Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Persistence of Change

Weakening demand appears to be the main oil market driver these days, with the US having just tallied its 12th consecutive monthly decline in gasoline demand, year-on-year. For the moment, at least, good old supply and demand have displaced imminent Peak Oil and a perceived commodity bubble as the dominant narrative. If we needed further evidence of that, the market's collective yawn at Russia's threat to the Caspian pipelines passing through Georgia ought to serve nicely. But how much of the recent decline in consumption is attributable to the price elasticity of demand, and how much to the weakening US economy? The answer is of more than passing interest, signifying whether we're likely to see a bounce in demand once the pump price catches up with the 20% decline in the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil since the 4th of July.

The US average retail gasoline price has fallen for six weeks and currently stands at $3.74 per gallon. Barring an unexpected oil-price rally or a major refining problem, unleaded regular prices beginning with a "4" should soon disappear at all but the most expensive stations, even in California. Perhaps this is just a case of the August doldrums, but the price of oil is currently stuck in a range that defies the principal explanations for its behavior earlier this year. With the market clearly responding to fundamentals, its path from here will depend heavily on whether consumers continue to drive less, and that depends on the relative importance of the psychological impact of $4 gasoline, compared to a broad range of economic factors including falling home prices, tightening credit and surging inflation--some of which is attributable to high fuel prices.

The last stretch in which US gasoline demand declined for 12 consecutive months occurred in 1990-91, a period that also coincided with a spike in fuel prices--thanks to Saddam Hussein--and a recession. The Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, which gave the country its first taste of $3 gasoline, caused only a brief drop in demand. Within 3 months of Katrina's landfall monthly US gasoline demand had resumed its year-on-year growth, consistent with the robust economic growth (helped by the housing bubble) that we were experiencing at the time. Nor did the recession of 2000-2001 prevent gasoline demand from growing by 1.6%, with only a few months exhibiting declines versus the same month of the previous year. Of course, gasoline was well under $2 at the time.

It seems to require an unusual combination of low growth and high prices to overcome the inherent gasoline demand trend of the US economy and shock consumers into conservation mode. Since the economy seems unlikely to recover soon, the persistence of the recent changes in consumer behavior concerning fuel consumption and new car selection thus hinges on just how cheap $3.50 gas will seem to America's drivers after a couple of months over $4.00 per gallon. In the absence of more dramatic events, this could also determine the price of oil on Election Day, a parameter that could influence that contest's outcome.

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