I had an interesting conversation with a colleague this morning on the counterintuitive concept of higher energy prices being “good” for equities.
For most of my career, the oft-repeated maxim was that higher energy prices were, on balance, a negative for the S&P 500. Essentially, higher energy prices translate into lower margins for companies that have to pay shipping costs and utility bills. The fact that consumers would have higher gasoline and heating/ ac costs was also looked at as a drag on profits as people had less money to spend.
So what’s changed?
First, the makeup of the S&P 500 has shifted to accomodate the fact that energy stocks have much greater market capitalization, hence a larger weighting n general.
Another factor worth noting is that in a DEflationary environment like the one we’ve been in all year, higher oil prices tend to be looked at as signs of economic strengthening, hence the correlation with strengthening stock prices. During INflationary environments, however, the old rule of thumb that oil is not great for stocks may in fact have more truth to it.
One other thing to consider is that global trade, the burgeoning economies of the BRIC nations and the more widespread belief in Peak Oil Theory are currently playing havoc with all of the old and trustworthy relationships between asset classes. This is playing out as we speak, and as a result, to the old-timers, what they’re seeing on their screens looks ludicrous – even impossible.
With all of these corollaries in flux, I am reminded of something that Socrates said (as recorded by Plato), “The only thing I am certain about is that I can be certain of nothing.”
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