Sunday, June 5, 2022

American consumers are driving less and gas is still plentiful. So why are prices still rising?

I don't think anyone can ignore what's been going on with the price of gas, with pump prices exceeding up 50-60 cents in the last week in Wisconsin, and exceeding $5 a gallon in some areas of the state. So I wanted to see if the long-rumored concerns about a shortage of gasoline were actually happening, especially after a high-travel Holiday weekend.

The answer is not just no, but that Americans are already adjusting to the higher prices of gasoline and not using as much of it.
Current U.S. gasoline consumption levels are running 3% lower than a year ago and have been declining at a 3-5% clip the past seven weeks, according to researchers at DataTrek (chart below). DataTrek noted that these declines were not the case prior to April 2022, suggesting that pain at the pump is affecting consumer behavior.

"Given that commuting is the single most common reason Americans drive, we would have thought gas consumption would still be showing positive comps to last year," DataTrek writes. "Office occupancy was barely 20% at this point last year and is double that now (43%). Lower gasoline consumption is therefore a troubling sign about overall consumer spending patterns."
I take issue with that last assertion, as overall consumer spending patterns have largely remained strong, as evidenced by the 1.3% increase in non-gasoline retail sales in April.

But I do note this graphic that accompanies the article, which shows that gasoline consumption now trails the amount that we had this time last year, after the majority of Americans were able to be vaccinated and many COVID restrictions were being removed.

The US Energy Information Administration also released their information on gasoline usage and availability for the Memorial Day weekend (at least through that Saturday), and it shows that not only is US gasoline usage below last year's levels, outside of 2020's COVID-related shutdowns, last weekend used the least gasoline than any Memorial Day weekend had since 2014.

In addition, we're not really seeing that much of a supply constraint in this country yet, as the amount of available gasoline is no different than we saw in 2016 and 2017, and is more plentiful than we had in most of recent years prior to the COVID era.

And yet the price of oil and gasoline continues to rise in this country. "World price, Jake. It's tighter elsewhere so it's not just what's going on here."' I get that. But I also get that US oil productionwas less than 2% below 2019's record levels as of March, and is projected to exceed 2019's records next year. There is no reason those oil supplies couldn't be diverted to American use, and combined with the lower demand, gasoline prices should decline in this country.

While I get the concept of "world prices and world markets", maybe it's well past time for "America first" mentality to take over on this issues. This can include export quotas, an end to oil subsidies in a time of elevated prices, and a windfall profits tax for excessive margins and prices that are out of whack with the level of this country's supply and demand. I wouldn't even expect some of these proposals to actually have to be enforced, because I strongly suspect this rise in oil and gas prices is a gouge job where traders and oil companies are taking advantage of the "uncertainties" over supplies in other parts of the world to jack up prices (and profits) of the widely-available product in the states.

But the Biden Administration and other DC Dems need to be pushing on this. The White House can announce enforcement actions without allowing a crooked Congress to bury measures, which would prevent Americans from continuing to pay more than they should at the pump.

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