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Do Oil prices Really have an Impact on Financial Markets? Yes and No

Stock market commentators like to draw parallels between the behavior of oil prices and stock prices on any given day. After all, who hasn’t seen a headline like this: “Oil Spike Pummels Stock Market”? But evidence shows that a change in oil prices does not necessarily affect the stock market in any predictable and meaningful way.

Before we explain why, let’s look at the traditional wisdom, which holds that when oil prices rise, stocks fall, and vice versa. When oil prices rise, gasoline prices follow. Higher gas prices hurt consumers, who then have less money to spend on other goods and services. A decline in consumer spending causes businesses to see decreasing sales. At the same time, businesses are also hurt by higher oil prices because they use oil for gas and other goods as well, and must pay higher prices for it. As a result, high oil prices can create a drag on corporate earnings—and businesses often end up passing those costs onto already-strapped consumers. It’s a vicious cycle, and it seems obvious that it would cause stocks to decline. The opposite is true when oil prices fall.

That seems reasonable enough. So why do we say the traditional wisdom isn’t always true? Because higher oil prices don’t always result in a drag on corporate earnings. There a number of reasons for this. For example, the U.S. economy is less dependent on oil than it used to be: Each dollar of U.S. gross domestic product produced today takes about half the oil it did 30 years ago. Additionally, much of the oil used by American businesses at any given time has been purchased under fixed-prices contracts that were negotiated when oil prices were much lower.

So, we have two ways of looking at the same situation. The traditional wisdom holds that higher oil prices hurt stocks. But when we look a little deeper, we can see that isn’t always the case. That’s quite a muddle, and it piqued the interest of economists—two of whom set out to find out which is the case: Do higher oil prices hurt stocks, or don’t they?

These economists, based at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, looked at both oil prices and the S&P 500 Index, which is widely considered a broad indicator of stock market performance. The economists found, that over the past 10 years, oil prices and stock prices have mostly risen but there has been little correlation between them. That was the case even during periods of peak oil prices, when we might expect stocks to really suffer.

The economists did find, however, that certain segments of the stock market were correlated with oil prices. For example, the Dow Jones Transportation Index rose when oil process rose, and fell when oil prices fell—presumably because changes in oil prices have a significant effect on transportation companies. On the other hand, the Dow Jones Financials Index rose when oil prices fell, and fell when oil prices rose—presumably because the financial industry is not directly affected by oil prices.

That information may offer investors some insight when it comes to buying and selling stocks during periods of high and low oil prices. When oil prices are high, you might want to sell (or short) airline stocks. When oil prices are low, you might want to buy energy stocks. Savvy stock pickers could potentially benefit in this way.

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