US gasoline prices are setting records for this time of the year, with the current price apparently the highest ever for February, at least in nominal dollars. In fact, the monthly average US retail price for unleaded regular has set new records every month since last October. That isn’t quite as dramatic as it might seem, because based on the Department of Energy’s data, the previous records for those months were set just a year earlier. Yet it’s still a significant drag on the economy–an anti-stimulus, as I’ve noted previously. Unfortunately, some of the explanations I’ve seen for these price levels, including the ones offered in last night’s CBS Evening News, focus too much on minor factors such as refinery maintenance and commodity speculation, while ignoring the most basic influence: the price of oil. That’s understandable if they’re watching the wrong oil price.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know why the most-watched oil price in America, the one for West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI), is no longer representative of the broader US oil market, at least for now. The best domestic grade to follow at the moment is probably Louisiana Light Sweet (LLS), which is of similar quality to WTI but not subject to the persistent transportation bottleneck at Cushing, OK. It tracks closely to UK Brent crude, which has largely taken over the role of global oil price indicator. The “spot” price of LLS was $119 per barrel today, accounting for 94% of the price of prompt gasoline futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) today. And the $16/bbl increase in LLS since February 9, 2011 explains nearly 80% of the increase in the wholesale gasoline price over that interval. So while refinery outages might be having some impact, particularly in the local and regional markets served by the affected facilities, they are not the main show, nor is speculation in gasoline futures, the effect of which beyond the New York area covered by the NYMEX contract should be rather attenuated.
So with gas prices this high, this early in the year, how high might they be when the summer driving season arrives? That also comes down to crude oil, prompting questions about why oil prices are so high today, despite relatively weak demand. Many analysts attribute oil’s strength to worries about Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz as the sanctions noose tightens, along with rumors that Israel may be preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear sites on its own this spring. But as with any such risks, they will either manifest or they won’t, and the more time that goes by without these feared events occurring, the less influence they are likely to have in propping up oil markets, absent a surge in underlying demand due to a strengthening global economy. If none of that takes place, then oil prices could ease, resulting in summer gas prices not much worse than what we see today. However, I’d be wary of reversing that logic: Keeping gas prices low is not a sufficient reason to back away from addressing the risks posed by what the International Atomic Energy Agency refers to as the “military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.