Oil prices tumble, gas prices follow

October 24, 2008 1:00:02 PM PDT
Crude prices tumbled Friday and a gallon of gasoline fell below year-ago levels for the first time in 2008, even as OPEC announced a huge production cut in an attempt to halt the declines. Crude prices have now fallen 56 percent from the highs reached in July, and more than $41 per barrel in just the last month.

Gathered in Vienna, Austria, on Friday to stanch plunging oil prices, OPEC announced it would slash oil production by 1.5 million barrels a day.

Oil prices plunged more than 5 percent.

Investors paid little heed to OPEC attempts to limit supply, instead focusing on global demand as financial markets spiraled downward in Asia, Europe and then the United States.

Light, sweet crude for December delivery fell $3.69 to settle at $64.15 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices had fallen as low as $62.85 earlier in the day.

The continuing decline in oil prices, even in the face of OPEC production cuts, only cemented bearish sentiment on the oil market.

"All OPEC confirmed for the market is how weak demand is," oil trader and analyst Stephen Schork said.

Supporting that view was a report released Friday by the U.S. Department of Transportation that showed the largest monthly decline in miles driven in 66 years.

In the month after gas prices peaked at $4.11 per gallon, Americans drove 5.6 percent less, or 15 billion fewer miles, in August 2008 compared with August 2007 - the biggest single monthly decline since the data was first collected regularly in 1942.

Americans have drastically altered driving habits, if they are driving at all, amid a severe economic downturn. They have cut discretionary trips, and are carpooling and using public transportation more.

A Labor Department report released this month showed that the number of people who have become unemployed over the last year has risen by 2.2 million to 9.5 million.

From November through August, Americans drove 78.1 billion fewer miles than they did over the same 10-month period a year earlier.

The decline is most evident in rural interstate travel where travel is down more than 4 percent compared with a 2 percent decline in urban miles traveled, according to the agency.

The Transportation Department said the biggest decline in driving was in Florida where miles traveled fell by 9.7 percent.

Driving in the south Atlantic region, including Florida, fell 7.4 percent, the most of any region in the country.

And the latest weekly report from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that demand for crude has fallen in 38 of the past 42 weeks.

U.S. demand is down nearly 10 percent during the past four weeks compared with last year.

That has translated into rapidly declining prices at the pump.

On Friday, for the first time this year, the average retail price of gasoline fell below what it was on the same day in 2007.

A gallon of regular gas fell 4 cents overnight to a new national average of $2.78, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. That's nearly a dollar less than what was paid last month and 4 cents below gas prices one year ago on Oct. 24.

Gas prices are off from their July peak by about a third compared with the price of crude, which has been more than halved.

There is a lag between the two prices as oil being traded now will not be delivered until next month. That oil must be refined, or turned into gasoline, and then shipped to filling stations.

As for the oil being priced on markets today, oil traders are increasingly gauging future demand on dour financial markets.

Gasoline prices are all but certain to follow that downward trend.

Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at Oil Price Information Service, said prices have room to drop another 20 to 30 cents.

Schork said he could see oil prices falling to $50 a barrel, even though he believes prices will eventually stabilize between $70 and $90.

"We're still in a hangover from the $150 party," he said.

The decline also has come on the back of a strengthening dollar.

Investors often buy commodities like crude oil to hedge against a weakening dollar, and sell those investments when the dollar rebounds.

It also means that nations with rapidly growing economies such as China and India will pay more for fuel, which could force them to cut back.

On Friday, there was ample evidence of global economic volatility.

Wall Street joined world stock markets in a pullback Friday, with the Dow Jones industrials dropping 175 points and all the major indexes falling more than 2 percent.

Japan's Nikkei stock average fell a staggering 9.60 percent. In Europe, Germany's benchmark DAX index was down 7.1 percent, France's CAC40 dropped 5.7 percent while Britain's FTSE 100 sank 6.8 percent after the government said its gross domestic product fell 0.5 percent in the third quarter, putting the country on the brink of recession.

In other Nymex trading, heating oil futures fell 8.32 cents to $1.95 a gallon, while gasoline futures fell 10 cents to $1.47 a gallon. Natural gas for November delivery fell 18 cents to $6.23 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In London, November Brent crude fell $3.87 to $62.05 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.