Stable gasoline prices over the last two months have shielded U.S. consumers from the impact of galloping crude oil prices, but drivers will face more pain at the pump if the cost of crude remains high into next spring.
Retail gasoline prices have held in a tight range around $2.80 a gallon nationwide over the past two months amid a normal seasonal slowdown in road travel, even as the cost of crude oil has surged about 14 percent over the same period to a record over $85 a barrel.
The stability in gasoline prices prompted U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman last week to describe the U.S. economy as remarkably resilient in the face of surging oil prices.
But analysts expect gasoline prices could rise to a never-before-seen $3.50 or $4 a gallon if oil prices hold near current levels into next spring when drivers hit the roads in greater numbers. That could further strain consumers already facing a housing slowdown.
Thus far we've been relatively insulated from the effect of higher crude prices by the narrowing of spreads (between crude oil and) refined products, said Richard DeKaser, chief economist at National City Corp in Cleveland, Ohio.
If those spreads revert to normal and crude oil prices remain high there is going to be a definite retail impact.
As of Friday, crude oil futures (CLc1: Quote, Profile, Research) were up by over 14 percent since August 15, driven higher by expectations of tighter supplies in the winter amid ongoing production restraint by OPEC. However gasoline futures (RBc1: Quote, Profile, Research) have lagged crude oil, rising only 3.8 percent over the same period.
As a result, the spread between gasoline and crude oil has shrunk to $3.88 per barrel as of Friday, compared with over $20 for much of last summer and a peak $37.76 per barrel in mid-May -- when extensive refinery outages cut deeply into U.S. fuel inventories.
The potential surge in gasoline prices at the end of winter would come at a time when U.S. consumers are already facing a declining housing market in many parts of the country.
Higher energy prices probably will cut further into discretionary spending, even if energy prices have yet to gobble up as big a proportion of household budgets as they did in the 1970s energy crisis.
We cannot escape the reality that $80 oil induces consumers to practice energy conservation (and) modestly curtails ex-energy consumer spending, wrote energy analysts at Raymond James in a research note on Monday.
U.S. gasoline stocks are more than 22 million barrels, or about 10 percent, lower than they were at the same time last year, according to U.S. government data.
The current weakness in gasoline prices relative to crude has prompted leading U.S. refiners including Valero, Marathon Oil and Chevron to warn investors that their profits will fall in the third quarter.
But analysts expect gasoline prices will rebound. Average retail gasoline prices could surpass $3.50 per gallon next summer if crude oil prices hold at their current levels.
If we go though another spring and summer where U.S. refineries have trouble operating above 90 percent of capacity, I think we will finally see $4 gasoline in some places, said Stephen Schork, publisher of the Schork report, an energy futures newsletter.
SAVED BY A CORRECTION?
The one hope for drivers could be a correction in the oil market, which some analysts believe is becoming overvalued. Speculative investors have been buying crude oil and other commodities as a hedge against inflation and the declining value of the U.S. dollar.
A lot of this market is dependent on what happens this winter and where supplies are when we come out of it, said Eric Wittenauer of A.G. Edwards in St Louis.
If the winter is warm as it has been forecast, we could see a correction.
However any correction is likely to be limited by the rising cost of producing oil in non-OPEC countries and continued strong demand for crude oil.
OPEC itself raised its forecast for demand for its oil this winter on Monday, citing the resilience of the world economy despite the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States.