Americans spend majority of money saved at the petrol pump

By Sam Fleming

Financial Times, October 8, 2015 – Americans are spending the overwhelming majority of money saved at the petrol pump, according to research that clashes with survey evidence gauging the impact of the oil price slump.

New analysis of the spending patterns of 25m people shows that households spent about 80 percent of the windfall they received as a result of lower fuel prices — higher than suggested by some early government estimates.

The data from the JPMorgan Chase Institute suggests that the spending kick from lower gas prices has already been significant in a wide range of categories including dining out, entertainment and purchases of electronics and appliances — and that a rise in the price of oil could deliver a palpable blow to these areas.

“Consumers report that they are using their gains at the pump to pay down debts and save. Our data show they are spending most of them,” said the report, published on Thursday.

After oil prices started tumbling last year, some economists were perplexed by the tentative reaction of US consumers to the benefits they were seeing at filling stations. Some polling suggested that households were squirrelling away much of the windfall or using it to repay debt, confirming an impression of a US consumer that remains profoundly cautious some six years after the end of the recession.

The new research from the JPMorgan Chase Institute based on the debit and credit card spending of 25m individuals paints a different picture — and one that varies sharply depending on a person’s geographical area, age and income bracket.

The numbers show that for every dollar less spent at the petrol pump, individuals spent roughly 80 cents on other things, with nearly 20 percent of the savings going to restaurants, while 10 percent was spent on groceries. There were also significant gains in spending at department stores and on entertainment and electronics, the researchers found.

Given households have not been using the petrol windfall to build up a savings cushion, a sharp rise in energy costs could have a notable impact on their spending patterns. The report said: “A substantial increase in gas prices might proportionately dampen consumer spend in these categories, if the response to gas price increases is symmetrical with the response to gas price decreases.”

That said, the overall impact of the oil price drop on US households should not be overestimated, the numbers show. Petrol spending represents less than 5 percent of consumer spending, meaning other economic forces — such as wage patterns — far outweigh the benefits or otherwise of oil price movements. Recent consumer spending figures have been buoyant, with outlays expected to rise by more than 3 percent in the second half of the year.

However, the research shows that the impact of falling oil prices has very different effects on different categories of people. Individuals in the lowest income quintile received a significant fillip from the fall in petrol prices, receiving savings equivalent to 1.6 percent of monthly income, while middle income individuals saved just over 1 percent, according to the research. The top quintile saved more on petrol in absolute terms but the benefit was just 0.5 percent.

The impact of the windfall also varied by region and age. The report found that people living in the south and midwest, people under age 40, and lower income individuals experienced the largest boost to their purchasing power from a fall in petrol prices.

The east and west were found to be “lower impact states” because people use less petrol there. Among states, individuals in West Virginia spent most on petrol, while the District of Columbia saw the lowest spending.

The report concluded: “Recent gas price declines resulted in significantly more spending than previously understood, and that the gains in discretionary spending disproportionately accrue to low income individuals, to young people, and to states where people spend a lot on gas. This is good news for the US consumer as we anticipate sustained low gas prices through the rest of 2015.

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