Welcome to the beginning of the end of the economic recovery. On Tuesday diesel fuel was $4.49 per gallon along interstate route 81 in New York State!
The price of fuel is rapidly approaching what Malcolm Gladwell would call the “tipping point”. Diesel fuel hit a peak of $4.72 per gallon in July of 2008. That took a huge toll on the American economy. Housing bubble notwithstanding, the high price of diesel contributed to the economic crash of 2008.
Consider that everything you buy is on at least two trucks before it gets to the store where you purchase it. Not only that, but all of the raw materials used to make whatever you buy are shipped to the manufacturer by truck. Every nickel rise in the cost of diesel fuel adds one penny to the cost of each and every mile of truckload freight. That might not sound like much, but when you think about the number of miles freight is carried in our country, and how many times something is on a truck before it gets into your hands, it is easy to see the extra cost add up. If you watch the price of milk in the grocery store, you will see very quickly that it mirrors closely the cost of diesel fuel at the pump.
What happened in 2008 was that available freight dropped off quickly as diesel fuel approached $5.00 per gallon. With profit margins already slim, companies were forced to pass these added costs on to the consumer. As consumer prices rose to cover transportation costs, customer purchasing dropped. Companies shipped less freight. This caused a temporary excess in available trucks, which put downward pressure on freight rates. Despite the high cost of fuel, carriers were forced to take less for their loads, or park some trucks. This balanced out at the cost of small trucking companies being forced out of business, and drivers losing their jobs; about 200,000 of them by early 2009.
At a time when the nation’s economy is slowly crawling out of a disaster, rising fuel prices pose the most serious threat to our recovery. In 2007 tractor-trailer trucks carried freight a record 184.2 billion miles. By 2009 that figure had dropped to 167.8 billion miles.
Diesel fuel hit its low point of $2.09 per gallon in March of 2009, and we entered a slow recovery. Freight has been steadily increasing since, and trucking companies began hiring again in 2009. By late 2011 hiring was in full steam, and companies are continuing to hire drivers. If fuel rates are sustained at current levels, or if they continue to rise, the same squeeze will happen again, and relatively quickly. The closer diesel fuel gets to $5.00 per gallon, the closer we get to another recession. We have now reached the tipping point for fuel prices, which seems to be about $4.50 per gallon. If we sustain these prices for very long we will see the recently encouraging economic numbers do a rapid about face and the 8.3% unemployment number the President is so proud of will begin to rise.