Retail gasoline prices tumbled Friday to the lowest level in nearly five years. And while crude futures rose, analysts believed it was a temporary pause in an extended, downward arc as the recession spreads.
"We're paying about a billion dollars per day less than we were in July" for gasoline, said Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "We could probably bail out some banks and maybe even some of the auto companies with the savings."
But cheap gas is bittersweet news for an economy that shed millions of jobs this year. Pump prices were driven down mostly because Americans are staying home more. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said the travel habits of Americans are "fundamentally changing" as drivers clocked 9 billion fewer miles in October, even as gas prices plunged.
Awful holiday retail sales, job uncertainty and shrinking global trade all suggest that demand for energy from both businesses and consumers will continue to fall into next year.
"By Tuesday or Wednesday, we could easily see crude oil roughly $3 below what it is right now," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates.
New evidence that OPEC members had cut production and a weaker dollar boosted crude prices Friday in light trading.
Light, sweet crude for February delivery rose $2.36, more than 6%, to close at $37.71 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Trading was closed Thursday for Christmas.
In London, February Brent crude rose $1.76 to settle at $38.45 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.
Tumbling crude prices have led to enormous declines in the price of retail gasoline.
At the pump, retail gas prices fell six-tenths of a penny overnight to a new national average of $1.642 a gallon Friday, well below the year-ago average of $2.981 a gallon, according to AAA and the Oil Price Information Service. The last time retail prices dipped this low was in February 2004, Kloza said.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for about 40% of global supply, has announced crude production cuts totaling more than 4 million barrels per day as it tries to stop the decline in prices. OPEC members, however, have a history of ignoring announced quotas and crude traders waited for concrete evidence that the 13-nation group was tightening the spigot.
Analysts pointed to a release from the United Arab Emirates advising clients that it would reduce supply almost immediately. The state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company said it would cut production of some grades of crude by as much as 15% next month.
"For now, at least Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seem to be fully complying with the cuts," said analyst Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland.
OPEC may meet again in Kuwait City on Jan. 19 to discuss further production cuts. The group's next official meeting is March 15 in Vienna.
Investors in recent months have ignored supply cuts from OPEC, with demand issues clearly driving the market. What's kept crude prices at four-year lows is the steady drumbeat of gloomy economic news that shows consumers aren't spending like they used to.
The latest comes from a preliminary report by MasterCard SpendingPulse, which said retail sales fell between 5.5% and 8% during the holiday season, compared with last year. Excluding auto and gas sales, they fell 2% to 4%, according to SpendingPulse.
SpendingPulse is a division of MasterCard Advisors that tracks total sales paid for by credit card, checks and cash.
Crude has given up 70% of its value since July, and this month alone it has fallen by more than $17 per barrel, a 30% decline.
Tom Kloza said he'll know that crude prices are poised for a sustained rebound when global demand matches last year's levels for several weeks in a row.
"Before you turn the corner, you need to get to the corner," Kloza said. "And right now we're seeing gasoline demand running about 3 to 5% behind year-ago levels.
Investors eyed more evidence that plummeting consumer demand from the U.S. and Europe is undermining growth in export-dependent Asia, as production at major Japanese manufacturers fell by its largest margin ever in November.
Japanese industrial production fell 8.1% in November from a month earlier, the largest drop since the government began measuring such data in 1953, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said Friday.
The decline followed a 3.1% drop in October, and the government expects another 8% plunge in December.
"These are pretty ugly figures that show the recession deepened in Japan," said Christoffer Moltke-Leth, head of sales trading for Saxo Capital Markets in Singapore. "I don't see any catalyst to bring crude higher. We'll likely test $30."
Many companies will likely report dismal earnings for the fourth quarter and may use the lowered expectations to include massive write-downs or one-time charges, Moltke-Leth said.
"I think a lot of CEOs want to put everything bad into the fourth quarter because the market expects it to be bad so why not put everything you can in there," he said. "There's going to be a lot of bad corporate news during the next few weeks, and that's going to reinforce the demand destruction theme for crude."
In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures rose 5.17 cents to settle at 88.4 cents a gallon. Heating oil gained 4.67 cents to settle at $1.245 a gallon while natural gas for January delivery fell 8.4 cents to settle at $5.826 per 1,000 cubic feet.