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Consumer Confidential: Holiday travel, hybrids, teddy bear recall

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Here's your three-times-a-lady Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- What's the latest word on the living hell that is Thanksgiving travel? Here you go. About 42.5 million people in the United States are expected to hit the road to visit family and friends, the highest number of holiday travelers since the start of the recession. Travel tracker AAA says that 4% more Americans than last year will journey at least 50 miles from home, with about 90% of them driving. Another 8% plan to fly, but AAA notes that higher airfares and less available seats have forced many would-be fliers to drive instead. The remaining travelers plan to take buses, trains or other forms of transport. Also, those driving should expect to pay more at the pump. The average price of a gallon of gas so far this November is $3.42, up nearly 20% from last year’s $2.86. (Associated Press)

-- For drivers, hybrid vehicles can be a good deal safer than conventional cars. For pedestrians, though, they can be more dangerous because they can sneak right up on you. Occupants of hybrid vehicles sustain fewer injuries in crashes than those who are involved in accidents in non-hybrid cars, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute. The same study says hybrids cause more pedestrian crashes than their non-hybrid counterparts because their relatively quiet operation can make them stealthy on the road. The study suggests the weight of hybrids contributed to a 25% decrease in bodily injuries for those riding in the vehicles. (Los Angeles Times)

-- Heads up: Build-a-Bear Workshop is recalling more than 21,000 swimwear and inner tube sets sold in the U.S. and Canada. The inner tube accessory can be pulled over a small child's head, posing a strangulation hazard. Build-a-Bear received one report of an incident in which a 3-year-old girl pulled the inner tube over her head and had difficulty removing it. The inner tube is part of the three-piece Fruit Tutu Bikini swimwear set for teddy bears, which includes a two-piece fruit-print bikini. The inner tube is nine inches in diameter and pink with white and yellow flowers printed on it. Build-a-Bear Workshop sold the swimwear sets nationwide from April to August for $12.50. They were made in China. (ConsumerAffairs.com)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: There will be more people traveling for Thanksgiving. Enjoy! Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

 

Consumer Confidential: Retail sales, reliable cars, Whole Foods

Retail sales rose in October.

Here's your takin'-it-to-the-streets Tuesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--We're shopping, and that's good for the economy, but we're in danger of living beyond our means. Retail sales rose in October, suggesting the economy started the fourth quarter with some zip to its stride. Another report showed wholesale prices fell during October as gas prices dropped, signaling a cooling of fuel-driven inflation pressures that have hit consumers' pocketbooks. But analysts say Europe's debt crisis could push the United States back into recession early next year. Moreover, consumer spending is rising faster than incomes, which can't be sustained. What do we need? Jobs. Lot of them. (Reuters)

--Getting a great deal on a set of wheels is one thing. Keeping those wheels running is another. So which cars are cheapest to maintain? Toyota gets the top spot for reliability, followed by Hyundai. The rankings were compiled by auto diagnostic and repair website CarMD, which collects repair data from its network of 3,000 U.S. mechanics. Rounding out the top 5 were Honda, Ford and General Motors, followed by Mitsubishi, Nissan, Kia, Volkswagen and Chrysler. Now you know. (MoneyWatch)

--Whole Foods wants to protect your little fingers while also doing some good for people abroad. The company's new initiative with Comfort the Children and Allegro Coffee allows shoppers to make a direct, positive influence on Kenyan women and special needs children through products called LIFE Jackets. LIFE (Livelihood, Investment, Financials and Empowerment) Jackets are reusable canvas cup sleeves that protect the environment as well as your hands from hot beverages. The total 99-cent cost of each cup sleeve goes straight to Comfort the Children, a nonprofit that helps poor Kenyan mothers with special needs children. Nice. (DailyFinance)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Shoppers are coming out in force as the holidays approach. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times

 

Wholesale prices for gas, cars down in October

The producer price index was down 0.3% after rising 0.8% in September

Wholesale prices for pickup trucks and gas slipped for the first time since June, according to the Labor Department.

The producer price index was down 0.3% after rising 0.8% in September, the government agency said Tuesday.

Wholesale gas prices slid 2.4%, while the cost of cars dipped 0.8% and the price of pickup trucks dropped 1.6%.

Food prices were on the upswing for the fifth consecutive month, increasing 0.1%. The cost of chicken jumped 4.8%; eggs were also pricier.

Overall, however, inflationary pressures may be leveling off, giving consumers a bit more room to spend during the upcoming holiday season.

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Food prices set to rise most in 30 years, economist says

Wholesale prices rise in September on sharp increases in gas, food

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Oil rally cools, ending six straight weeks of gains

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The latest oil rally has cooled so far today, ending six straight weeks of gains.

