The U.S. Department of Transportation reported last week that Americans are cutting back on driving. Department of Energy crude oil inventories are at a six-month high, and gasoline prices around the country have retreated to about $2 a gallon.

In the face of 542,000 initial jobless claims, more than 4 million continuing claims and an unemployment rate at a 14-year high of 6.5%, U.S. companies are trying to shrink their way to profitability. Americans are hurting, and the pain worsens when they check their retirement and other brokerage accounts.

Market volatility has been breathtaking, with the VIX spiking above 80 on Thursday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke its Oct. 10 low. For the five trading days ending Thursday, the Dow Industrials lost 14.4% of its value, and the S&P 500 slumped 17.4%.

Over the same period, the average energy and natural resources fund tracked by TheStreet.com Ratings dropped 23.2%. The spot price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil has crashed 65.8% to $49.62 per barrel from its 2008 high, with 14.8% of the decline coming last week.

The worst-performing energy fund last week was the

Direxionshares Energy Bull 3X Shares

(ERX) - Get Report

. The fund, which has only been trading since Nov. 6, was chopped in half, losing 49.37% for the week. The fund employs 300% leverage to the return on the Russell 1000 Energy Index.

With just 150% leverage, the

ProFunds Oil Equipment, Services, & Distribution UltraSector ProFund

(OEPIX) - Get Report

pumped out a loss of 38.85% for fund holders. Oil drillers make economic decisions about the viability of their projects based, in part, on price expectations of oil. Low oil prices are bad news for fund holdings of

Helix Energy Solutions Group

(HLX) - Get Report

, off 56.14%;

Crosstex Energy

(XTXI)

, down 46.92%;

ION Geophysical

(IO) - Get Report

, off 49.39%; and

Hercules Offshore

(HERO)

, down 42.70% for the period.

The third-worst-performing fund last week was the

Market Vectors-Coal ETF

(KOL) - Get Report

, shedding 38.55% on declines of 54.10% in

Patriot Coal

(PCX)

, 51.82% in

Walter Industries

(WLT)

, and 51.77% in

International Coal Group

(ICO)

. The spot price for low sulfur, Big Sandy Barge coal is down to $77.5 per short ton, or 41.9% off its June 2008 high.

Four inverse funds were the only gainers last week, with the 300% inverse leveraged

Direxionshares Energy Bear 3X Shares

(ERY) - Get Report

skyrocketing 68.40% over the five trading days. At 200% negative leverage were the

Rydex Inverse 2X S&P Select Energy ETF

(REC)

, up 42.06%, and the

UltraShort Oil & Gas ProShares

(DUG) - Get Report

, up 41.10%. Industry leaders

ExxonMobil

(XOM) - Get Report

, off 9.15%;

Chevron

(CVX) - Get Report

, down 14.18%; and

Schlumberger

(SLB) - Get Report

, off 23.40%; assisted the appreciation in these funds.

Parking lots full of unsold, imported automobiles are filling up at the port of Long Beach, California, while

Honda

(HMC) - Get Report

cuts U.K. auto production. Last week,

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

and

Ford

(F) - Get Report

got rebuffed from Congress after asking for a bailout. Don't look for a quick rebound for motor fuel demand.

The silver lining is that these lower energy costs should be helpful in reducing the pocketbook stress on American consumers as we work our way though this economic trough.

For an explanation of our ratings,

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.

Kevin Baker became the senior financial analyst for TSC Ratings upon the August 2006 acquisition of Weiss Ratings by TheStreet.com, covering mutual funds. He joined the Weiss Group in 1997 as a banking and brokerage analyst. In 1999, he created the Weiss Group's first ratings to gauge the level of risk in U.S. equities. Baker received a B.S. degree in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an M.B.A. with a finance specialization from Nova Southeastern University.