In their latest views on energy affordability, consumers gain a spring in their step

After starting 2017 on a low note in their views about the affordability of energy, U.S. consumers were feeling better about the situation by spring. The affordability indices for both gasoline and home energy increased from January to April. Derived from the University of Michigan’s quarterly Energy Survey, each affordability index is scaled so that a value of 100 reflects a consumer belief that energy costs would have to double (that is, go up by 100 percent) before really crimping their household lifestyle.

As of the latest data, taken during the month of April, the gasoline affordability index showed a slight increase to 105. The home energy affordability index rose significantly, reaching 148, its highest level since the U-M Energy Survey began in October 2013, as shown in the chart below. 

These gains occurred even though there was no significant change in the Index of Consumer Sentiment, which has remained quite stable since the beginning of the year. That measure of U.S. consumers’ general feelings about the state of the economy is reported monthly by the U-M Surveys of Consumers, to which the Energy Survey is a quarterly add-on.

As seen in the chart, the latest home energy affordability index surpasses all previous quarters by nearly 10 points. April 2017 also marks the first quarter for which the home energy index changed more than the gasoline index. Typically, the home energy index varies over a narrower range (38 points between its lowest and highest recorded values to date) than the gasoline index (which has seen a range of 101 points, due to the volatility of gasoline prices).

The following chart breaks down consumer views on home energy costs by income. As expected, the higher one’s income, the more affordable one finds energy to be (as we imagine is the case for just about anything). This spring’s increase in the perceived affordability of home energy occurred in all income classes. But the jump was highest for respondents in the top income tercile, whose average affordability index rose by 42 points from January to April this year and was 38 points higher than it was last April. 

As of this writing, Energy Information Administration (EIA) data on residential energy prices were only available through February, so we can’t tell whether price trends explain the rise in perceived affordability. However, national average electricity and natural gas prices were both up a bit as of February 2017 compared to a year earlier.

Our survey, however, found that consumers reported lower home energy bills than they did in the past. On average, respondents told us that they paid $147 per month for home energy as of our April survey, compared to $158 in January and $159 in the April 2016 survey.  Moreover, in response to our question about how high their monthly bill would have to become before consumers would find home energy costs unaffordable, the average answer rose to $342. That value is notably higher than its average of $321 per month in January and $326 in April a year ago. The jump in the home energy affordability index therefore results from the combination of lower self-reported energy bills and a greater expressed tolerance for higher home energy costs.

In previous years, the perceived affordability of gasoline tended to be high in the winter survey, taken each January, and then fell by spring. But compared to other recent quarters, gasoline affordability was uncharacteristically low this winter, when it dipped just below 100. So it is perhaps less of a surprise to see consumers’ attitudes improve by spring even though the national average gasoline price of $2.53 per gallon in April was a bit higher than its $2.46 per gallon average in January.

Thus, Americans’ somewhat more positive feelings about the affordability of motor fuel cannot be attributed to lower pump prices. What we did find is that the average price which survey respondents said they would find to be unaffordable rose to $5.18 per gallon. This uptick is shown in the next chart, which compares the price that consumers on average said would be unaffordable to national average pump prices each quarter. The April 2017 level is notably higher than the average January response of $4.76 per gallon, which was the lowest average response since we launched the Energy Survey in October 2013. Even though pump prices themselves fell substantially in late 2014, we see that the price considered unaffordable trended down more gradually. During the first year of the survey, when gasoline averaged $3.56 per gallon, consumers on average felt that $5.69 per gallon would be too much to pay. Over the most recent year-long period, the average response to that question fell to $4.94 per gallon. That’s $0.75 per gallon drop in consumers’ threshold of serious “pain at the pump” compared to the $1.17 per gallon drop in the national average gasoline price, which averaged $2.39 per gallon over the year-long period ending in April.

Although we don’t have an explanation for the recent uptick in the gasoline price that consumers say they would find unaffordable, our results suggest that Americans have gained some confidence in their fuel-related purchasing power, perhaps boding well for an active summer driving season.

Consumers were not as pleased with pump prices this winter as they were last winter

Credit: Andrew Philips, Postmedia Network

January 2017 marks the fourth year of the U-M Energy Survey. In previous years, consumers felt that gasoline was more affordable in January than at other times of the year. But this winter was different: the gasoline affordability index dropped 17 points to 94, the lowest score since July 2015. The decline is only partly explained by gasoline prices themselves, which did see an atypical increase in January this year. In each of the prior three years, gasoline prices fell by an average of $0.50 per gallon from October to January. This time however, the price at the pump actually increased by 9 cents per gallon. Consumers expecting a seasonal reprieve never saw one.

