COLUMBUS, Ohio – Oil prices hit four-year lows Friday as employers cut the highest number of jobs in 34 years. The continuing decline in prices is so dramatic and so sudden that it is raising the prospect that gas prices could soon fall below $1 a gallon.
The worst jobs data in 34 years on Friday just added more fuel to the deepening global recession as U.S. employers slashed a far worse-than-expected 533,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate rose to a 15-year high of 6.7 percent.
A gallon of gasoline can be had for 50 cents less than it cost just last month, and people are starting to talk about $1 gas.
Granted, gas prices are a long way off from that magic number last seen in March 1999 when prices were at 97 cents a gallon, according to motor club AAA. Prices at the pump fell 1.6 cents overnight to $1.773 nationally, according to AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express.
But consider what has happened since July 11 when a barrel of oil hit a record $147.27 and a gallon of gas was $4.117 on July 17. In less than five months, oil has fallen 72 percent.
Just this week, in which the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that the U.S. is in recession, oil has fallen 25 percent.
On Friday, light, sweet crude for January delivery settled at $40.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down by nearly $3 per barrel. Prices fell as low at $40.50, levels last seen in December 2004.
Gasoline futures for January delivery tumbled to 90 cents.
For gas prices to get close to a $1, oil prices probably would need to fall another $10 a barrel — something that would have been impossible to fathom during the first part of this year as oil prices soared near $150 per barrel.
"Just seeing that '1' up there is just hard to imagine," said Kevin Keating, 65, an attorney as he filled up his Volvo S60 at a station in Phoenix that advertised prices at $1.67. "Wasn't that long ago that we worried about the '4' being up there."
Prices in New York City are well above the national averages, but still well off their highs of nearly $5 this summer.
"When gas prices are OK, we make a little profit," said Mamady Kourouma, 36, a cab driver from Guinea who paid $2.41 a gallon at a station in Chelsea.
With wages stagnant, home prices plummeting and foreclosure rated soaring, dollar-a-gallon gas may help mom fill up in the family minivan and cab drivers in New York City, but prices that low also would truly speak to how rotten the economy has become.
"The economy at that point worldwide would be in a serious, serious deterioration," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for AAA.
Tom Kloza, publisher and chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service, said Thursday on his blog that retail prices could fetch $1.25 a gallon soon in parts of the Midwest, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.
Already, some parts of the country are seeing prices around that level. The Web site gasbuddy.com, where motorists can post local gas prices, motorists can fill up for $1.29 in Neelyville, Mo., a village of about 500 people near the Arkansas state line.
The jobs number suggests that demand for gasoline, which has been running well below year-ago levels even with the cheaper prices in the last several weeks, will fall even more in early 2009 as work-related driving plummets, said Kloza.
"I believe that January 2009 will represent the most 'challenging' and ugly economic month of my lifetime, and my first memory is of Sputnik," Kloza said.
There is plenty of reason to suspect Kloza is right.
Since the start of the recession, the economy has lost 1.9 million jobs, the number of unemployed people has increased by 2.7 million and the jobless rate is up 1.7 percentage points. The meltdown in financial markets has crushed lending, the Detroit 3 are on the brink of bankruptcy without a big government bailout.
Friday's report was much deeper than the 320,000 job cuts economists were forecasting. If there is a plus side it is that the unemployment rate did not climb to the 6.8 percent level economists were expecting.
Kloza does not believe prices will make it to a $1. Gas prices neared a dollar last time on Dec. 18, 2001, three months after the terrorist attacks and the country in its last recession, when prices hit $1.08 a gallon.
Though the weak gasoline prices point how bad the economy is, they also could help it turnaround.
Kloza figures the U.S. gasoline bill at $1.75 per gallon average will be about $20.5 billion this month, down about $16 billion a year ago. Five years ago, the bill was $17.2 billion.
"That could be one important spur to some kind of economic recovery," Sundstrom said.
In other Nymex trading, gasoline futures tumbled 6.83 cents to settle at 90 cents. Heating oil slid 8.26 cents to $1.4265 a gallon while natural gas for January delivery shed 24.7 cents to sell at $5.77 per 1,000 cubic feet.
In London, January Brent crude slipped by $2.42 cents to $39.86 on the ICE Futures exchange.