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California’s $6 gas could spread nationwide, JPMorgan warns

(CNN) — The average price for gasoline in California hit $6 a gallon Tuesday for the first time — and analysts at JPMorgan are warning that price could be the national average before the end of the summer.

The startling forecast comes as US gas prices have surged to record highs in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, casting a shadow over the economy.

“There is a real risk the price could reach $6+ a gallon by August,” Natasha Kaneva, head of global oil and commodities research at JPMorgan, told CNN in an email on Tuesday.

With US gasoline inventories sitting at their lowest seasonal levels since 2019, JPMorgan is concerned it will be difficult to satisfy intense demand during this summer’s driving season.

“With expectations of strong driving demand…US retail price could surge another 37% by August,” JPMorgan wrote in its report, fittingly titled “Cruel Summer.”

The national average for regular gas rose another two pennies on Tuesday to a record high of $4.52 of gallon, according to AAA. That leaves pump prices up by 15 cents in the past week and 44 cents in a month.

Really cheap gas is becoming much tougher to find. Georgia, Kansas and Oklahoma, the last three states with an average price below $4 a gallon on Monday, all crossed that threshold in Tuesday’s reading.

The average price for regular gas in California surpassed $6 a gallon in Tuesday’s AAA reading. The state’s average of $6.02 a gallon is up sharply from $4.13 a year ago, and $5.84 only a week ago. Many larger cities are paying more: the average stands at $6.07 in Los Angeles County, and $6.27 a gallon in San Francisco.

Even in California, 52% of stations sell gas for less than $6 a gallon, and nearly one station in four is $5.75 a gallon or less. Stations that charge much higher prices inflate the average.

High-priced stations that are charging way more than general market prices are not limited to California. Gas is being sold for more than $5 a gallon in 29 states, according to OPIS, the service that collects gas price data for AAA. Six of them — Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and California — have a state average above that mark. So drivers nationwide could see some stations at or near $6, even if the national average never gets that high. Those station owners are satisfied with selling fewer gallons as long as they can fetch a higher price.

‘Hard to get to $6’

It’s important to note that this is just one forecast.

Others in the industry are skeptical that prices would get that high for the simple reason that some Americans would likely balk at $6 gas and just drive less.

“It’s hard to get to $6,” Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, told CNN. “Before we get there, we would have significant demand destruction, not only here, but around the world.”

Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, echoed that sentiment, saying: “I personally think we’d see a recession before we’d see a national average of $6.”

De Haan said doesn’t agree with JPMorgan — at least, not yet. However, given the widening imbalance between supply and demand, he conceded, “I don’t think much is impossible in this market.”

JPMorgan acknowledged that one caveat to its forecast is that “demand may continue to come in below our expectations.” So far this year, gasoline demand has been lower than JPMorgan’s original expectations by an average of about 500,000 barrels per day.

But it’s hard to know precisely how consumers would react, given that Covid-weary families are eager to get out this summer — and they’re facing a choice between high gas prices and very high airfares.

Federal government forecasters expect gas prices to dip below $4 a gallon during the second half of the year. The US Energy Information Administration projected last week the national average will drop to $4.81 a gallon during the third quarter and $3.59 a gallon during the final quarter of the year.

East Coast inventories at decade low

The problem is that refineries are having trouble churning out all the gasoline needed right now. There is less US and Canadian refining capacity today than there was before the pandemic, as some refineries closed permanently, and others are being converted to refine renewable fuels rather than crude oil.

JPMorgan notes that East Coast gasoline inventories are at their lowest level since 2011. The central driver behind the drawdown of inventories is higher-than-normal exports of gasoline, analysts at the bank said.

As high as prices are in the United States, they’re much higher in Europe, which is dealing with the loss of supply from Russia. That’s a major factor driving up exports from US and Canadian refineries that would normally supply Eastern US gas stations.

“If exports persist at this elevated pace and refinery runs — already near the top range for reasonable utilization rates — fall within our expectations, gasoline inventories could continue to draw to levels below 2008 lows and retail gasoline prices could climb to $6/gallon or even higher,” the JPMorgan analysts wrote.

Based on those assumptions, total US gasoline inventories could fall below 160 million barrels by the end of August, the lowest level since the 1950s.

Such a decline in inventories suggests a 37% jump in prices, translating to a national average of $6.20 a gallon, the bank said. And at those levels, gas prices would blow past their inflation-adjusted peak of $5.38, set in June 2008, according to the EIA. The price hit $4.11 at that time, not adjusted for inflation.

JPMorgan said that unless refineries “immediately” cut exports and shift production towards gasoline, “US consumers should not expect much in the way of relief in prices at the pump until the end of the year.”

One thing that could limit gas prices, or even send them lower, would be if the US economy slows or falls into recession. Strong job growth is one factor driving gas prices higher as more people are driving to work and have money to spend on gas. If the jobs trend reverses, that would keep gas from going higher, but at a terrible cost.

The one wild card that could raise gasoline prices is if major hurricanes hit the US refineries and oil platforms along the Gulf Coast. The official government outlook for the upcoming hurricane season is due out next week.