Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hedging gasoline, calling the White House home

It takes an enormous staff to maintain the White House. But do any of the mansion's butlers, chefs or handymen actually call the residence of presidents home?

That's one of the questions in this edition of "Ask AP," a weekly Q&A column where AP journalists respond to readers' questions about the news.

If you have your own news-related question that you'd like to see answered by an AP reporter or editor, send it to, with "Ask AP" in the subject line. And please include your full name and hometown so they can be published with your question.

Q: Now that prices for a barrel of oil and a gallon of gasoline have dropped so sharply, is there something the average consumer can do to "hedge" the price of fuel, the way the airlines do? Is there any sort of mechanism for this that's at a scale appropriate for individuals and families? Douglas Olson, Laurel, Md.

A: Airlines and other energy-intense industries use a complex system of financial instruments to protect themselves against rising fuel costs by locking in prices as early as possible. Their hedging methods have been described as everything from gambling to buying insurance.

Because even a price change as small as a penny could cost millions when buying enormous amounts of fuel, the complexity of hedging is worth it for large companies. But for individual consumers it doesn't make much sense to constantly troll through trading data.

The average American could, in theory, buy a year's supply of gasoline at current prices and stockpile it. Though local planning boards, not to mention the FBI, might frown on having a storage tank next to your kids' swing set.

There are other options, though. Through an exchange traded fund, or ETF, retail investors can pool resources to buy crude oil and reap the benefits - or suffer the repercussions - when prices change.

Many ETFs, such as the U.S. Oil Fund, tend to mirror the price of crude, and could in theory be sold for a profit if prices flirt with $150 per barrel again. That way investors can offset price jumps at the pump.

"When you know you have these expenses, you can use the ETF to hedge them out," said Paul Justice, an ETF strategist at Morningstar. "You just have to anticipate how much you are going to spend."

Buying a five-year ETF might seem like a good move, but like any investment it's a risk because no one knows where crude prices could go in the future, he said. Justice cautions that oil-related ETFs can be a "risky proposition" and should only be used by those confident enough to ride the market. Ernest Scheyder, AP Energy Writer, New York

Q: Does anyone live in the White House other than the president and his family? Members of the White House staff, for example? Felix Jimenez, Los Angeles

A: President George W. Bush and his family are the only residents of the White House, according to first lady Laura Bush's spokeswoman. The next inhabitants are expected to follow that tradition. President-elect Barack Obama's mother-in-law will also be living at the White House with Michelle Obama and the two children, at least temporarily.

But that's not to say the two-century-old compound is ever empty or dark. Military aides assigned to the president work in shifts; the family quarters have butlers and valets available at all hours. And it's not uncommon to find White House political aides at their desks late into the evening or very early in the morning.

The White House encompasses a small army of workers, from the four florists and five chefs to the four calligraphers and four curators. The payroll also includes 33 handymen who tend to the six-level, 132-room mansion and its 31 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, three kitchens, three elevators, movie theater and bowling alley. And they're available 24 hours a day.

The White House compound also features sleeping quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House, the official government guest house. Other visitors sometimes stay in the private residence of the White House itself. But only the president's family calls 1600 Pennsylvania home. Philip Elliott, Associated Press Writer, Washington

Q: We recently returned from a vacation in Mexico. On Jan. 3-4, we spent 15 hours to cross the border into the U.S. at the Columbia Bridge outside Laredo, Texas. This leads me to suspect that the highest volume of border crossing into Mexico probably happens the weekend before Christmas, and the highest volume into the U.S. happens the weekend after New Year's.

When does the highest volume of crossings across the U.S.-Mexico border occur, so we can avoid those days in the future? Richard Capestani, Texas City, Texas

A: The busiest traffic days crossing the Colombia-Solidarity Bridge in Laredo come around the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Heading south into Mexico traffic peaked on Dec. 20, the Saturday before Christmas, when it was five times higher than any other day in 2008, according to the City of Laredo Bridge System. The next busiest days were Dec. 19 and Dec. 21. Returning north into the United States, the heaviest traffic came the day after New Year's and the day after Christmas, followed by Jan. 3, Jan. 4 and Dec. 27, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Not surprisingly, other heavy traffic days on the bridge track other holidays, especially Holy Week, leading up to Easter.

Similar holiday traffic snarls are common at crossings all along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Memorial Day, border traffic kept an AP reporter in El Paso from getting to work; she called in "stuck in Mexico." Christopher Sherman, Associated Press Writer, Harlingen, Texas