The Bad News About $3 Gas

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Gas prices had been on the decline so steadily through the fall that it appeared like drivers would be enjoying a Christmas miracle in the form of $3 gasoline by year’s end. Lately, however, it’s looking like this miracle has no shot of becoming reality.

The autumn fall in gas prices around the nation has been both dramatic and steady. Average prices at the pump dropped 10 weeks in a row, and in the period between Labor Day and November 10, the national average for a gallon of regular fell by 41¢. Drivers in 16 states were paying an average of $3.10 or lower, as the national average inched down to $3.17, the lowest it’s been in nearly three years.

According to the Labor Department, gasoline prices fell 2.9% in October, and the decrease translated to weak inflation and slow increases in consumer prices for everything from food to furniture. The lower gas price trend also boded well for retailers during the all-important end-of-year winter shopping period, because shoppers who are paying less at the pump tend to spend more at the mall.

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Unfortunately for drivers—and the economy in general—this trend recently shifted into reverse. According to the most recent AAA Fuel Gauge Report, the national average for a gallon of regular has risen seven days in a row, creeping over $3.20 as of Wednesday. That’s still much better than one year ago at this time ($3.41), but in a particularly desperate season for retailers, the trajectory of prices at the pump may be as important as what consumers are paying out of pocket.

Patrick DeHaan, an analyst with the price-tracking site, wrote that he “had been expecting the national average to bottom out between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as it has for the last several years,” but that pricing shifts have gotten an early start all year. The “summer” rise in prices actually began in February, for instance. Going forward, “I don’t see a whole lot of downward movement” in gas prices, DeHaan told USA Today. “We may have already seen the bottom.”