Did you ever drop the baton in a relay race? On my high school swim team, I jumped into the pool too soon, before my teammate touched the wall. The referee poked me in the head with a gaff pole they use on crazed sharks. The Jersey Shore was a tough place to grow up. Too much spare fishing tackle.
Right now the U.S. economy is trying to pass a fragile baton. As I explained on TV with Maria Bartiromo and Gerri Willis, oil and gas drilling have propelled growth. States like North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas have flourished with enviable jobless rates ranging from 2.8-4.6 percent. For the first time since Terry Bradshaw fired passes for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ‘70s, steel plants began rising in Ohio and Pennsylvania to provide pipes to oil and gas drillers. But with oil collapsing to $50 a barrel, the baton must be passed.
Who can catch the baton? Back in October I said here that airline shares and retailers would fly with lower oil. But here’s the real question: Will consumers spend their energy savings quickly enough to offset the pain in that huge oil and gas patch? Milton Friedman’s Permanent Income Hypothesis taught us that consumers are not so flighty –a short-term snap in prices does not quickly flip their long-term buying habits. In other words, consumers must trust that low energy prices are here to stay. Only then will they spend their windfall.
In the meantime, companies like Schlumberger, Halliburton, and Baker Hughes are taking out battle axes, slashing 30,000 jobs in the past month. Houston has been home to one-sixth of new office construction. Look for a big sale on crane rentals.
Don’t get me wrong. Lower oil prices help the overall economy. I felt that back in April 2014, when I forecast that prices would plunge by 50 percent. Last spring I delivered keynote speeches in Bahrain, and some audience members shook their heads at my brazen view. But now, seeing cheaper gas signs spinning around the corner service station, my kids are hankering for a drive to Disneyland (they’ve already gotten measles shots). Farmers will pay less to plow and fertilize their fields. Next week I’m lecturing to the North Dakota Soybean farmers. The baton will be passed – but don’t be surprised if there are some clumsy slip-ups and gaffes during the race.