Gasoline purchases can be a powerful signal about the consumer economy, and last month's drop off in demand was downright recession-like.
But economists don't see a recession, and energy analysts say demand picked back up in the last week to a more normal level. Now, they are waiting to see if that continues, and to see if a massive gasoline glut begins to disappear.
In a report Wednesday, Goldman Sachs analysts said while they don't believe there is a recession, they noted that the implied drop of 460,000 barrels a day in January, or 5.2 percent year over year, is the kind of tumble seen only during a recession.
"…such a decline has only occurred in four periods since 1960, during which time PCE contracted," the analysts wrote. They note that government data on consumption — personal consumption expenditures, or PCE — dropped sharply at the same time in those other periods, but it is not lower right now. PCE is expected to grow by 2.6 percent in the first quarter.
"Goldman doesn't think there's a recession, and I don't either," said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Services. But Kloza acknowledged there was a mysterious decline in the demand for gasoline decline in January. The government data measures wholesale demand, but Kloza looked at data on drivers' actual purchases at the pump, and they were driving less.
"Our own survey of about 10,000 stations across the country shows that sales gallons were down 4.4 percent in January," he said. "Those are actual sales, and it's a cross section, ranging from big box to mom and pop. I don't disagree with the notion that gasoline demand is going to be much higher in subsequent months, and it will probably be a reasonable driving season."