Any slowdown in the rebound of crude oil is welcome news to consumers, who continue to pay the highest gasoline prices on record for this time of year.

Crude oil for December delivery dropped $1.32 to $97.67 a barrel during trading on the NYMEX on Monday, ending the commodity's longest sustained rise in more than two years. Brent oil was down $2.09 to $112.07 a barrel Monday on the London-based ICE Futures Exchange.

Oil prices have rallied strongly -- up 30.3% -- since early October, when the commodity fell to its 2011 low of $74.95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That was the same day that the European benchmark, Brent North Sea crude, fell below $100 a barrel.

Analysts said the oil rally was driven by strong demand for oil in emerging economies and by the loss of Libyan oil production during its civil war. The price of oil was down Monday, however, even though Japan posted its first economic growth since its earthquake and tsunami earlier this year.

Retail gasoline prices remained a burden on consumers.

The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline around the nation Monday was $3.417, up a penny from a week ago and 9.7% higher than the old record for this time of year of $3.111, which was set in 2007.

In California, the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.820, down 1.8 cents from last week, but 12.5% higher than the previous record for this time of year, which was $3.395, also set in 2007.

Gasoline prices remain high, in part, because some of the nation's refiners are making more diesel and heating oil at this time of year and exporting record amounts of diesel overseas, where they can make more of a profit.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey, added that demand for gasoline in the U.S. is so low that refineries who aren't selling overseas are shutting down production or at least considering the same.

"On the Eastern half of the country, we've already seen Conoco-Phillips shut down a refinery and Sunoco may be ready to shut down another," Kloza said. "This is also going to set the stage for a big rally in gasoline prices in the Spring of 2012."

ALSO:

U.S. fuel exports hit new record

Gas prices may hit record in 2012

Occidental hits new production record

-- Ronald D. White

Photo: Mohammad Rezaie changes the gas prices at his 76 gas station in Oakland, Calif. Prices remain at record highs for this time of year. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

U.S. fuel exports hit new record in August

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U.S. exports of refined fuels, particularly diesel, have surged to fresh all-time highs, helping to keep the prices of gasoline and diesel in this country at record levels for this time of year.

In 2003, U.S. refiners exported a little more than 100,000 barrels of fuel a day, primarily to Central America and South America, the federal Energy Department said. Since then, that figure has soared, reaching 656,000 barrels a day in 2010, marking a seventh straight record year. This year, export volume has moved further into record territory. It averaged 730,000 barrels a day through the first six months of the year.

In August, the latest month for which Energy Department data is available, those exports jumped again, to a record 895,000 barrels a day during one of the busiest months of the summer driving season in the U.S.

Driving the trend is strong global demand for diesel fuel.

"Increases in U.S. distillate exports began as global diesel consumption growth outpaced growth in consumption of other petroleum products over the past decade," the department said in a recent report. "According to the International Energy Agency, from 2000 through 2008 (the last year for which a complete set of global data exists), global diesel consumption increased by 23%."

Where are the exports going? The Netherlands (146,000 barrels a day) is the biggest buyer, followed by Mexico (112,000 barrels), Panama (63,000), Brazil (56,000), Colombia (54,000), France (42,000) and Peru (41,000).

Why are record diesel exports affecting gasoline prices? The Energy Department says surging diesel prices have "provided incentives to refiners to shift some production away from gasoline."

The result: The average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. today is $3.438, up 57.4 cents from a year ago, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. That's also 32.7 cents a gallon higher than the old record for this time of year, set in 2007.

In California, the average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline today is $3.839. That's 70.4 cents a gallon higher than a year ago and 47.3 cents a gallon higher than 2007's record level.

Exports of U.S. refined fuels are only expected to increase, with global demand projected to rise sharply in the coming years.

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Chevron earnings more than double

Gas prices may hit new record in 2012

High fuel prices affecting holiday plans

— Ronald D. White

Photo: A Conoco-Phillips oil refinery in Wilmington, Del. U.S. exports of refined fuels rose to a fresh record in August. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

U.S., California fuel prices may reach record highs in 2012

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A combination of burgeoning global demand and rising U.S. exports will leave California and national gasoline and diesel prices at such a high level by the end of the year that they could rise to all-time record highs in 2012, analysts said Monday.

Americans are currently on pace to spend a record $489 billion on gasoline in 2011 because prices have remained at high levels all year. The only year that came close to the current situation was 2008, when U.S. motorists spent about $448 billion on gasoline. But even though oil and refined fuel prices climbed to record highs in 2008, they quickly fell afterward. That is not the case this year.