The latest index results also mark the ninth double-digit swing in ten quarters. Despite this volatility in the index, which tracks how consumers feel about affordability, the dollar-level responses to our survey question about “What would the price of gasoline have to reach before it became unaffordable to you?” have not changed much. In other words, the ups and downs of the index can be attribute mostly to the changes in gasoline prices, not changes in consumer views about the dollar threshold for serious pain at the pump.

In contrast to the story for gasoline, the home energy affordability index remains a model of consistency. The January 2017 value increased by a modest 3 points to 119, just below its average since October 2013 of 124. As seen in the chart below, this measure of how affordable consumers think their home energy bills are has rarely deviated from this average, now based on 14 quarters of U-M Energy Survey data.

Note that the error bars are much wider for home energy than they are for gasoline, which reflects how consumer responses about the affordability of home energy are much more variable than they are for gasoline. We suspect that this statistical “squishiness” of views on home energy costs may have something to do with consumers not having as clear an idea of what they pay for home energy as they do for the price of gasoline. The latter is, after all, highly visible and something most Americans get to look at weekly, which is about how often motorists have to fill their tanks. In contrast, home energy is billed monthly. Also, more and more consumers are on an auto-pay plan, and so may not have a very precise recollection of their electric and other home energy bills when we ask about them during the survey.

Energy affordability evens out in 2016

For the first time since the start of our quarterly Energy Survey, home energy and gasoline have run neck-and-neck in terms of affordability for an entire year. That is to say, 2016 saw no statistically significant difference between the two indices, a situation never before observed for four consecutive quarters. Though customers recently feel similarly about the costs of gasoline and home energy within each quarter, the affordability scores for both have dropped significantly since peaking in January. The gasoline affordability index, which seems to vary seasonally, dropped 41 points from January to July. The index for home energy dropped only half as much, by just under 21 points.

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Concerns about energy’s impact on the environment continue to edge out concerns about affordability

With three years and counting of data, a clear trend has emerged: consumers are more concerned about how energy impacts the environment than they about whether it is sufficiently affordable and reliable. The extent to which consumers worry about reliability — that is, whether their lights stay on and the fuels they need are readily available — has consistently lagged their concerns about energy costs and environmental impacts.

Over the first four quarterly samples starting with the launch of the U-M Energy Survey in October 2013, the difference between the levels of concern about the environment and about affordability was not statistically significant, even though the average for the environment was nominally higher than that for affordability. However, the significance of the gap grew as additional data came in. By the second year, we were able to report that the environment had pulled ahead of affordability as Americans’ top energy-related concern. As seen in the chart below, based on data over the first three years of the survey, concern about affordability has lessened a bit in 2016 while concern about the environment has remained strong in spite of some transient ups and downs.   

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On the seasonal trend of gasoline affordability

Over the course of each year we’ve conducted the Energy Survey to date, consumers find gasoline to be most affordable in the winter, when our January sample is taken. These responses — plotted in the chart below — show how consumers feel that gasoline is less affordable at other times of the year, as reflected in notably lower affordability index values derived from the spring (April), summer (July) and fall (October) quarterly samples. For reference, an affordability index of 100 means that the fuel price would have to double (i.e., rise by 100 percent) before consumers would consider it unaffordable. (See this overview of how the affordability index is calculated.) 

As of the most recent survey data we analyzed in July 2016, the gasoline affordability index was 104. That’s down nearly fifty points from what it had been in January when it reached a value of 152, which was the highest level of perceived motor fuel affordability since the U-M Energy Survey began in October 2013. Over the first five quarters of the survey, the gasoline affordability index was well below 100, reflecting the fact that gasoline prices had been much higher than they have been more recently.

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Energy affordability trended down in first half of year

The beginning of 2016 found American consumers feeling that energy was more affordable that it had ever been since we began our systematic quarterly surveys on the topic three years ago.

As seen in the chart below, the perceived affordability of gasoline reached an all time high of 152 in January. That means that pump prices would have to rise by a factor of 2.5 before they really began to pinch the pocketbooks of the average American consumer. That month, the national average retail gasoline price was $2.06 per gallon, the lowest it had been since prices briefly plummeted in late 2008 into early 2009 during the economic meltdown.

