So everyone in the world is worried about high gas prices. Or not. Because they really matter. Or not.
That sums up the current razor-sharp state of thinking about the recent rise of gasoline prices to $3.65 a gallon nationally, with $4 a gallon probably coming soon to a gas pump near you. Crude oil at last check was up to $109 a barrel on the Nymex at lunchtime on Friday.
Let's start with economists. They don't much care about gas prices, apparently.
Barclays Capital economist Peter Newland today wrote that the climb in prices has been gentle enough to let consumers adjust to it:
"The effect on growth of a rise in energy prices depends importantly on the abruptness of the increase," he told clients. "We found that, given a gradual and temporary rise, consumers are able to adjust saving patterns to smooth consumption, minimising the impact."
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Economists at Capital Economics, who have been fairly bearish on the global economy this year, say this is not the recession trigger they're looking for. They point out that U.S. gasoline prices are closely correlated to Brent crude prices in London, not the Nymex crude oil prices we're used to seeing. Those Brent crude prices are at an even-scarier $125 a barrel -- and yet that is only consistent, historically speaking, with U.S. gas prices of less than $4 a gallon:
"The recent $15 a barrel rise in the price of Brent crude oil, to just over $125, represents a relatively modest increase," they wrote in a note to clients. "The price of crude oil is still slightly below where it was at this time last year and, even allowing for a modest rise, retail gasoline prices can be expected to remain well below the $4.00 a gallon mark."
Four dollars a gallon is at least a psychological barrier, at which the national panic level about higher gas prices shifts into higher gear. If we don't get there, we will have less of a freakout.
Several other economists told Reuters on Thursday that the surge in gas prices was still at low risk of causing a national panic, pointing out this year's gain hasn't been nearly as fast as last year's, and that this year's gain has been offset by collapsing natural-gas prices and a warm winter.
Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider wrote that, based on a look at Google searches for "gas prices," people aren't all that worried about gas prices. Maybe the relatively slow climb in prices could help explain that.
Weisenthal also claims that any concern about gas prices is all so much media hype. That's a weaker case.
People are at least keeping a wary eye on the price of gas -- even if they're not all holding prayer vigils over it. For a lot of consumers without access to mass transit, higher gas prices are imminently noticeable. And they're a sort of tax: You've got to pay for gasoline in order to go to work. You don't have to pay for that night out at the movies. If gas prices go high enough, you'll have to choose between the two.
"Rising gasoline prices tend to curb spending on discretionary service items like dining out, entertainment and consumer electronics, which given the weak pace of spending does not bode well for growth this quarter," Bloomberg economist Richard Yamarone wrote today, (via Barry Ritholtz.)
President Obama felt concerned enough about gas prices to talk extensively about them yesterday, and Republicans apparently feel they can use this as a weapon against him in the election.
For now, the economists seem to have the better side of this argument, God help us all. Gas prices really haven't risen that quickly -- yet -- and the economy seems to be better cushioned to handle the blow than it was a year ago.
Pricier gas does not seem to have dented consumer moods yet. The University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index for February ticked up to 75.3 from 75 in January, the highest in a year.
Maybe that sentiment index would be higher if not for the rise in gas prices, but consumers for now have enough other good stuff happening -- slightly better job market, slightly higher stock prices -- to help ease their pain.
"The recent news on the jobs front is cause for some hope that the future will look brighter, but as gasoline prices rise consumer confidence takes a beating," warned Chris Christopher, economist at IHS Global Insight.