Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gasoline Above $3.20 Per Gallon

According to the AAA, the national average price for a gallon of gasoline broke through $3.20 per gallon. This is an all-time high even on an inflation-adjusted basis.

I have been interviewed on MSNBC at least a half dozen times in recent weeks about rising gasoline prices. I have to admit, I am surprised by the extent of this increase. I thought we might see about $3.10 or so, then slide back down. The fact that we're still going up tells me that drivers don't yet feel the pain. Demand for gasoline is actually rising despite the higher prices. Prices will keep rising until drivers start making adjustments. For example, if they are convinced that high prices are here to stay, they will consider buying more fuel-efficient cars. But as long they are willing to drive SUVs, and long as demand for gasoline goes up, that tells me prices are not too high.

What about supply? Some say refiners need to produce more gasoline. Perhaps they could have done a better job maintaining refineries and making the seasonal switch to summer blends, but they are not likely to invest in more capacity. If you were a refiner would you be keen to invest $2 billion or so and several years building a new refinery when you know you will have to battle regulators and environmentalists? Furthermore, you see that our government is promoting and subsidizing alternative fuels such as ethanol. After investing all that time and money to build a new refinery, you might find there is too much gasoline on the market and not enough demand. Before you know it, gasoline prices may go much lower and your investment will provide no payback.

In the short term, our best hope for more supply is imports. As a result, we will become dependent on foreign gasoline as well as foreign oil. The alternative is to get serious about cutting demand. The best way to do this is to put a high floor on gasoline prices. However, just about all politicians are looking to do the opposite. They want to find ways to decrease price rather than increase it.

Nonetheless, it looks like consumers will have to adjust to higher prices whether they like it or not. The long-predicted effect on consumer spending may finally materialize. Companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods that sell overpriced and unnecessary goods might find that growth will slow. These two stocks have already fallen well off their highs. Chances are they will go lower still.