Some of the largest economic fluctuations in the U.S. economy since 1970 have  originated in the oil fields of the Middle East. Crude oil is a key input into the production of many goods and services, and much of the world’s oil comes from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Middle Eastern countries. When some event (usually political in origin) reduces the supply of crude oil flowing from this region, the price of oil rises around the world. U.S. firms that produce gasoline, tires, and many other products experience rising costs. The result is a leftward shift in the aggregate-supply curve, which in turn leads to stagflation.

The first episode of this sort occurred in the mid-1970s. The countries with large oil reserves got together as members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC was a cartel—a group of sellers that attempts to thwart competition and reduce production in order to raise prices. And, indeed, oil prices rose substantially. From 1973 to 1975, oil approximately doubled in price. Oil-importing countries around the world experienced simultaneous inflation and recession. The U.S. inflation rate as measured by the CPI exceeded 10 percent for the first time in decades. Unemployment rose from 4.9 percent in 1973 to 8.5 percent in 1975.

Almost the same thing happened again a few years later. In the late 1970s, the OPEC countries again restricted the supply of oil to raise the price. From 1978 to 1981, the price of oil more than doubled. Once again, the result was stagflation. Inflation, which had subsided somewhat after the first OPEC event, again rose above 10 percent per year. But because the Fed was not willing to accommodate such a large rise in inflation, a recession was soon to follow. Unemployment rose from about 6 percent in 1978 and 1979 to about 10 percent a few  years later.

The world market for oil can also be a source of favorable shifts in aggregate supply. In 1986 squabbling broke out among members of OPEC. Member countries reneged on their agreements to restrict oil production. In the world market for crude oil, prices fell by about half. This fall in oil prices reduced costs to U.S. firms, which shifted the aggregate-supply curve to the right. As a result, the U.S. economy experienced the opposite of stagflation: Output grew rapidly, unemployment fell, and the inflation rate reached its lowest level in many years.

In recent years, the world market for oil has been relatively quiet. The only exception has been a brief period during 1990, just before the Persian Gulf War, when oil prices temporarily spiked up out of fear that a long military conflict might disrupt oil production. Yet this recent tranquillity does not mean that the

United States no longer needs to worry about oil prices. Political troubles in the Middle East (or greater cooperation among the members of OPEC) could always send oil prices higher. The macroeconomic result of a large rise in oil prices could easily resemble the stagflation of the 1970s.

QUICK QUIZ: Suppose that the election of a popular presidential candidate suddenly increases people’s confidence in the future. Use the model of  aggregate demand and aggregate supply to analyze the effect on the economy.

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