$5 gas: Is it around the corner for US drivers this summer?
$5 gas: With residents in nine states and D.C. already paying more than $4 for a gallon of regular gas, analysts ask if the national average will reach $5 a gallon this year.
Susan Walsh / AP
So far, the idea of gasoline at $5 per gallon is a worry, not a national reality. But could pump prices actually get there?
A few analysts say so, and the seemingly inexorable rise in pump prices lately means that possibility can't be dismissed out of hand.
The more common view among energy-sector analysts is that gasoline prices won't rise this year by another 28 percent, which would need to occur to hit the $5 mark. That's based on Friday's average price of $3.91 per gallon (regular unleaded), according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report.
Over the past year, gas prices have risen 36 percent, walloping consumers and raising the prospect that the pace of economic growth could slow as a result.
This week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke echoed many forecasters who say oil won't rise that high this year.
"Our view is that gas prices will not continue to rise at the recent pace," he said Wednesday. "And as [prices] stabilize or even come down, if the situation stabilizes in the Middle East, ... that will provide some relief on the inflation front. But we'll have to watch it very carefully."
A key challenge to forecasting pump prices is that vital factors are hard to predict. Those factors include the pace of demand growth in emerging-market nations, political events in oil-producing nations from Libya to the Persian Gulf, and the momentum of speculative activity by commodity investors.
If oil prices do keep rising, what's the risk of that the economy could dive back into recession?
"I don't think it's likely, but the potential is out there," says Augustine Faucher, an economist at the forecasting firm Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa. He suggests that a couple of additional shocks – like oil rising to $150 per barrel alongside ramped-up anxiety about Europe's government-debt woes – would raise the recession risk.
On Friday morning, oil was trading just above $113 per barrel.
President Obama recently cited a rule of thumb about the relationship between oil and gasoline prices. A $10 rise in the oil price, per barrel, translates into a roughly 25-cent jump in gas prices, per gallon. By that gauge, gas would close in on $5 per gallon as oil rose toward that $150 mark.
The recent spike in pump prices has been a "double-whammy" for the economy, Mr. Bernanke said. Price jumps add inflationary pressure and, "by draining purchasing power from households, higher gas prices are also bad for the [economic] recovery."
America's gross domestic product (GDP) rose at a cooler pace in the year's first quarter, compared with the growth seen at the end of 2010. But, despite the rise in pump prices, consumer spending still rose at a 2.7 percent annualized rate, adjusted for inflation. That suggests that, if oil prices stabilize, the economic recovery still has some momentum.
But even $4 gasoline takes its toll. It could mean shorter summer vacation trips, altered car-buying habits, and consumers with less money to spend on other things.