Consumers are in charge

It must have come as a shock to most American consumers that gas prices jumped 15 cents a gallon within a 10-day period. To some it may appear that the “gift” of lower prices was about to reverse. There were noises about the Federal Reserve starting to raise interest rates sooner than previously thought as more than 1 million new jobs were added to the economy over the last three months, wage increases for January amounted to 2.2 percent while inflation for 2014 only increased by merely 0.8 percent. Almost makes you believe that the trend has reversed, energy prices will rise, wages will grow as economic activity increases and borrowing rates will go up. It’s called a “head fake.” So long as the collective judgment of consumers remains steady or subdued, it will continue to force adjustments in the income inequality dynamic. Rational consumers can force significant economic adjustments.

{mosads}If you think about winners and losers over the course of the downturn in oil prices, who won and who lost? The prolonged price decline in gasoline adds an additional $750 a year to consumer income. If you heat your home with oil, natural gas or propane, you can almost double that number. The losers have been oil companies, more particularly shale oil industry operators who immediately released 14,000 workers and are expected to lay off as many as 100,000 if the prices remain low. The stock market was also impacted with a 3 percent decline in the month of January.

The dollar gained strength because the U.S. economy is growing while Europe and Japan stagnate; China, India and Brazil slow down; and Russia heads into an economic abyss. A stronger dollar places added pressure on these economies because oil is paid for in dollars and American exporters get nervous as their goods are more expensive when the foreign exchange rates are taken into account.

Without seeming too cavalier about long-term implications, the U.S. economic expansion will continue at rates that are equal to or greater than the 2.4 percent growth experienced last year. The U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts U.S. growth rates for 2015 to increase to 2.5 percent and 2.4 percent in 2016. The driving force behind this growth rate are the record profits of American corporations and now this imbedded growth driven by low inflation, lower energy prices and pressure on wages.

While policymakers will try and tell you that consumers should play their lemming-like role of happily blowing their increased disposable income on cheeseburgers and beer, changing buying habits to pickup trucks and SUVs over energy efficient cars and trucks and jumping back into the housing market, this time it is different. It appears to be gradually sinking into American workers’ mindsets that not only have their incomes stagnated for decades while wealthy elites benefitted disproportionately, but it also seems to be the case that they understand there will be no income inequality corrections from their political representatives and their employers have little or no beneficence in their hearts.

Consumers could be their own worst enemy in these circumstances. Should they immediately flush that $750 to $1,500 of annual energy savings back into the market, it will stimulate growth, allow price hikes, have no impact on exploitative employer behavior and less and less response from campaign-financed politicians.

So far, consumers have exhibited magnificent restraint. Energy savings have gone primarily to savings accounts, reduction of consumer debt and subdued purchasing. Continued restraint will not hurt the economy. The inertia of current growth rates will bring with it continued hiring of workers. Unemployment under 6 percent gives leverage for workers to seek full-time or higher-paying jobs. Moderate growth places pressure on corporate profit margins and allows for continued public outcry at the egregious levels of executive pay. Consumers don’t have to spend more to make this happen.

How can there be this level of confidence? How can it be that a 7 percent increase in gas prices is not the beginning of more to come? How can one feel that interest rates won’t go higher? As sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.”

Prices for oil have come with forecasts all over the place. The current range is $20 per barrel (the price is just under $53 as of this writing) to $200. Clearly, no one has a clue. However, world oil production is currently outstripping oil demand by 700,000 barrels per day and this is expected to rise to over 800,000 as the year proceeds. Even more importantly, the excess production has to go somewhere and while there is plenty of oil storage capacity around the world, those tanks and tankers are filling up, placing more pressure on prices. So, despite all the noise about layoffs in the oil patch, with all the economic troubles around the world it is a pretty safe bet that prices are not going up anytime soon.

Similarly, with an inflation rate logging in at less than 1 percent for 2015, the Federal Reserve should be close to panic that deflation will set in. This sentiment is only reinforced by consumers who are saving their energy windfall because that is precisely what happens in a deflationary economy: people postpone purchases, which drives prices lower. How do you raise interest rates when housing is lagging and consumer spending remains steady? Answer: you don’t.

Consumers have witnessed moderate economic growth for five years. Since wage growth has been nonexistent, their buying habits have adjusted enough to continue to feed moderate growth without cashing in their “energy windfall.” What is also emerging is a visceral understanding of just how much their political institutions have become enablers of worker exploitation and just how venal corporate practices have impacted their lives. Since there are no institutional remedies for the average American worker, the battle has to be in the economy, using their collective purchasing power to rebalance the equation.

The complexity of events may allow for some to be fooled by the “head fake” of the past two weeks but if most are not, a steady-as-she-goes consumer spending pattern will result in significant benefits.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.

Tags disposable income gas prices Income Equality savings

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