"We are at the highest fuel prices ever for this time of year, even though they have dropped a bit in recent weeks," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey, who made the $489-billion projection. "I think we will see prices in 2012 that will break the records set in 2008."

In the summer of 2008, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $4.114, according to the U.S. Energy Department. In California, a gallon of regular gasoline reached $4.588.

The current national average is $3.407 for a gallon of regular, down from $3.443 last week, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, which tracks closely with the Energy Department numbers. That shattered the old record for this week of the year: $3.013 a gallon, set in 2007.

In California, a gallon of regular gasoline is averaging $3.838, down slightly from $3.841 a week ago. Again, that is substantially higher than the old record for this week of the year of $3.231 a gallon set in 2007.

The primary reason for the stubbornly high prices is demand in Latin and South America, which is driving record U.S. exports of fuel to those parts of the world, particularly in the form of diesel. U.S. refiners are also making more diesel at the expense of gasoline production, Kloza said.

"Demand for gasoline is down in the U.S. by 4% compared to last year, but global demand has more than made up for that," Kloza said. "If you want to blame someone for the high prices, blame South America."

Another expert said that gasoline prices could be even worse than they are right now, given that world oil prices are again on the rise.

The European commodities trading benchmark, Brent North Sea crude, was up $2.14 during trading to $114.11 a barrel, its highest since Sept. 15. The U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate crude, was up 77 cents to $95.03 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

"The national average is just one penny away from being the lowest we've seen since the start of March, even as crude oil prices have risen," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com. "So it does remain surprising that average prices have moved very little."

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Decision on oil pipeline may be delayed

Chevron earnings more than double

Fuel expense drives consumer price index

-- Ronald D. White

Chart: The AAA's rolling 12-month average for regular gasoline prices in the U.S. and California is well above 2010 levels. Prices may hit new highs in 2012, experts say. Credit: AAA Fuel Gauge Report

Rising gas prices will not affect holiday shopping, poll says

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Despite high gas prices, shoppers still plan to spend this holiday season, according to a new poll.

More than half of those surveyed said they plan to shell out the same amount on gifts as they did last year and 8% said they plan to spend slightly more, according to a member poll conducted by the Automobile Club of Southern California, which released it Wednesday.

Still, rising gas prices weigh heavily in the back of consumers’ minds. Seventy percent of Southern California shoppers said that gas cost already has had a significant effect on their household budget.

Gas currently averages $3.82 a gallon in Southern California -– up from a steady $3.10 a gallon during the same period last year.

Months of bad economic news have shoppers concerned, but not the overly cautious that many retailers fear.  Only 16 percent of local consumers said they will spend less this year.  Most cited unemployment, rising housing costs and mounting bills as reasons they were tight-fisted with their money this holiday.

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Savings rate falls as spending outpaces income gains

Gas prices aren't falling fast enough to suit consumers

Gas below $3 a gallon in some places -- but not in California

-- Angel Jennings

Photo: Toke Fusi posts prices at a Shell station in Menlo Park, Calif. Credit: Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

Gasoline prices at historic highs for this time of year

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The new normal for gasoline prices continues to drain the incomes of American consumers.

Over the past week, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. stabilized, down just 1.1 cents to $3.451 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. But that's 22% higher than the old record for this week of the year, which was an average of $2.823 a gallon set in 2007.

The financial burden in California is higher. Although the state's average for a gallon of regular gasoline was unchanged over the past week, at $3.853, that was 22.6% higher than the old record for this time of year -- $3.143 a gallon, first set in 2007 and repeated in 2010.

With the nation still poised to shatter the old record for gasoline spending of $449 billion in 2008 by shelling out as much as $491 billion this year, Phil Flynn, an analyst for PFGBest Research in Chicago, said, "It's like we just can't ever get a break. This has really been a bad year for fuel prices."

There has been some hope that the end of hostilities in Libya might quickly bring down world oil prices, said GasBuddy.com senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan, "but I just don't see it happening."

Oil was rising early Monday based on hope that a solution to the European debt crisis was near. On the New York Mercantile Exchange, crude oil futures for oil for December delivery were up 46 cents to $87.86 a barrel. On the ICE Futures Exchange in London, Brent oil rose 76 cents to $110.32 a barrel.

Analysts say that world demand for refined fuels is driving U.S. gasoline prices, with the U.S. exporting record amounts of fuel. In addition, U.S. refineries are processing more diesel than usual instead of gasoline to meet that global demand.

