The U.S. average retail price of retail grade gasoline was $3.5061 per gallon, up 32.70 cents since Feb. 18. It is the second-greatest rise in the history of the gasoline market, according to the most recent Lundberg Survey of approximately 2,500 U.S. gas stations. The greatest price hike was in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina damage upped the average price 38.44 cents between Aug. 26 and Sept. 9.
Both price hikes were caused by supply issues. But the biggest price change in history was not a hike and not supply-driven: In 2008 as the recession deepened and gasoline demand shriveled, the retail gasoline price plunged 52.87 cents between Oct. 10 and Oct. 24.
The current pump-price rise comes from crude-oil supply curtailment as OPEC-member Libya veers toward civil war and from reverberating oil prices among similar grades that must substitute, then rippling to the far edges of the world oil market.
On top of those physical effects, the risk premium–or fear factor–has increased as there are now 15 countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the majority of which are significant oil producers, in some degree of turmoil. It is unprecedented in modern history for 15 MENA nations to be having internal strife at one time, and this has contributed to the price of crude.
In this latest two-week period, U.S. refiners failed to pass through all their oil price hikes to their accounts. Their margin on gasoline has shrunk to a mere 18 cents based on U.K. Brent crude, currently a better indicator of price than our supply-glutted domestic WTI benchmark.
In the U.S. gasoline scene, supply is glutted and refiners are sitting on unwanted refining capacity. Retail margin regained only a small fraction of earlier loss in these two weeks, as they did not fully pass through wholesale gasoline price hikes. Some retail margins are negative. Atlanta is an example of razor-thin, unsustainably small margin: In the past two weeks, wholesale prices weighted by buyer channel increased more than 37 cents on average while retail prices increased less than 32 cents–resulting in a margin of 0.16 cents on March 4.
American gasoline retailers, already suffering a margin barely over 8 cents, also face the likelihood of zero U.S. gasoline demand growth if prices do not retreat soon.
The current retail price is still 61 cents below the July 11, 2008, all-time high. It would take another $26 per barrel of crude to match that milestone. Even if oil prices do not rise further from here, U.S. consumers may see another 5-10 cents on the street very quickly as refiners and retailers must seek some margin recovery.
Camarillo, Calif.-based Lundberg Survey Inc. is an independent market research company specializing in the U.S. petroleum marketing and related industries.