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Oil and the Golden Constant

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 13:48
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Steve H. Hanke

Since its recent high of almost $108/bbl in June 2014, we have witnessed a stunning collapse, and a subsequent bounce back, in the price of oil. In February 2016, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) was trading at $26/bbl, a 76% plunge from its June 2014 high. It has since clawed its way back to $53.70/bbl (February 20th). Thanks to the “golden constant,” I was able to anticipate the course of crude’s bounce back. Indeed, the price of crude has doubled since its cyclical nadir. Just as I predicted.

How did I nail the course of crude’s price, and where is the price of oil going from here? To answer these questions, we must have a model – a way of thinking about the problem. In this case, a starting point is Roy W. Jastram’s classic study, The Golden Constant: The English and American Experience 1560-2007. In that work, Jastram finds that gold maintains its purchasing power over long periods of time, with the prices of other commodities adapting to the price of gold.

Taking the broad lead from Jastram, I developed a model. It employs the price of gold as a long-term benchmark for the price of oil. The idea being that, if the price of oil changes dramatically, the oil-gold price ratio will change and move away from its long-term value. Forces will then be set in motion to move supply and demand so that the price of oil changes and the long-term oil-gold price ratio is reestablished. This represents nothing more than a reversion to the mean. It explains why spot prices of gold and crude are parallel to each other and why the oil-gold price ratio hovers around 0.0721 (see the accompanying chart).


Sure enough, following crude’s price plunge, the world’s largest oil companies slashed capital expenditures for drilling and exploration by 40% in the 2015-2016 period alone. The major companies have reined in their appetites for mega projects, preferring smaller ones with much shorter time horizons. As night follows day, oil and gas field discoveries have hit a 60-year low.

Just how long will it take for the oil-gold price ratio to mean revert? My calculations (based on post-1973 data) are that a 50% reversion of the ratio will occur in 13.7 months. This translates into a WTI spot price of $57/bbl by February 2017. It is worth noting that, like Jastram, I find that oil prices have reverted to the long-run price of gold, rather than the price of gold reverting to that of oil. In short, the oil-gold price ratio reverts to its mean via changes in the price of oil.

The following chart shows the price projection based on the oil-gold price ratio model. It also shows the historical course of prices. They are doing just what the golden constant predicts: oil prices are driving the price ratio back to its mean. The model foretells a WTI spot price of $70/bbl by the end of the year, which is considerably higher than the current price of $55.10/bbl for the futures contract settling at that time.


Steve Hanke is a professor of applied economics at The Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.


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