When Will Gas Prices Fall?

Is there much we can do besides wait?

When Will Gas Prices FallCould $5 gas arrive with summer? As of April 6, U.S. retail gasoline prices were up 20.15% YTD; on that date, AAA’s national survey had the price of regular unleaded averaging $3.94 per gallon. So what happens this spring and summer – traditionally when Americans tend to hit the road?1

A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey of 900+ adults finds that the average American expects pump prices of around $4.75 a gallon come July. That’s about 20% above where prices are now.2

Is that perception cynical, or realistic? It depends on whether you think the latest price spike will eventually moderate according to the historical pattern.

Will the classic pattern hold? Short-term price jumps in retail gasoline are often partly tempered by lessening demand. That is, the price of gas climbs to a certain point where consumers simply decide to cut back on their driving. As demand drops, prices finally follow.

This could easily happen; it may happen soon. Yet when we look at the macro view, we have not been following the classic pattern. American consumer demand for gasoline has declined slightly in every year since 2007. (Before the recession, sales of big SUVs represented 20% of U.S. auto buying; now they account for 5% of it.) In fact, the federal government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) believes that U.S. gasoline consumption will drop by another 7% over the next 25 years.3

Who is to blame for the soaring prices? The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey asked for opinions. Close to a quarter of those polled put the blame on the oil industry; about 20% pinned the blame on speculators in the commodities market. Coming in third and fourth: the Obama administration (14%) and Congress (9%).2

As the world is a global village, our gas prices are most influenced by the world oil market. Recently, the factor exerting the biggest influence has been the threat of supply disruption in the Middle East – but that’s not the only factor weighing on the market. We are using less oil and gasoline, but China and India and other emerging economies are using more – in fact, 10 million more cars hit the roads in China during 2010 alone.4

In addition, the U.S. has become a net gasoline exporter for the first time in more than five decades as a consequence of key oil refineries along the east coast and in the Caribbean ceasing production. Also, many of our refineries can now produce gasoline for less than it would cost at Latin American or European supply points.4

Basically, we are competing with the world for our gasoline – and the world oil market causes the big ripples in the equilibrium. This is why boycotting gas stations in your area for a day has little more than symbolic effect.

What could America do? The Obama administration could try some quick fixes, but some might not be popular. Releasing some of the inventory in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve could help – and in fact, announcing the release after the fact could potentially affect oil prices more than publicizing it beforehand.

To crimp speculators, the government could request that the New York Mercantile Exchange and Intercontinental Exchange (on which NYMEX crude and Brent crude get traded daily) boost margin requirements, a regulatory move which would discourage speculators from working with borrowed money. It could ask states to strictly enforce a more fuel-efficient, 55-mph speed limit on our nation’s highways, which would not please the trucking industry or the typical driver.

It seems every year we are tested by spikes in gas prices. As we transition (however gradually) from fossil fuels to other forms of energy, we may still have several of these episodes in our lifetimes.

Citations

  1. money.msn.com/market-news/post.aspx?post=d8808e5a-07d2-477c-aa6e-0497b6d7402b [4/5/12]
  2. www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2012/0406/Americans-spread-blame-for-high-gas-prices-foresee-4.75-a-gallon [4/6/12]
  3. www.npr.org/2012/03/22/149061105/whats-making-americans-less-hungry-for-gasoline [3/22/12]
  4. www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/03/23/149220383/why-gas-prices-are-rising-even-as-demand-is-down [3/23/12]
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