Since then, gasoline prices have risen a bit, reaching an average of $2.41 per gallon in June and July, by when the gasoline affordability index had dropped to 104. Nevertheless, that’s still more affordable than it had been through fall 2014. Over the first year of the Energy Survey, which was launched in October 2013, U.S. pump prices averaged $3.54 per gallon, and during that period, consumers felt that gasoline was only about half as affordable as home energy.

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Consumers’ perceived affordability of gasoline rises with income, but not by as much as one might think

Results from the U-M Energy Survey give us unique insights into how consumers feel about the affordability of motor fuel, which is a major concern for many Americans. The overall gasoline affordability index — which we update quarterly in Energy Survey Indices sidebar on our home page — reflects the average view of all consumers nationwide. It blends together the responses of our diverse, nationally representative sample, averaging over their socioeconomic backgrounds as well as gender, race, age and geographic location. 

Naturally, we expect consumers’ incomes to affect how affordable they perceive energy to be. This is true in general, with higher income consumers reporting higher levels of affordability. However, we also find that the perceived affordability of gasoline does not rise as much as one might think given the large spread in household income across the population. 

The chart below shows how the affordability of gasoline varies according to the five income quintiles, where each quintile represents 20% of the population. It plots the gasoline affordability index by quintile of self-reported household income over the 11 quarters of Energy Survey data gathered to date. The patterns through time are similar to the overall trends in the affordability index as previously reported. All consumers felt that motor fuel became much more affordable after gasoline prices fell in late 2014. Perceived affordability peaked this past January, when pump prices had fallen to a national average of $2.09 per gallon. Continue Reading

Consumers feel that gasoline is a bit less affordable than they said it was last winter

The affordability index for gasoline fell by 23 points from its mid-winter value of 152, which was based on the University of Michigan Energy Survey taken in January 2016. Although by April pump prices only went up 13 cents, to $2.19 per gallon, that was enough to push the gasoline affordability index down to 129. Back in January, when the U.S. average retail price of gasoline dipped to $2.09 per gallon, American consumers  felt that gasoline was more affordable than any time since our quarterly surveys started in October 2013.
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Our affordability index is based on comparing the energy costs that consumers say they would find to be unaffordable to the actual costs — in this case, the average gasoline price — they experience when each quarterly survey is taken. As explained in our Overview of how the indices are calculated, an affordability index of 100 means that consumers believe energy prices would have to double (i.e., see a 100% increase) before they were considered unaffordable. In this context, “unaffordable” means that the energy cost has become so high that consumers feel they would need to change their day-to-day activities in some way. When consumers report that the price they find unaffordable is the same as what they currently pay, then the affordability index is zero.

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How affordable is our energy? Here’s what consumers say as of January 2016

The January 2016 University of Michigan Energy Survey finds a record high in how consumers perceive the affordability of gasoline. 

Over the past six months, consumers’ beliefs about the maximum price of gasoline that they feel they can afford has been on the rise.  The latest quarter of energy survey data — gathered from polling conducted in January 2016 — reveals a 40 point jump in the gasoline affordability index, from 112 in October to 152 in January.  On average across the United States, consumers paid $2.41 per gasoline for gallon.  Averaged across all demographic groups, Americans believe that gasoline would become unaffordable if it reached $5.48 per gallon.

Aff-indices-thru-Jan2016

A year ago, the January 2015 energy survey pegged the gasoline affordability index at 138, which was a new high at the time and reflected a large gain in consumer comfort about pump prices compared to the previous two years.  After dipping again over the remainder of 2015, the January 2016 data sets the new high at 152. Now, consumers believe that gasoline would still be affordable if its price increased by a factor of 2.5, corresponding to the 152% increase represented by the affordability index. (Background on how the the index is calculated from the survey data is given in our Affordability Indices Overview report.)

For home energy,  the affordability index of 137 in January 2016 remained similar to that of the previous quarters.  On average, survey respondents said that they paid $159 per month for their home energy. They told us that a monthly energy bill of $356 would be unaffordable. In other words, even if its cost were to slightly more than double, most Americans would still find home energy to be affordable in terms of their current lifestyle.

See our latest energy affordability report for more details.