Some big savings at the pump seem to have gone missing.
The plunge in gasoline prices has generated a windfall for American drivers. But so far, there's little evidence those savings are producing a widely anticipated boost in consumer spending.
So where is all that money going?
There's no question the sharp drop in pump prices since last summer means a much smaller bite out of consumers' wallets. Though fuel prices have bumped up a bit, they're still some 30 percent lower than the five-year average cost.
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Even though prices didn't fall until late last year, Americans saved some $14 billion on gasoline last year, or an average $115 per driver, according to estimates from AAA. The group figures if pump prices stay tame, those savings could amount to as much as $75 billion this year.
That kind of saving—if consumers spend it elsewhere—could provide a powerful boost to the U.S. economy, much like a tax cut. But, so far, that spending boost isn't showing up in the data.
The latest read from the Commerce Department showed that retail sales in January barely budged after dropping in December. Those figures are echoed in separate government data on overall spending. While outlays on energy-related goods and services plunged in December and January, total personal spending on goods and services also weakened.
Some consumers may be betting that the drop in pump prices is only temporary, a view likely reinforced by the bounce in prices last month.
"All the confidence gauges are now giving back ground as the novelty of lower gasoline prices wears off," said Action Economics' chief economist, Michael Englund, in a recent note.