Economic Outlook: Gas prices mean what?

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  March 1, 2012 at 9:55 AM
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A day after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned gas prices would slow spending, two reports indicated the U.S. recovery was still crawling forward.

To be fair, Bernanke was talking about future spending.

In testimony before the House Finance Committee Wednesday, Bernanke said gasoline prices "have moved up, primarily reflecting higher global oil prices -- a development that is likely to push up inflation temporarily while reducing consumers' purchasing power."

Of course, spending more on gasoline is considered to be a reduction in purchasing power. Would it be considered beneficial if the dollars spent at the gas pump benefited the United States, instead of oil exporting nations?

This hints at why White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that President Obama considered it an insult to the intelligence of the gas-buying public to promise a certain price at the pump -- not to put too fine a point on it, to pledge in the heat of an election campaign that prices would fall.

There are too many variables -- from demand by emerging economies to tensions in the Middle East sparked, in part, by international sanctions against Iran affect crude oil prices -- to lend credence to such campaign promises.

Moreover, it is commonly taken to mean that spending on necessities, such as food, housing and gasoline, is a drag on one's bank account and the economy, while spending on bass boats and trips to Disneyland is beneficial to one and all. It's like the weatherman saying it's a nice day because the sun is shining. Meanwhile, there's a farmer somewhere sitting high and dry, begging for rain.

Gasoline to drive to work is a necessity. Gasoline to get to the Grand Canyon is discretionary. Guess what oil-exporting countries think about that? Bottom line: They don't really care either way.

Perhaps, this explains Carney's remarks that specific prices at the pump are not the goal, but energy independence and security is.

Someone is looking at the big picture.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said Thursday that personal incomes rose 0.3 percent from December to January, while spending rose 0.2 percent, both figures in line with expectations.

The numbers on spending don't represent a surge given December's spending growth was flat -- a 0.1 percent average over two months. Incomes, however, rose 0.5 percent in December. At the same time, personal savings, which absorbs the difference, was 4.6 percent in January, down from 4.7 percent in December.

Disposable income rose 0.1 percent in January, dropping from the 0.4 percent growth in December.

From where does spending arise?

The Labor Department said Thursday that seasonally adjusted initial jobless claims came in at 351,000 for the week ending Feb. 25, a decrease of 2,000 from the previous week.

The 4-week moving average was 354,000, a decrease of 5,500 from the previous week's revised average of 359,500, the Department said.

First-time benefit claims are now reaching figures not seen since 2008. Coincidence? The Dow Jones industrial average closed above 13,000 on Tuesday for the first time since May 2008 and the Nasdaq index Wednesday breached 3,000 for the first time since 2000.

On international markets Thursday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan dropped 0.16 percent, while the Shanghai composite index in China lost 0.1 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong dropped 1.35 percent, while the Sensex in India fell 0.95 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia gave up 1 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain added 0.76 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany rose 0.86 percent. The CAC 40 in France gained 0.99 percent, while the Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.86 percent.

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