Gasoline Purchases Plummeting: Another Recession Indicator?

by: Steven Hansen

There are enough analysts believing the USA is in, or about to be in, a recession. These informed opinions need to be taken seriously as the economy remains so weakly expanding that only small movements in growth could produce the criteria of a recession.

Recession determinations are not as straight forward as most believe. I keep tripping back to the "strange" recession of 2001 where the BEA completely revised away negative GDP, and the start date of this recession (peak economic activity - if one uses some of the indicators the NBER normally uses to firmly affix the start date) - is in 1Q2000 (instead of 1Q2001).

Click to enlarge

No matter how much pundits spout (or the NBER rambles on their website) about the quantitative aspects of determining recessions, in the final analysis - it is simply an opinion based on moving data points.

I will not be badmouthing those who, based on their "opinion," have welcomed you to the Recession of 2012 even though I do not believe we are in a recession using current definitions. More importantly non-monetary real time measures (except container counts) are not recessing yet.

The past week several pundits have pointed to falling gasoline consumption as an indicator of a recession. Fuel consumption intuitively SHOULD be an important and real economic indicator as modern economies are based on energy. But alas, I have been frustrated in the past trying to correlate fuel consumption to the economy - and the Ceridian-UCLA Pulse of Commerce Index crashed and burned trying to correlate diesel to the economy.

The mistake we continue to make is believing the post Great Recession economy is similar to the economy of the 20th century. Fuel usage historically correlated well to economic activity - but no more.

To demonstrate the randomness of using gasoline consumption as an economic metric, look at the year-over-year data comparing miles driven versus gasoline consumed. There is just not a good correlation between car usage and gasoline sales.

click to enlarge image

Click to enlarge

The economy cannot be defined by a single metric - and fuel consumption is distorted by improving fuel consumption statistics, elasticity in demand due to price, and continuing new normal changes in consumer behavior.

My normal weekly economic analysis summary is in my instablog.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.