Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke confirmed yesterday what most of us already knew: Gas prices are rising. It isn't bad yet, but just wait.
"The most likely outcome is that the recent rise in commodity prices will lead to, at most, a temporary and relatively modest increase in U.S. consumer price inflation," he said. "That said, sustained rises in the prices of oil and other commodities would represent a threat both to economic growth and to overall price stability."
It's easy to show how right he could be on that last part. Nationwide, gas prices are now $3.39 per gallon, up from $2.67 a year ago -- a difference of $0.72 a gallon. In 2010, we drove enough to consume 138 billion gallons of gasoline. So right there, you're talking a $100 billion tax on consumers that wasn't around last year.
That isn't trivial. For comparison, the one-year payroll tax holiday passed in December will cut tax bills by $120 billion this year. Gasoline's increase, in other words, has almost entirely smothered that boost. Gone. Thanks for playing. Most economists upped their estimate of 2011 GDP growth based on the benefit this tax cut would provide. Watch for some to revisit those estimates soon.
Here's another way to think about this stuff:
Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, author's calculations.
The data for this chart only goes to January. The ratio is surely higher now, since oil has spiked in the past two weeks. But even before the recent spike, energy consumption as a percentage of consumer spending was above average and getting close to levels that previously became unsustainable and pushed the economy into trouble, if not recession.
The problem with spending more on energy is that so much of the benefit ends up abroad, in the pockets of oil-exporting nations. It's not like spending more on eating out, where local restaurants benefit. It's not like spending more on homes, where construction workers nationwide benefit. Higher oil prices help very few of us.
Shareholders of oil companies and oil energy trusts such as BP Prudhoe Bay Royalty Trust (NYSE: BPT ) will be enriched with higher dividends. Workers at Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) probably have more job security now. If you're a petroleum engineer, you're probably knee-deep in job offers. But for the other 99% of us, all we get from higher prices is gas-pump misery.
What now? As Bernanke says, that depends on whether gas's rise is temporary. Who knows? If oil's climb mostly owes to geopolitical woes, the big question isn't when the Libyan uprising ends; it's whether that uprising spreads to a really important oil-producing nation like Saudi Arabia. If oil prices are rising because of strong demand from emerging markets, that's pretty much outside of our control, too. The one thing the U.S. could do to ease oil pressure, tap the strategic oil reserve, was given a thumbs-down yesterday by Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
So we wait.
What's an investor to do? If you think oil prices are headed up from here on out, you could do worse than buying the major oil producers: ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , BP (NYSE: BP ) , and the rest of those guys. There's a good chance they'll roughly track whatever oil does. But my favorite way to capitalize on oil mayhem is a bet on market volatility. That way, you'll likely keep your profits if rising oil sends the economy into recession and markets into further chaos. You can do so by wagering on the VIX index or writing options, as my colleague Dan Caplinger explains here.
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