Petrodollars is the term coined in the 1970s to describe the money flow from oil consuming nations to oil producers–meaning by and large OPEC–during a decade when the crude oil price skyrocketed from around $3 a barrel in 1970 to $25+ in 1979.
Some economists of the day feared that this massive increase in money paid for fuel would be, in effect, withdrawn from circulation in the global money supply, and that the resulting money supply contraction could cause a worldwide recession. (I have no idea where this notion came from, but it was seriously discussed. Another strange idea being floated then was of the “backward-bending demand curve,” i.e., that there was something magical about oil so that the higher the price went, the more demand increased.)
What happened instead was that these funds were quickly recycled into the world money supply through increased spending by OPEC and through gigantic purchases of financial and other assets, from Treasury bonds to real estate to large stakes in publicly listed companies in Europe and the US.
Economic growth in the OECD did slow markedly during the 1970s and inflation rose sharply in places like the US, as industry heavily reliant on ultra-cheap oil struggled to adjust. One might also argue that the fact that money was going from the pockets of avid consumers to those of wealthy savers also retarded economic expansion.
What I’ve just written is only interesting, other than to me, because the reverse of that 1970s flow is now happening. More money is remaining in the hands of consumers. According to the Financial Times, during the September quarter alone, Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds cashed in at least $19 billion of their investments to underpin current government spending. Since not all asset manager report withdrawals, the true figure could easily be twice that.
It’s clear that a large shift of wealth away from OPEC and to oil consumers is under way. But, in addition, as OPEC liquidates financial investments to fund current spending–Saudi Arabia is actually talking about issuing international bonds to fund its budget deficit–it will provide another monetary (and consumption) tailwind for economic growth in 2016.