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Even though it's crept up in the past couple of months, the price of a gallon of gasoline is still about a dollar less than it was a year ago. Economists were quite convinced late last year those low prices would boost growth because people might go out and spend that extra money. NPR's John Ydstie reports things have not unfolded exactly as forecast.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: There's no doubt the plunge in oil prices and the lower costs for gasoline, heating oil and natural gas gave consumers a big windfall.
JOHN CANALLY: They saved about $116 billion.
YDSTIE: That's John Canally, chief economist at LPL Financial. He figures that $116 billion is about $83 per month, per household on average, or about a thousand dollars a year. Lots of economists predicted Americans would go out and spend most of that, but Canally says, they didn't.
CANALLY: Consumers, since oil prices peaked back in June, have done what they've been doing this entire recovery, which is essentially they've spent a little, they've saved a little and they've paid down some debt.
YDSTIE: Canally says he thinks many Americans learned a lesson during the financial crisis and are now being more prudent with their money. But in the short run, that's meant less consumption and less economic growth. So the growth dividend from lower energy prices has been elusive.
LAURA ROSNER: I don't think it's completely materialized.
YDSTIE: That's Laura Rosner, U.S. economist at BNP Paribas. For one thing, Rosner says, the negative effects of the energy bust came faster than expected, with quick cutbacks in exploration and drilling and big job losses. That was a drag on the economy, and wicked winter weather from Virginia to Maine kept the energy windfall cash in people's pockets.
ROSNER: Actually 20 percent of all U.S. households live in either the mid-Atlantic or the Northeast.
YDSTIE: That meant tens-of-millions of shoppers stayed at home and contributed to a near stall- out of growth in the first quarter, far underperforming hopes that the oil price windfall would fuel faster growth. Rosner says she thinks there's another reason the benefits of the windfall have been muted - Americans have been skeptical that the low energy prices will be lasting.
ROSNER: We're seeing evidence that consumers actually expect gasoline prices to rebound, you know, almost back to their prior levels within a year or two. So that's an important reason why they may not be spending more as a windfall today.
YDSTIE: While Rosner believes consumers have reacted cautiously up to now, she's seeing signs that they are ready to start spending more of the windfall.
ROSNER: You know, really, the consumer sentiment data show that consumers are feeling better about the outlook. They're feeling more secure in their jobs and they're relatively optimistic.
YDSTIE: Their added spending will help lift the U.S. growth rate this year, she says. John Canally agrees and he believes with more prudent U.S. consumers, the current expansion will be longer-lasting. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
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