The Historical Context and Risk Assessment
Warning bells rang in financial markets as the extent of the devastating Hamas attack on Israel became evident. This event’s repercussions on oil prices and the global economy are a cause for concern.
Geopolitics and Oil Prices
One fundamental rule in geopolitics is that recessions often stem from a sudden surge in oil prices, with crude oil costs being exceptionally sensitive to events in the Middle East. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has sparked scenario planning as finance ministers and central bank governors worldwide ponder one crucial question: how severe could the impact be?
Precedents and the “Unthinkable”
The notion of what is presently a localized but dire conflict in Gaza escalating into something far more significant is not unimaginable, given historical precedents. Hamas launched its attack almost precisely 50 years after the Yom Kippur war, which disrupted the global postwar economic boom.
In 1973, Israel’s counteroffensive prompted an oil embargo by OPEC, leading to a fourfold surge in crude oil prices, rising consumer costs, and increased business expenses. This resulted in higher inflation, followed rapidly by elevated unemployment, coining the term “stagflation.”
While OPEC’s influence has waned, and the global economy has become less reliant on oil since the early 1970s, oil remains a crucial factor, warranting close attention to Middle East developments.
Scenarios and Their Impact:
- Best-Case Scenario: If the conflict remains contained to an Israeli ground assault on the Gaza Strip, oil prices are likely to stabilize at around $93 a barrel, potentially decreasing. A 10% oil price increase can trim global economic growth by 0.15% and inflate inflation by 0.4% the following year. Currently, the cost of a barrel of crude is about 10% higher than before the Hamas attack.
- Second Scenario: A broader regional conflict that starts with confrontations on Israel’s northern border involving Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces could escalate further, potentially dragging Iran into the conflict. The arrival of US carrier groups in the eastern Mediterranean suggests preparations for this scenario. A conflict involving Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab states could push oil prices toward $150 a barrel, raising inflation in the US and Europe. Central banks might respond with interest rate cuts and quantitative easing programs.
- Doomsday Scenario: In this scenario, historian Niall Ferguson envisions China taking advantage of the crisis to impose a blockade on Taiwan, escalating the Middle East conflict into a third world war. Even if fought conventionally, a conflict between the world’s two largest economies would sever global supply chains, dent confidence, and crash asset prices, leading to catastrophic economic consequences, potentially rivaling the Great Depression.