Feeding the Beast With Ever-Cheaper Oil

Source: By JOHN SCHWARTZ, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2015

CreditGlynis Sweeny 

Or is it bad news?

That depends entirely on whose news you’re talking about.

For most of us, the most immediate impact of the price of a barrel of crude dipping below $50 is lower prices at the fuel pump. It wasn’t long ago that I paid more than $3.50 a gallon to gas up; during my visit to Texas over the holidays, I marveled at a gas-station receipt for $1.96 a gallon. I’m thinking of having it framed. Or maybe bronzed.

I’m getting a little teary here.

Today’s prices made filling up the tank — a big tank, because the rental agency upgraded me to an S.U.V. from the more economical car I’d asked for — something close to a tawdry thrill.

But great as that was for me, cheap oil isn’t good for everybody. For example, it’s part of what sent the Russian ruble into a tailspin. That, in turn, is bad news for Vladimir V. Putin. (Which many people would see as good news — a problem he can’t fix by jailing somebody or taking off his shirt. But I digress.) Many nations and states balance their budgets on oil revenue, and, closer to home, many stock portfolios invest heavily in the energy sector.

Tracking the pros and the cons of falling energy prices can give you a bad case of whiplash. For example, damage to energy industries’ prospects is good news to those who want to see us move away from investment in fossil fuels and hope to curb climate change. Yet low oil prices make renewable energy sources like solar and wind less attractive financially, making it harder to curb climate change.

On the other hand, the lower prices could also allow the government to finally raise the gas tax. After all, this tax finances highway construction, and it hasn’t been raised for two decades. But — ha-ha! — who am I kidding? We don’t raise taxes in this country.

Oh, it’s good to laugh.

Anyway, the situation may lead consumers to spend more, adding power to the economy. After all, cheaper gas prices can put hundreds of dollars a year into a family’s pockets. But if that happens, we could get inflation.

It’s good! It’s bad! Who knows?

The strangest effect of low energy prices is that for every dollar off the cost of a barrel of oil, American consumers seem to lose an I.Q. point. We turn away from economical, fuel-saving cars and go back to our beloved gas guzzlers, as if we believe low prices will last forever. That is the triumph of hope over experience.

Still, it can be liberating, throwing caution and common sense to the wind. It may be time for me to finally abandon gas sippers like the Smart and the Honda Civic and to buy the cars I’ve hankered for as part of my American birthright. So I’ve been looking into used Hummers. They make a real statement: A 2003 version of the humongous H2 was once said to get just 10 miles per gallon in the city.

G.M. announced in 2010 that it was discontinuing the brand — another sign that car companies are underestimating the guzzle lust of the American consumer. Even discontinued, Hummers have returned! The Washington Post reported that sales of used Hummers and other beasts have jumped as gas prices have fallen.

But why settle for secondhand when I could buy something new? The Bugatti Veyron gets about eight miles a gallon in the city. At almost $2 million, however, it’s out of even my imagination’s price range. Instead, I could spring for a four-wheel drive Cadillac Escalade, some models of which get 14 m.p.g. in the city; starting at less than $77,000, they are so much more reasonable.

I could pay for one of those instead of, say, sending my youngest to college. After all, don’t I deserve the best? And if we’re not going to fix our highways or the environment, what kind of future is he going to have, anyway?

Here’s the problem, though. Once I start, I can’t stop. Why settle for a ho-hum Hummer when, if I really want to impress the neighbors, I can buy an actual military armored transport vehicle?

I spent time in Ferguson, Mo., last year, and let me tell you that nothing quite makes an impression like an MRAP — a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle — grinding its way down a city street. Yes, these monsters cost the military hundreds of thousands of dollars. But local police departments and school districts have gotten them for a few thousand bucks each — less than I paid for my Smart car — or even free. I’d probably have to claim to be a police department to get a good deal, but with all the money saved on gas, I can hire lawyers who can convince the government of anything.

And these vehicles are a prudent choice: There’s probably plenty of room in back for those big packages of toilet paper from Costco.

CLEARLY, there is money to be made from this thinking. I am not the only stupid person out there. I am not even a leading indicator of stupidity. If I want to consume conspicuously, plenty of others must be ready to consume not just conspicuously, but also flagrantly, even idiotically. Smart guys can profit from the excess of others.

Sure, you could be boring and look into energy mutual funds, on the assumption that things will turn up again sometime. But isn’t it better to bet on guzzling and consumption — to create a portfolio based on big honking vehicles and wretched excess?

Wall Street, this is your métier. Nobody knows excess like y’all do. Will you step up? Everybody talks about trying to get in on the smart money. But there have got to be even bigger profits on betting dumb.

This won’t last. We’ve all been here before, and know that what goes down will go up again. But until it does, let’s party — and profit.