Discovered in A History of Interest Rates by Sidney Homer is the nugget that in ancient Babylonia the Code of Hammurabi permitted the pledging of a wife against a debt.

United States refiners may not have had to pledge their wives (whatever the appeal therein) but they have benefited from a crude oil loan from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The goal is to iron out supply disruptions in the wake of Hurricane Ivan’s rampage through the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

The fact is that Hurricane Ivan is hardly relevant as a price driver in the oil markets. Oil has been hot over the last year or so on the back of huge demand from the United States, China and Japan. In the absence of mitigating downturns in any major economic block production and refining capacity - if reports are accurate - are running at close to 100% capacity. That's why a storm and any other supply issues (Yukos, Iraq, which side of the bed Chavez wakes up on etc) are having a disproportionate impact on market psychology and the price of oil.

Are these rises of the sticky and persistent variety that will crimp global economic growth, or worse? As Mr Rumsfeld might say, that's a known unknown. A known known, thanks to Northern Trust research is this: adjusted for inflation, and in 2004 dollars, the average price of crude oil since 1970 is $35.58. That's including the oil crisies of 1973-75 and 1979-81. Drop those and since 1988 the average price of crude has been $27.10. Take your cue from that and the inflexibility of the laws of demand and supply - it's only a matter of when and by how much production and refining capacity expands to meet demand.

Finally, back to Babylonia. In the event of a debtor defaulting, his pledged wife could be seized by his creditor. However, Hammurabi's Code demanded that she be treated well and be returned after three years in as good a condition as when she was taken. Hmm.

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