Economic Damnation 9: Oil & Gas Price Shocks

Take a look at the West Texas Intermediate Crude Oil Price chart for the last twenty (20) years over on It’s bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. And any chart you pull up for international oil and natural gas prices is going to look similar. In the chart, we see oil goes from a high of about $38 in 1997 to a low of about $16 in 1998 to a high of about $47 in 2000 to a low of about $26 in 2002 and then a series of gradually increasing perturbations until it reached a high of about $145 in 2008 before it crashed down to about $43 in the same year. And so on.

In other words, within a one year period, prices can double or be cut in half without almost any warning. And either situation can run havoc with your supply chain. Let’s tackle the obvious situation first. Prices double seemingly overnight. Your costs are going up – if not right away, very very soon. If you have a contract, you might be able to insist that your supplier absorb the increase since they were, at signing, charging you higher than market cost since they were taking a risk over a predefined period. But, at some point, their margins go to zero, and soon after that, they are not going to put up with it anymore, especially if they are struggling financially. They are going to insist upon fuel surcharges, or simply stop honouring your contract and fail to pickup. Now, of course, you can try taking them to court, but in the interim, no shipments, no sales, and screaming customers which cost your organization much more than it could recover in a legal battle years down the road. If you don’t, you are buying on the spot market, paying 10%, 20%, 30% or more than expected for transport, eroding your margins, and possibly even losing on every delivery to your customers if you are working on thin margins to a competitive marketplace. You can either try to pass the costs on, and risk angry customers, or try to ride it out.

The non-obvious situation is when prices drop. Suppliers are the first to cry foul when prices increase rapidly but the last to insist on being fair when the drop. When was the last time they voluntarily dropped a fuel surcharge after fuel prices dropped back to the levels they were when they cut the contract to begin with? Never! You will have to spend a lot of time and effort to negotiate prices down to reasonable levels, and even more time tracking prices to benchmarks to know when you need to start those negotiations — this takes resources, and that costs money. This is a situation where you’re damned if prices rise and you’re damned if prices fall. It’s damnation all around.

And that’s just the short term damnation. If prices drop too much, the first thing the producers are going to do is pump less oil, reduce production, and wait until demand nears (and maybe even exceeds) supply, so that prices will start to rise again. In other words, as soon as you manage to successfully negotiate the price reduction, you’re only a few months away from the supplier coming back with a new surcharge request. The pendulum always swings and knocks you in the head upon every return.