Time to pay more attention to oil & gas

A customer pumps gasoline into his car at an Arco gas station in Mill Valley, Calif.
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A customer pumps gasoline into his car at an Arco gas station in Mill Valley, Calif.

One of the following three statements is NOT true:

1) Crude oil prices continue to fall to almost five-month lows, sending oil producers and heavily oil dependent nations into serious economic stress.

2) Gasoline is also in steep decline, with the national average price falling more than 14 cents per gallon over the past month.

3) Naturally, all the major news networks are covering the oil and gas stories extensively and the top newspapers have all featured energy stories on their front pages this week.

You've probably already guessed that statement #3 is the phony. And the fact that it isn't even remotely true right now is driving me nuts both as a news producer and a news consumer. Oil and gasoline prices have always been just as important, and usually more important than the stock market when you look for daily data on the state of the U.S. economy. In fact, following where oil goes lately is the best way to figure out where the stock market is going. As Power Lunch anchor Brian Sullivan points out, the Dow and WTI crude oil prices have traded in the same direction for 10 of the past 11 sessions. And during that period, when prices have shifted we've seen oil shift first and the Dow next. Oil is setting the pace right now.

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From the macroeconomic perspective, oil and other key energy prices almost always tell us more about the strength of the producer and consumer economy than any stock or group of stocks. And this has become even more true since 2009 with the huge growth in U.S. crude oil and natural gas production. Several studies have shown that just about all the net new job creation since President Barack Obama took office has come from the oil and nat gas sectors. Thus, any recovery the economy is sustaining right now is severely threatened by production cutbacks and layoffs in the industry.

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On the purely consumer side, can anyone name any key item we buy other than gasoline that literally has its price flashed in our faces every time we leave our homes? When the price at the pump goes up or down, we notice even if we're not filling up that day. The money we save when gas prices go down does not always find its way into other sectors, but it usually does. And if it's simply saved and put in the bank, that's an important consumer trend to document as well.

Then there's the huge effect big price swings have on geopolitics. The recent step back down in oil prices is threatening countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia more and more each day. Even if you're not the type of news editor or newspaper reader who cares about commodity prices, you might be the kind of person who would be fascinated to learn how a crash in oil prices is bringing both the Middle East and Eastern Europe closer to the brink of war.

So why aren't we seeing more stories about oil and gas and with more urgency? There are a number of excuses, but none of them are good ones. The fact that so many of our leading news organizations are headquartered in Manhattan, the one place in America where you can go a year without ever seeing a gas price, is one of them. Another reason is the real economic boom we've seen from the 2009-2014 energy surge did not mostly take place in our largest cities. Finally, the non-financial mainstream news media is almost never very comfortable with economic stories unless there's a big bad rich guy to blame or some kind of massive theft or fraud to report. Stories that generate that kind of anger get the industry's attention, and that's why the one major oil and gas story that did get decent attention over the past decade was when the national average pump prices surged over $4/gallon in 2008.

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I could go on, but the one thing that always surprises me is when companies don't do the easy things that would make them more money. Focusing a lot more on our massive oil and gas industry and consumer energy prices would boost ratings, online clicks, and circulation.

Maybe if more editors and producers got out of the subway and taxicabs and behind the wheel themselves like most of the rest of America, they'd see that.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.