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Oil rout: Quit complaining, it’s a win for consumers

After more than a year of lower oil prices, consumers are beginning to reap the benefits of cheaper fuel for their homes and cars.

"It's mad," says Ashleigh, a hairdresser in Kent, south-east England, referring to the fall in petrol costs.

"I use my car a lot for work and pleasure," she said, preferring to give just her first name. "I get a full tank for £40 ($61), which is about £15-20 ($23-$30) less than it was last year."

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Oil prices have more than halved over the past year but the fall has a lagged impact on consumers, which explains why it takes time for cheaper oil to show up in consumer spending and confidence data, economists said.

They add that oil producers tend to feel the impact of lower oil first, with early 2015 marked by a wave of job cuts in the energy sector and a sharp fall in the value of shares of oil companies.

"We've had an incredible commodity shock, which really hurts producers for a long period before it begins to benefit the consumers," Giles Keating, global head of research, private banking and wealth management at Credit Suisse, told CNBC earlier this week.

"But over the medium term, the consumers win out massively – so that's U.S. consumers, European consumers, it's any kind of company that uses energy – these are the big beneficiaries, it just takes time to come through," he said.

Down far and fast

The price of Brent crude oil, trading at $49 a barrel on Thursday, has fallen some 50 percent in the past year and is down about 24 percent this year alone. U.S. crude meanwhile has fallen to around $45 a barrel from more than $100 a barrel last year.

Concerns about a supply glut and slowing demand from China have pummelled oil prices and strategists do not expect a strong recovery any time soon.

Brent crude is expected to average $58.60 a barrel in 2016, a Reuters poll of 31 analysts showed on Wednesday. That forecast compared with an estimate of $62.30 in a poll a month earlier.

As a general rule of thumb, a $10 fall in the price of oil adds 0.2 percentage points to global gross domestic product (GDP) growth, said Julian Jessop, chief global economist at Capital Economics.

He said lower oil prices were "definitely" having an impact on consumers although this varied across the globe.

"Gasoline prices in the U.S. have fallen and consumer confidence has held up well even as stocks fell sharply in the last few months," he told CNBC. "Not everyone knows about stock markets but they do know about gasoline prices."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), regular gasoline in the U.S. is currently around $2.322 per gallon, down $1.03 from a year ago.


Pump prices for unleaded petrol in the U.K. stood at £114.5 in mid-August, down 11 percent from where they stood a year earlier, according to the country's statistics office. Britain has the highest prices for unleaded petrol in the 28-member European Union due to taxes.

In the euro zone meanwhile, cheap oil is helping boost household incomes, EY said in a report released on Thursday.

Deflation risks

As well as the U.S. and Europe, consumers in Japan, which imports virtually all of its energy; China; and India – the world's two most populous nations - were seen as big beneficiaries from the dive in oil prices.

And the fall is a particular tailwind for emerging markets such as India that subsidise fuel, providing a buffer at a time when concerns about China's economic outlook and the prospect of higher interest rates in the U.S. have rattled world markets.

The danger, say some analysts, is that lower oil prices could lead to a prolonged fall in overall consumer prices with knock-on implications for consumer spending and the economy.

Inflation in the euro zone, for instance, turned negative in September as oil prices tumbled, data on Wednesday showed.

"There is a risk that low headline inflation turns into something more negative, but Europe is a net beneficiary from the fall in oil," said Jessop.

Credit Suisse's Keating added: "It always struck me as nonsense this whole thing about inflation being low so because oil prices have fallen."

"This is a reflationary shock not an inflationary one. Why do we worry about (low) inflation?," he said.