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Fear and uncertainty already have hit the economy, he said after talking with businessmen and investors in recent days. Many are starting to put off their spending plans until they see how high oil prices rise and whether the oil spike is sustained.

“Business managers are starting to get orders to put things on hold until there is greater clarity on where oil and gasoline prices will settle. After all, no one wants to be in a position to fill stockrooms and back lots with inventory if economic activity is about to slow,” he said.

Hiring plans also are being postponed, he said. “Why ramp up hiring if there is risk that consumer and business spending may taper off?” he asked.

“Perhaps the single greatest concern is that these geopolitical events could herald a ‘new normal’ for oil prices, with crude settling in the range of $100 to $150 a barrel from this point on,” he said.

That possibility is realistic rather than alarmist, he said, because “the old order for some countries across North Africa is already gone” and more regimes in the region seem likely to exit as well, leaving an “amorphous” state of affairs that will “keep risk levels high for years.”

Dan North, an economist at Euler Hermes, called it a “worst nightmare come true” for the economy and the Federal Reserve, whose loose money policies he said set off an inflation spiral in food and fuel prices last fall that contributed to the unrest in the Middle East.

“Oil prices rising this fast, to this level, pose a significant risk to growth,” he said. “Once again, the U.S. finds itself at the mercy of rising oil prices without a sufficient supply of its own.”

Kara Rowland contributed to this report.