By March 16, retail gas prices were up 16.94% YTD. This major climb is leading some economists to wonder if the leap in gas prices is powerful enough to stall our economic momentum.1
In February, energy costs rose 6% for the American consumer. Gasoline prices accounted for 100% of that gain. In fact, gasoline prices were behind 80% of the overall 0.4% rise in the Consumer Price Index for February, meaning that last month brought the most consumer inflation of any month since April.1,2
We’ve seen $4 gas. What if $5 gas becomes common? If that happens during the summer driving season, the Federal Reserve may find itself weighing which move to make. Higher energy costs could hurt the broad economy, and if that happened, you would almost certainly hear clamor for some kind of stimulus. On the other hand, if Wall Street and Main Street both fret that inflation is rising, the Fed would hardly want to ease.
How do these price hikes affect consumer psychology? One possible consequence of all this is that Main Street may be projecting greater inflationary pressures than really exist. In the University of Michigan’s mid-March consumer sentiment survey, the consensus one-year inflation expectation among respondents was 4.0%. Yet in February, actual yearly consumer inflation was just 2.9%.1,3
Consumer expectations can have powerful influence. If consumers think inflation is rising, they may be inclined to ask employers for raises. The stores where they shop may try to take advantage of their perception by subtly raising prices. The assumption of inflation can actually have the power to foster inflation.
The Fed thinks the increase is temporary. If prices get too high, a point will come when demand for gas will lessen – and correspondingly, prices could decrease. On March 16, a gallon of regular unleaded was averaging $3.83 nationally – prices had risen $.08 in a week and about 9% in a month. Still, the Federal Reserve sees this wave of $4 retail gas as another short-term price fluctuation, ultimately unsustainable when drivers throw in the towel regardless of lingering worries over Iran’s budding nuclear program and oil supply concerns.4,5
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1 - money.msn.com/market-news/post.aspx?post=7b65a645-53f2-4b26-8b37-7c9c88448197 [3/16/12]
2 - www.usatoday.com/money/economy/story/2012-03-16/February-inflation-consumer-price-index/53561880/1 [3/16/12]
3 – www.forexlive.com/blog/2012/03/16/univ-of-mich-prelim-mar-consumer-sentiment-74-3-vs-75-3-feb/ [3/16/12]
4 – www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-gas-inflation-20120316,0,528931.story [3/16/12]
5 – www.cnbc.com/id/46760636 [3/16/12]