Capping a relentless rise in recent years, oil prices hit an all-time high during the day on Monday, then pulled back to close below the record.
The day’s highest trading price, $103.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, broke the record set in April 1980 during the second oil shock. That price, $39.50 a barrel, equals $103.76 today, when adjusted for inflation.
The surge in energy prices is taking place as investors seek refuge in commodities to offset a slowing economy and a declining dollar. Analysts pointed out that financial institutions like pension funds and hedge funds are also buying oil and other commodities like gold as hedges against a rise in inflation.
That trend is expected to continue, especially after Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, signaled last week that he was ready to cut interest rates further to bolster economic growth, despite rising consumer prices.
“When investors lose confidence in the central bank, they tend to look for hard assets,” said Philip K. Verleger, an economist and oil expert. “The Fed’s capitulation on inflation is driving investors to commodities.”
For example, CALPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. pension fund, said last week that it might increase its commodities investments sixteenfold to $7.2 billion through 2010, to benefit from an across-the-board surge in commodities like gold, silver, oil and wheat.
The latest catalyst for the spike in energy prices has been the recent fall in the value of the dollar, analysts said. Currency traders are selling dollars and buying euros to take advantage of the difference in interest rates between the United States and Europe.
After steep declines last week, the dollar dropped to a record $1.5274 against the euro on Monday before recovering somewhat. It also fell to its lowest level in three years against the Japanese yen.
Like many commodities, oil is priced in dollars on the international market. A falling dollar tends to buoy oil prices in part because consumers using stronger currencies, like the euro or yen, can afford to pay more per barrel.
“The question for oil is, Where is the dollar going?” said Roger Diwan, a managing director at PFC Energy, a consulting firm in Washington. “That’s going to be the main market mover in the short term.”
Since 2000, oil prices have more than quadrupled as strong growth in demand from the United States and Asia outstripped the ability of oil producers to increase their output.
The rising prices of the past decade failed to dent global economic growth as consumers absorbed the higher costs. Even now, with the U.S. economy slowing markedly, the trend has not slowed much. Global oil consumption is still expected to increase by 1.4 million barrels a day this year, driven by demand in China and the Middle East.
Still, today’s market climate is markedly different from the energy crises of the 1970s and 1980s. These were brought about by sudden interruptions in oil supplies, like the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980.