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VOL. 123 | NO. 249 | Monday, December 22, 2008

Falling Energy Prices Yet to Show Economic Return

By CHRIS KAHN | AP Energy Writer

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PHOENIX (AP) - Economists believe that American consumers as a whole pocket a billion dollars every time the price for a gallon of gas drops by a penny. Given that retail gas prices have dropped by $2.44 per gallon since July, there should be a lot of money flowing back into the economy.

But these are not normal times. Two million jobs have been lost since last December and as consumers fearful of more job cuts tuck what money they have under the mattress, so too does big American business.

OPEC, by the start of 2009, said this week it will remove a total of 4.2 million barrels of oil from the market each day, but the market hardly seemed to notice. Crude prices tumbled Thursday to levels last seen in June 2004.

"There isn't any money anymore," economist Philip Verleger said. The drop in the price of crude simply gives everyone "a modest offset to this horrible, horrible recession."

The nation's biggest industries, from airlines to retailers, have not been able to convince consumers to part with money they are not putting into the tank.

Airlines that were hammered as crude neared a record $150 per barrel over the summer have been able to cut fuel charges, but travel has still dropped by 9 percent compared with last year, according to the Air Transport Association.

There is no offer from airlines to drop baggage fees that went into effect as fuel prices soared. Carriers need to hold on to all the cash they can.

"Baggage check-in fees were going to happen anyway," said Ray Neidl, an analyst with Calyon Securities. "Why should someone travel light (and) subsidize someone who's taking their worldly possessions with them?"

Airlines are able to put up their planes as collateral for loans, but have slowed acquisitions of new aircraft to preserve capital.

Some analysts believe airlines will have to cut fares, however, if demand continues to weaken.

Falling energy prices are a mixed blessing for automakers, two of which are teetering close to bankruptcy.

Sales of trucks, the industry's big-ticket item, are up slightly as gas prices have come down.

"If there's one thing that Americans can be reliably counted on to do, it's buy big vehicles when gas gets cheap," said Aaron Bragman, auto analyst with IHS Global Insight. "It's what they've always done."

But vehicles expected to carry the industry in the future, the hybrids, are sitting longer and longer on dealer lots.

Toyota Motor Co.'s Prius, the top-selling hybrid on the market, saw its sales tumble 48 percent in November from last year, according to Autodata Corp. Honda Civic hybrid sales plunged 68 percent, Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury Mariner sales tumbled 53 percent and Nissan Altima hybrid volumes sank 70 percent.

"Paying several thousand extra dollars (for a hybrid) if you're not going to be saving so much in gas because gas is so cheap just doesn't make sense," Bragman said.

Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics, at Moody's economy.com, expects more rough months ahead no matter what happens to the price of energy.

"There's a litany of problems for consumers out there. They're far from offset by the few positives including gas prices." Hoyt said. "Wealth is falling like a stone. House prices are declining. The stock market's not going anywhere and it's way down from where it was. Credit is much more difficult to come by."

Those problems have shown up for retailers at what might now be an inexact term: the checkout line.

November was the worst month for retail sales since 1969. The lone exception was Wal-Mart, which beat Wall Street expectations. Company officials said falling gas prices may be bringing more people out to its stores.

Like the airlines, the chemicals industry should be a direct beneficiary of falling fuel prices.

That has not played out on the balance sheet, as consumers buy fewer and fewer products at the store.

Crude is a basic building block for thousands of products from Saran Wrap to polyester.

Even after raising prices on a wide range of products by at least 20 percent over the summer, twice, Dow Chemical Co. announced this month it was laying of 11 percent of its work force and closing 20 plants. It idled 180 more.

Chemical-maker DuPont, which also raised prices, was forced to cut 2,500 jobs, and warned it won't turn a profit in the fourth quarter.

Now, there are growing fears among energy industry experts that low crude prices will lead to very high energy prices.

Crude is getting more difficult to find every year, but as the recession expands across the globe and energy prices fall, major oil producers are pulling back spending.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC, for example, has postponed a near-doubling of production in Canada's oil sands – an operation that some analysts say requires oil to be above $70 a barrel to be economically feasible.

Many smaller producers with less excess capital have slashed spending plans for the coming year and beyond, and some are likely to be snapped up by bigger rivals.

Refiners are cutting back too.

Because of low refining margins, Valero Energy Corp., North America's largest refiner, has reduced gasoline production in the United States by about 30 percent this month.

On the investment side, ConocoPhillips and the state-run Saudi Arabian Oil Co. said last month they'd postponed construction of a multibillion-dollar refinery in Saudi Arabia. The project was in the construction-bidding process, and the two partners said they'll rebid it in the second quarter of 2009.

Yet the economy will eventually rebound, and the problem of hard-to-find oil will still be here.

"We're setting the table for another rebound" in prices, said oil analyst and trader Stephen Schork. "But I think we're at least a year away from that."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

PROPERTY SALES 81 201 16,108
MORTGAGES 40 104 10,026
BUILDING PERMITS 130 336 38,272
BANKRUPTCIES 28 56 7,528