Talking Numbers

Running on empty: Can cheaper gas save the American consumer?

Running on empty: Can cheaper gas save the American consumer?
Running on empty: Can cheaper gas save the American consumer?

Lower gasoline prices may be good news for drivers, but the big question for the U.S. economy is whether relief at the pump will translate into higher spending this holiday season.

Gasoline is now averaging $3.29 per gallon, according AAA. That's the lowest it has been since Feb. 9, and the cheapest for this time of year since 2010.

With gasoline expenditures accounting for about 4 percent of Americans' pretax income according to the Energy Information Administration, some are arguing that less pain at the pump will mean more dollars in store registers.

"With gasoline prices falling and the labor market still strengthening, we expect [consumer] confidence will edge up before long," boosting consumer spending, wrote Capital Economics' senior U.S. economist, Paul Dales, in a Tuesday note.

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But Gina Sanchez of Chantico Global disagrees. She maintains that the impact of lower gas prices will end up being offset by stagnant wages.

"Even though we've seen more labor activity and we're seeing better employment numbers, it is not necessarily translating into higher wages," said Sanchez, a CNBC contributor. "In fact, a lot of people are getting jobs at lower wages. Because of that, people are being pretty frugal."

In September, the unemployment rate dipped below 6 percent for the first time since 2009 but wages were $24.53 per hour, a penny less than in August.

Sanchez is also worried by slightly disappointing back-to-school sales, which often provide an early indication of how the holiday season will shake out. Customer Growth Partners showed a 3.1 percent gain in this year's back-to-school sales compared with last year, but that was a little off from the 3.2 percent expected.

Jason Rotman, president of Lido Isle Advisors, similarly doesn't believe investors in retail stocks can hang too much hope on lower gasoline prices. He has trouble finding an inverse relationship between gasoline futures and the ETF tracking retail stocks (which trades under the ticker symbol XRT). Both are down year to date, with the RBOB off by nearly 15 percent, and the XRT is 4 percent into negative territory.

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"RBOB gasoline has just gotten smashed and thrashed since June," Rotman said. "Has that caused XRT to go up? No. So I refute the idea that XRT and RBOB gasoline are correlated."

Instead, Rotman thinks investors in consumer-exposed stocks should pay more attention to trends in the overall stock market, as the Federal Reserve winds down its quantitative easing program.

"It's all about the paper wealth effect," Rotman said. "The more the stock market goes up, the more people feel comfortable [spending] more money. If the stock market goes down, that's bad for XRT."

To see the full discussion on gasoline and the XRT, with Sanchez on the fundamentals and Rotman on the technicals, watch the above video.

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