anyone pointing to the civil war in Libya as causing higher prices has missed more than a few headlines recently. Libya is the faux culprit in this case, not the real one.

Remember the comedy film "Canadian Bacon," in which the United States starts a war with Canada to boost the president's popularity? With that in mind, where would a conflict not upset consumers from a moralistic point of view, but push oil prices sky-high, anyway?

This is not a conspiracy theory but a marketing theory. If you want to sell a story on why prices have escalated, marketing Libya as the culprit isn't a bad place to get the confusion rolling.

This story starts Feb. 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after a monthlong confrontation with protesters in a crisis that had already sent the price of West Texas Intermediate oil up 7 percent on fears the confrontation would close down the Suez Canal.

That, of course, never happened. Although some shipping slowdowns were reported, most of the 7 percent rise in prices attributed to trouble in Egypt was unnecessary, speculative guesswork on the potential of a long-term disruption.

Prices settled down for a day or two after Feb. 11, reaching $85 per barrel in New York on Feb. 16. By then, the conflict in Libya, which produces just 2 percent of the world's daily oil, was in the news.

Since then, prices in New York have risen more than 30 percent, topping $112 per barrel this week, even though fears of a supply disruption have proven to be pure hokum. The U.S. stockpile of crude oil rose from 345.9 million barrels to 357 million from mid-February to mid-April. That makes it difficult to buy the Libya-disruption theory hook, line and sinker.

Before February was over, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had said they would, essentially, defend the market price by producing enough oil to make up for Libya's production loss. Recently, however, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, said, remarkably, that Saudi Arabia had gone in the opposite direction, cutting production by 800,000 barrels a day in March to 8.292 million barrels per day. Abdalla Salem el-Badri, secretary-general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, then told reporters before an OPEC meeting in Kuwait, "The best thing to do is to curb some speculation and also reduce taxes," Daily Finance reported.

As far as is known, he overlooked the concept that speculation might include opportunistically cutting production during a crisis. Further, if curbing speculation and cutting taxes are the two best things to do, where would el-Badri rank stopping the conflict in Libya? The third best thing to do?

U.S. President Barack Obama said this week it was time to "root out any cases of fraud or manipulation" and "We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of the American consumer for their own short-term gain."

But Obama's targets in the past have been "fat cat" bankers while taking the long way around the barn on confronting China for its manipulative currency policies. Will the president go after big oil companies or oil traders at this point while letting OPEC call the shots?

In international markets Friday, the Nikkei 225 index was flat, losing 0.04 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China lost 0.53 percent.

The New York Stock Exchange was closed for Good Friday. Various markets in Asia, Europe and Australia were also closed for the day.

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