Friday, May 02, 2008

What Europe Pays

With American consumers reeling from gas prices that have gone up by fifty cents per gallon since the beginning of the year, it occurred to me to wonder what Europeans are now paying. Although the decline of the dollar has amplified the impact of recent increases in oil prices, Europe hasn't been immune, either. Crude oil expressed in Euros or Sterling is roughly 75% and 110% higher, respectively, than it was in January 2007, and this has boosted the price of fuels that were already much more expensive than those sold here. While searching for European fuel price data, I was surprised to discover proposals for gas tax cuts similar to those being debated here. Consumer displeasure with petroleum product prices is increasing the pressure on governments on both sides of the Atlantic to respond.

Having lived in both Germany and the UK, I chose them as my basis of comparison--one inside the Euro zone, the other outside. As of today, Normalbenzin (regular gasoline) averages €1.457/liter, or €5.51/US gallon. So whether you assess the dollar/euro exchange at its market rate of $1.55 to the Euro--which gets you to $8.55/gal.--or adjust it based on purchasing-power parity, or even the Economist's Big Mac Index, which was close to 1:1 last summer, gasoline in Germany is a darned sight more expensive than it is here, thanks to Europe's stout taxation of motor fuels. And while diesel is taxed at a lower rate, to promote the use of diesel automobiles as a means of reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, €5.26/gal. ($8.15/gal.) is hardly a bargain. Petrol is not much cheaper in the UK, either. At a current average of 110 pence per liter, or £4.18/US gallon ($8.25/gal.), even filling up your Mini would set you back $80.

Of course, it's not only the absolute fuel price that counts, but the magnitude and rate of its recent change. A big part of our problem is that most Americans are still driving cars that were purchased when gasoline was under $1.50/gal., to commute between work and home locations that were chosen when fuel was even cheaper. As of this week, nominal US retail gasoline prices have gone up by 25% in the last year and by 130% in the last five years. How does that compare to other countries? Well, motorists in the UK are experiencing prices that are now 25% higher than the average of last year, and 42% higher than five years ago, but gas hasn't been cheap in Europe for more than a generation. Buffered by the strong Euro, gasoline in Germany has increased by a smaller percentage, 19% vs. the 2007 average and 29% over five years.

Although proportional fuel-price increases have thus been smaller in Europe than here, the high absolute price level is still causing serious discomfort and prompting calls for governments to act, particularly by reducing fuel taxes. Consider that while it accounts for more than 70% of the US retail gasoline price, crude oil makes up less than a third of the gas price in Germany. Because most of the difference is attributable to taxes, the scope for reducing the retail price via tax relief is enormously greater than here. A member of the German coalition government has suggested instituting a cap on gasoline, diesel and heating oil prices, adjusting the tax rate periodically to hold prices steady. Other proposals include rolling back the 3% increase in the value-added tax that kicked in on 1/1/07, which at current prices is worth as much as the entire US federal fuel excise tax that Senators McCain and Clinton wish to suspend this summer. The arguments against lower German gas taxes are similar to those economists have raised here: fuel supplies will tighten even further, and government revenues will fall.

It's small comfort, but high gasoline prices are a global phenomenon, unless you live in a major oil exporting country, such as Kuwait or Venezuela. Consumers in Europe are no happier about this than we are. But instead of waiting for our governments to decide whether higher fuel prices or lower tax receipts are more harmful to the economy, we could follow the advice on fuel conservation from the Alliance to Save Energy. As reported in yesterday's Wall St. Journal, a combination of six strategies could save the average household up to $600 per year, or at least 20 times the expected benefit from a summer gas tax holiday. And instead of protesting in Washington, truckers might achieve more by posting "Slow Down" signs on our highways. Even the airlines are reducing aircraft speeds to save fuel.

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