What Gas Prices and Sales Tell Us About the Economy

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Note from dshort: After posting my weekly update on gasoline prices, a reader requested that I include sales data as well and pointed me to a source on the EIA website (thanks, Robert!). I've now created a new chart series that I'll update on a monthly basis when the latest sales numbers are released.

What is the relationship between retail gasoline prices and the volume of gasoline sales? The first chart below shows the monthly data for U.S. Prime Supplier Sales Volumes, courtesy of the Depart of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA). The numbers are updated monthly with about a two month lag. The numbers are highly volatile and have a distinct seasonality, so I've added a 12-month moving average (MA) to facilitate our analysis.

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The next chart includes an overlay of monthly retail gasoline prices, all grades and formulations. The retail prices are updated weekly, so the price series is the more current of the two.

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As we would expect, the rapid rise in gasoline prices in 2008 was accompanied by a significant drop in sales volume. With the official end of the recession in June 2009, sales reversed direction ... slightly. But the 12-month MA of volume for the latest month (January 2011) is still about 10.3% below the pre-recession level. The dramatic rise in gasoline prices since last September has yet to be seen in sales volumes because of the 2-month lag. But the average of daily sales for January 2011 was the lowest January number in a decade.

The next chart adjusts the 12-month MA of sales volume for population growth based on the monthly Civilian Non-Institutional Population data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, via the St. Louis (FRED repository. What we see here is that gasoline sales volume, on a per-capita basis, peaked in September 2009. In fact, our per-capita consumption of gasoline is slightly lower than it was at the end of the Great Recession.

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What does this analysis suggest about the state of the economy? From an official standpoint, the Great Recession ended 22 months ago. But if we want confirmation that the economy is in recovery, gasoline sales is the wrong place to look.

Note: My next update will be posted on April 21, 2011.