PhotoYou, as a consumer, no doubt think cheap oil is great. It has reduced the price of gasoline to levels not seen in nearly a decade.

But perhaps nothing so perfectly illustrates the gulf between the interests of Wall Street and Main Street as falling oil prices, because Wall Street definitely doesn't see it the way you do.

In recent weeks, stock prices have moved in tandem with oil prices. Oil prices plunge, so does the stock market. Oil prices rally and stocks surge.

Bloomberg News does an excellent job of explaining why Wall Street has such a different view of oil prices, and it boils down to this: too many institutions made big bets that oil prices would keep going higher. You could say they bet the bank on it.

Shale producers had to borrow a lot of money to fund their operations. That debt paid high interest rates and was eagerly purchased on Wall Street. Sound familiar?

Remember the housing bust?

A similar thing happened during the early 2000s housing boom, when subprime mortgages in particular were prized for their high interest rates. At the time, very few people thought home prices could actually go down. But they did.

In 2008 bad mortgage bets nearly sank the economy. Today's nervousness is due in part to the fear that bad oil bets pose their own systemic risk. So when oil prices get so low that U.S. producers can't be profitable, the people who have bought their debt get very nervous.

Making matters worse, in Wall Street's eyes, consumers are saving lots of money at the gas pump but aren't spending it. Instead, they're saving it for heaven's sake, or paying off their credit cards. So the complaint is that consumers are benefiting from low oil prices but aren't “sharing the wealth,” so to speak.

Economists rightly point out that this can be a problem. Since the Great Recession, the one area where the U.S. economy has enjoyed strong growth has been in the oil industry. Now that industry appears to be going down for the count, and with it the huge contributions it has made to the nation's economy.

It was hoped that the extra money flowing to consumers through lower gas prices would get spent elsewhere, providing a lift to the economy. That isn't happening, so the net effect is the slowdown in the oil industry has produced a drag on the overall economy.

Weak growth

But instead of blaming consumers for socking away the money they are saving at the gas pump, perhaps economists might better explain why the U.S. economy, absent the recent contribution from the oil industry, is so weak. Why haven't other sectors recovered? And why is it up to consumers to take up the slack?

Maybe one of the reasons Wall Street has been so volatile this month is the realization that there doesn't seem to be much there to backstop the economy when the oil industry isn't providing the economic growth it has over the last few years.

Was it always this way? Definitely not. But in the first quarters of the last two years, the U.S. economy has contracted. Will it be the same this year?

If so, there may be a lot of blame to go around. But it may not be fair to blame American consumers who have finally caught a break in the form of lower gas prices.


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