$3 gas: America's braking point

After shrugging off high prices for years, American drivers are finally starting to cut back. Is it a sign of shifting habits, or looming recession?

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By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

With gasoline staying near $3 a gallon for several months, demand has begun to drop.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Gasoline demand has fallen for the first time in years as drivers appear to recoil from near-record prices, throwing doubt on America's seemingly insatiable thirst for fuel.

Growth in gasoline demand has been slowing all year. In five of the last seven weeks, the amount of gas that Americans consume has actually fallen compared to the same time last year, according to retail sales data gathered by MasterCard SpendingPulse, a research report that tracks gasoline sales using MasterCard, other credit cards and cash purchases at approximately 140,000 service stations around the country.

"With prices over $3 a gallon, there seems to be some real resistance from the consumer," said Michael McNamara, director of research for MasterCard SpendingPulse.

In some weeks demand has fallen by as much as 3 percent.

Although the public has seen $3 gasoline before, 2007 has been different. Where previous price spikes were short-lived, this one seems to be here to stay.

Another reason demand is falling could be due to a slowing economy, or even fears of a recession.

Since topping $3 back in April, gasoline has stayed consistently high, with the nationwide weekly average price never dropping below $2.70 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration. For 19 of the last 33 weeks, gasoline has averaged over $3 a gallon.

The first time in recent memory that gasoline prices hit $3 was September 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, and then once again in the summer of 2006. (Gasoline prices were also over $3 in the early 1980s, adjusted for inflation.)

Analysts reported a slight drop in consumer demand growth following each of those spikes, but they where short lived. Gasoline eventually returned to the low $2 range and demand quickly resumed its normal rate of growth of around 1.5 percent per year.

For the last few months gasoline demand growth has been relatively flat, according to the EIA. This drop in demand is a main reason why gasoline prices didn't follow oil prices to a new all-time record last month.

"Gasoline demand does not usually fall," said Geoff Sundstrom, a gasoline price analyst at the motorist organization AAA. "It could be the start of a trend."

Gasoline is one of those items that some economists consider "inelastic," that is, people will buy it no matter what the cost. But the recent drop in demand puts that into question, and suggest people will cut out unnecessary trips if they are too expensive.

"There is some level of [gasoline] buying that has to occur, people have to get to work," said McNamara. "But not every trip is non-discretionary."

Indeed, gas demand for the most recent week jumped over 3 percent, but McNamara said wide swings around the holidays are common as people visit family and go shopping.

Sundstrom said they have seen fewer sales of pick-up trucks and large SUVs since gasoline crossed the $3 mark back in 2005, and more sales of so-called "cross-over" SUVs, which are a mix between a car and a traditional SUVs.

That could mean people are buying more fuel efficient vehicles, which is beginning to show up in the demand numbers. But McNamara noted gasoline demand was strong when prices fell from $3 a gallon in 2005 and 2006.

Sundstrom noted that other times when demand has fallen - like after Sept. 11, 2001, from 1980 to 1981, and from 1974 to 1975 - coincided with recessions.

But he pointed out the U.S. economy is much less energy intensive than it was in the 70s and 80s, meaning a drop in energy use may no longer signal a looming recession.

Economists also weren't ready to call the recent drop in demand a death blow for the economy.

"I think its more an indication of how we're using gasoline than a recession story," said Jim Glassman, a senior economist at J.P. Morgan.

[Demand] has been weak for months," said Chris Lafakis, an associate economist at Moody's Economy.com, an economic consultancy, noting that the economy has continued to chug along, albeit at a slower pace. "This doesn't raise the specter of recession." To top of page

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