Economy Watch: Are Gas Prices Stabilizing?

Two national surveys suggest that gas prices may have peaked, at least in the short term. The CPFB is planning to release new rules on mortgage lending. And retail vacancies declined 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Image courtesy Flickr user

After the disappointing jobs numbers on Friday, attention turned to the price of gas, which has bedeviled the U.S. economy since the beginning of the year (and during part of last year and in 2008). Two national surveys released on Monday, however, suggest — or maybe just raise the hope — that prices may have reached a peak (for now) and, despite a longstanding pattern of warm-weather gas-price increases, may be headed down (for now).

The AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report said on Monday that the U.S. average for a gallon of regular gas was $3.927, down 0.2 cents since Sunday but still up 0.2 cents from a week ago Monday. In other words, prices have quit rising. A month ago, the average was $3.778, or very close to the average of a year ago, which was $3.761.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Energy said on Monday that the national average for a gallon of regular was $3.939, down 0.2 cents for the week. The highest gas prices in the nation continue to be the on parts of the East and West coasts, along with the Chicago area, where averages have been well over $4 for several weeks now.

New Consumer Agency to Propose New Mortgage Servicing Rules

The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is planning to release proposed new rules on mortgage lending on Tuesday. The thrust of the rules will be to require mortgage servicers to disclose more information to borrowers, and provide mortgage holders more ways to avoid foreclosure. According to the agency, it will formally propose the rules later this summer and finalize them early in 2013.

The rules under consideration will involve clarifying monthly mortgage statements; warning borrowers before interest-rate adjustments, and requiring servicers to include contact information for housing counselors in those warnings; providing advance notice of “force-placed” insurance; and providing borrowers information about foreclosure-avoidance options. The CFPB will also consider requiring servicers to credit borrowers’ payments immediately and keep records up-to-date, something that didn’t always happen during the boom in delinquencies and foreclosures after 2008.

“The mortgage servicing rules we are considering reflect two basic, common-sense principles–no surprises and no runarounds,” said CFPB director Richard Cordray noted in a statement. “For too long, mortgage servicers have not been held accountable to their customers, and the result has been profoundly punishing to homeowners in distress.”

Retail Vacancies Edge Down

Reis Inc. reported on Friday that U.S. regional mall vacancies declined from 9.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 9 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Strip center vacancies dropped even more slightly, from 11 percent to 10.9 percent between the fourth and first quarters, according to the company.

The retail vacancy situation is thus essentially stagnant. Reis posits that supply has essentially frozen in place, allowing what little demand there is to drive vacancies down a little. This situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, since lenders aren’t particularly eager to pay for new retail development.

Wall Street, after taking Friday off, took a hit on Monday, as expected. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 130.55 points, or precisely 1 percent, ending back below the 13,000 level that it scaled earlier this year. The S&P 500 was down 1.14 percent and the Nasdaq dropped 1.08 percent.