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Pain at the Pump: Who's getting richer, who's getting poorer

When you pay $4 a gallon for gasoline, where does the money go? (©istockphoto.com/Tim McCaig) When you pay $4 a gallon for gasoline, where does the money go? (©istockphoto.com/Tim McCaig)

May 21, 2008

By Daniel Fisher

NATIONAL (Forbes.com) - Drivers seeking relief from rising gas prices might not want to read further. Retail gas prices hit record highs for the ninth day in a row Friday, AAA reported. Feeling the most pain at the pump? Drivers in Alaska and Connecticut. They are paying $4.042 and $4.008 a gallon respectively.

Refineries actually are among the losers when high gasoline prices reduce consumption.

Winners
and Losers
at the
Gas Pump

But they're not the only ones suffering. The prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline this summer is making losers -- and some winners -- out of others. That obnoxious neighbor with the Hummer? At an estimated $150 a fill-up, you can put him firmly in the loser category. Your Prius-driving sister-in-law, who had the foresight to load up on Exxon stock two years ago? Winner.

There are other ways to play the $4-gas game. VSMPO-AVISMA, for example. Never heard of it? This Russian company is world's largest producer of titanium, a lightweight metal used in aircraft engines and frames whose value only increases as fuel prices rise.

Investors have put titanium producers in the loser category because they think high fuel prices and economic troubles will reduce demand for air travel. At $80 a share, U.S. producer Allegheny Technologies  is down 31% from last summer, for example, and Titanium Metals  is down almost 50%.

But that could be a mistake, says Kevin Michaels, an analyst with Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Aerostrategy LLC. While Airbus and Boeing  have repeatedly delayed production of their new, titanium-rich airliners, the order backlog for these more efficient aircraft indicates titanium demand will soar when they finally do hit the market.

The frame of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner will be 15% titanium, Michaels says, and most jet engines are now 20% titanium. Titanium also bonds better with carbon fiber, another weight-saving material, than does aluminum.

"Every pound you get out of the aircraft saves you one hell of a lot of money," Michaels says. He expects aerospace titanium demand, currently around 90 million pounds a year, to triple in the next 10 years.

If the titanium producers are poised to rally, muscleboat manufacturers seem to be headed straight to the bottom. Burning $200 worth of fuel or more an hour, these needle-nosed testosterone displays are losing their luster with every uptick in prices. That's had dire effects on manufacturers like Challenger Powerboats, which filed for Chapter 7 liquidation last month; Fountain Powerboat Industries, which at a recent price of $1.50 a share is down 80% from its 2006 peak; and other marine-products companies like Brunswick and West Marine.

The outlook's a little brighter for plug-in hybrid cars. Electric utilities love the idea, because they can sell electrons to "fill them up" at night, when they have excess power, and potentially draw the electricity out of them during the day when electrons are scarce. That will take advanced infrastructure, but they're working on it.

Battery manufacturer A123 Systems is selling a $9,995 kit that will turn a Toyota Prius, already thrifty at 46 miles per gallon, into a fuel miser that gets more than 100 miles to the gallon. Filling it up will cost around 70 cents in even the most expensive electricity markets.

People who buy the kits might end up losers, however. Even if gas goes to $5 a gallon and stays there, a 30-mile-a-day commuter would need more than a decade to earn a payback on the cost of the kit. And Toyota is ambivalent about them: A spokesperson says installing the kit "may" void the warranty, because of the extra wear-and-tear heavy discharges put on the Prius batteries.

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