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Fuel costs driving whole price rise

Californians are burning less gasoline

California first to adopt cap and trade

-- Ronald D. White

Photo: U.S. oil refineries are processing more diesel and less gasoline to meet rising global demand, helping to keep U.S. gas prices at record highs for this time of year. Credit: Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times

Consumer Confidential: Store prices, student loans, bank fees

The consumer price index rose 0.3% in September
Here's your walk-on-by Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--You're paying a little more food and clothes and stuff -- and that's probably not such a bad thing. The consumer price index rose 0.3% in September, less than the 0.4% increase in August, according to the Labor Department. Excluding food and energy, so-called core prices increased 0.1%, the smallest increase since March. Food prices rose 0.4% in September, pushed up by big increases in dairy, cereals and fruits and vegetables. Gas prices rose 2.9%. Costs of medical care, airline fares and tobacco also increased. But economists say a little bit of inflation is a good thing because it shows the economy is relatively stable. A deflationary spiral is something to be feared because it can lead to more jobs being lost and more pistol whippings for stocks.

--Speaking of inflation, let's talk about student loans. The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100-billion mark for the first time, and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Students are borrowing twice what they did a decade ago after adjusting for inflation. Total outstanding debt has doubled in the last five years -- a sharp contrast to consumers reducing what's owed on home loans and credit cards. Full-time undergraduate students borrowed an average $4,963 in 2010, up 63% from a decade earlier after adjusting for inflation. And down the road, of course, those bills will have to be paid.

--Looks like many consumers won't take higher bank fees on the chin. About 30% of U.S. consumers say they'd leave their banks over fees for using their debit cards, according to a survey by the Research Intelligence Group. About 43% say they'd switch to paying with cash or credit cards if their bank implemented charges, while 13% say they'd pay the fee if it was "reasonable." The survey comes as the largest banks, including Bank of America, are testing or planning to start charging fees of as much as $5 a month for consumers who have a debit card or use one for purchases.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: You might have to look harder for bargains amid rising prices. Credit: Rahoul Ghose / We TV

 

Consumer prices rise on higher food and energy costs

The consumer price index rose 0.3% in September
If you noticed higher prices at the supermarket and gas station last month, you're not alone.

The consumer price index rose 0.3% in September, less than the 0.4% increase in August, the Labor Department said Wednesday. Excluding food and energy, so-called core prices increased 0.1%, the smallest increase since March.

But if you're a consumer, of course, food and gas prices matter. Food prices rose 0.4% in September, pushed up by big increases in dairy, cereals and fruits and vegetables. Gas prices rose 2.9%. Costs of medical care, airline fares and tobacco also increased.

Dairy prices have jumped 10.2% in the past year. Gas prices have soared 33.3%. Those increases are big reasons why inflation has jumped 3.9% in the 12 months ending in September -- the largest year-over-year increase in three years. 

The annual increase in consumer prices means that 55 million Social Security beneficiaries will receive higher benefits next year. They will get a 3.6% cost-of-living increase, the first since 2009. That's because Social Security checks are tied to the consumer price index.

There was some good news in the September report. Apparel prices declined after a series of sharp increases, and prices for used cars and recreation fell. New-vehicle prices stayed flat. 

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Consumer bureau nominee Richard Cordray backed by 37 state AGs

-- Pat Benson

Photo: Shoppers check out at a Costco in Mountain View, Calif. Credit: Associated Press

Pain at the pump continues

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Retail gasoline prices are on the rise again after five straight weeks of decline. The new increases are adding to the pain of historically high fuel costs for this time of year.

In California, which has returned to its customary position as the most expensive state for fuel in the 48 contiguous states, the average cost of a gallon of regular rose 4.8 cents over the past week to $3.853. The numbers are courtesy of the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, which uses retail receipts from more than 100,000 service stations around the U.S.

A year ago, the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in California was $3.149, the AAA said. In the past year, that means the cost of filling a typical 15-gallon tank has gone up by $10.56.

Nationally, the price was also on the rise, up 6.7 cents over the past week to an average of $3.462 for a gallon of regular gasoline. A year ago, the national average was just $2.834 a gallon.

One major reason for the increases was the fact that the U.S. is exporting a considerable amount of fuel overseas, leaving the nation's supplies more vulnerable to sudden price bumps if there are any refinery outages.

"Highlighting what I've reiterated for weeks, we're seeing gasoline prices continue their volatile trend, and this time that trend is upward," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, where members report the lowest and highest prices they see.

"Over the next week, we'll see a continued rise in gasoline prices," DeHaan added.

Also: The new normal on gasoline prices

Rising exports keep U.S. fuel prices high

California gasoline use falls despite more drivers

--Ronald D. White 

 Chart: GasBuddy.com's latest nine-month tracking of the national average on regular gasoline prices shows rising pain at the pump. Courtesy: GasBuddy.com

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