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When will cheap oil be a good thing?

Crude oil dipped below the $30-a-barrel level this week for the first time since 2003, bringing its total decline from the $107.68 high hit in the summer of 2014 to a soul-crushing 72 percent.

We've already seen the negatives. Bombed-out energy sector earnings and share prices. Budgetary pressure on OPEC producers like Saudi Arabia. Rig shutdowns by U.S. shale producers. Industrywide layoffs, from well technicians to truckers hauling fracking fluid. Slowing industrial activity. And a chilling effect on GDP growth, now on track for a meager 0.8 percent rise for fourth-quarter 2014, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

But what about the positives? Cheaper oil prices are a boon to consumers paying less for gasoline, which should give retailers a lift. With consumer spending accounting for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, this should be great news. What's taking so long?

By one measure, it's already happening.

Yardeni Research calculates that global oil revenues have plunged at a $2.2 trillion annualized rate from the summer of 2014. That's $2.2 trillion in the pockets of energy consumers, from airlines to package deliverers to the average American family. Mileage driven in the U.S. is on the rise, pushing world crude oil demand up 2.4 percent in the 12 months through November -- the fastest rate since the summer of 2011.


As things stand, American consumers are enjoying a $100 billion annualized windfall from lower pump prices, which has been mostly reflected in a rising personal savings rate (chart above). Capital Economics notes that since mid-2014, spending on nonenergy goods and services has increased by $670 billion, but that doesn't even match the $715 billion increase in disposable income.

Once cautious consumers realize lower gas prices aren't likely to be a short-term windfall -- but representative of a world massively oversupplied with energy -- they'll start spending these savings.

Some of this showed up late in the holiday shopping season. Bloomberg reported that shoppers spent 72 cents of every dollar saved on gasoline. Both the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index and the University of Michigan's Consumer Sentiment Index improved during December as crude dropped below its August lows.

Wall Street has been thrown off by the dynamic.

Heading into 2015, economists at JPMorgan were looking for a net boost to U.S. GDP growth of 0.7 percent -- with a 1 percent lift to consumption offsetting a 0.3 percent drag from lower capital spending. Instead, largely because of weaker consumption at the start of 2015, the estimate was off by 0.9 percent.

Looking ahead to 2016 with diminishing impacts on both gasoline savings (because fuel has already dropped so much) and capital investment (because rig activity is already so low), they see just a 0.1 percent lift to GDP growth from an expected drop in crude oil to just below $30 a barrel.

Of course, a deeper decline in energy prices or a more rapid rise in consumer optimism (and thus, spending of already pocketed energy savings) would give GDP a greater lift.

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