So Much for $4 Gas?

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"Gasoline for $5 a gallon?" TheNew York Times wrote in February. "The possibility is hardly far-fetched."

It's still not far-fetched, but odds of seeing $5 gas this summer are dwindling. Oil prices have dropped 9% since February, and the nationwide average cost for a gallon of gas has dipped to $3.71 down from around $3.90 earlier this year, according to the Energy Information Administration. The EIA now expects nationwide gas prices to average $3.79 this summer, down from its old forecast of $3.95 (though the fact that its old forecast was revised shows how fickle these predictions can be). Few are talking about $5 gas anymore. Four bucks might now be a stretch.

The savings that offers U.S. consumers can't be understated. U.S. drivers consume about 344 million gallons of gas a day. If gas prices average $0.25 less this year than originally forecast, the savings adds up to $32 billion, or about $260 per household. That's real money.


Gas prices are still high, of course. If you take average nationwide gasoline prices and adjust them for disposable income per-capita, you get this:

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Source: EIA, Federal Reserve, author's calculations.

By this metric, real gas prices are below 2008 levels -- and well below levels seen in the late 1970s -- but still 30% above the long-term average. If gas prices today were what they were in 2000, the average American household would be saving about $2,500 a year.

But even with high gas prices, consumers have been able to keep their spending up without much of a hiccup. Analysts worried earlier this year that a spike in gas prices would cause consumer spending on things like restaurants and travel to drop. By and large, it didn't. Growth in consumer spending was one of the only bright spots in last quarter's GDP report. Retail sales are still growing nicely. Why haven't higher gas prices slowed us down?

Natural gas prices have plunged to a 10-year low. The savings that provides offsets a lot of the rise in gasoline prices. The EIA estimates that the average home that heats with natural gas will spend $204 less this year than they have during the average of the last five years. For a household using 60 gallons of gasoline per month, that savings offsets all of the rise in gas prices compared with late last year. The amount Americans are now spending on all energy products -- from gasoline at the pump to home heating bills -- is about in line with the long-term average.

Another factor keeping gas prices from hurting the economy: Americans have much less household debt today than four years ago. In 2007, debt payments made up 14% of an average household's disposable income. Today, it's 11%. We can handle a lot more shocks like rising gas prices today than we could last decade.

Oil prices, and in turn gas prices, are part of a global market where prices are determined by many factors the U.S. has little control over: geopolitics, OPEC production, demand from emerging markets, that kind of stuff. But if you're interested in how gas and energy affects the American economy, keep your eyes on two big trends:

  • The continued decline in the number of miles Americans drive, and the increase in average miles per gallon. U.S. drivers drove (link opens PDF file) 57 billion fewer miles in 2010 than they did in 2008, and average gas mileage rose to 23.8 miles per gallon in 2009 from 21.9 MPG in 2000, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Nearly every new top vehicle produced by Ford (NYS: F) or GM (NYS: GM) has a predictable selling point: gas mileage, gas mileage, gas mileage. That higher efficiency makes gas spikes less meaningful than they were in the past.                                    
  • The U.S. is undergoing an energy boom like we haven't seen in decades. We're now a net exporter of fuel products for the first time since the 1940s. Natural gas discovery and production has grown so far so fast that it's turned against companies like Chesapeake (NYS: CHK) , now struggling against low prices. Oil and gas employment is at a 20-year high. As TheNew York Times wrote last month, "In the last five years, the United States and Canada combined have become the fastest-growing sources of new oil supplies around the world, overtaking producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia."

Want more? Consider The Motley Fool's special report, The Only Energy Stock You'll Ever Need. It's free. Just click here.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of General Motors, Ford Motor, and Chesapeake Energy. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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