Since peaking at the end of July 2008 at $4.11, then collapsing to $1.65 that December, Gasoline prices have been on a wild ride. Since rallying back to almost $4 in May 2011, gas prices have been range-bound, gradually drifting lower.
There are a few factors driving this: Total miles driven has not recovered from its November 2007 highs. It is off almost 3 percent from its highs of more than 5 trillion vehicle miles driven annually. Persistently elevated unemployment of 7.3 percent means there are that many fewer people driving to work. And the pre-collapse shift to the exurbs -- and their much longer commutes -- suggests the trend toward ever-longer commutes may have topped out.
To put gasoline prices into the starkest relief, consider adjusting total U.S. miles traveled on a per capita basis. The chart above, via Doug Short, reveals that per capita miles driven peaked in June 2005. They have since fallen almost 9 percent. The last time we saw average annual mileage at these levels was back in 1995.
No wonder gasoline prices have been falling. At present, gasoline prices are below $3 in six states. If demand continues to drop off, we may soon see an average U.S. price of under $3.
While some analysts are applauding what this means for consumer spending, I am much more concerned with the demand side of the equation. The economy remains filled with soft spots and pockets of weakness.
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Barry L Ritholtz at firstname.lastname@example.org