The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the government’s main gauge of inflation, rose 8.5 percent over the 12 months ended in March. The recipe for today’s inflation: Start with two years of pent-up consumer demand from pandemic lockdowns, then mix in supply chain disruptions that reduced the availability of everything from computer chips to diapers. Add in ultra-low interest rates, which made lots of cheap money available. Finally, stir in a war in Ukraine that sent energy prices soaring. Voilà: the highest inflation rate in 40 years.
Your personal inflation rate could be higher or lower than the government’s figures. The CPI represents a basket of goods and services likely to be purchased by urban consumers. Each item in the basket is given a different weight according to its importance. Energy, including gasoline, fuel oil and electricity, has a 7.5 percent weight in the CPI, while food has a 13.4 percent weight. If you don’t drive much, your inflation rate would be lower than for someone who has a 40-mile round trip to work.
Just as the 30 stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average rise or fall at different rates on any given day, so do the hundreds of items that make up the CPI. Some items that rose sharply in price over the past year showed signs of leveling off in March, while others continued to climb. Here’s a look at the biggest price jumps over the past 12 months, plus how much each item either increased or fell between February and March.
12-month increase: 48.8 percent
March increase: 19.3 percent
Russia isn’t the largest producer of crude oil — that would be the United States — but it does produce 10.5 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration. At that rate, it ranks fourth in the world, producing 11 percent of the world’s total oil output.
Outrage about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted some Western importers, including the U.S., to ban Russian oil imports. The U.S. imported about 8.47 million barrels of oil a day, of which 8 percent, or 672,000 barrels a day, came from Russia.
Oil prices are set on the world market, which reacts not only to current events, but to anticipated future events. Further complicating matters has been the emergence of OPEC Plus. OPEC stands for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, founded in 1960 by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. There are now 13 member countries. The “plus” part includes Russia and other large oil producers that, while not OPEC members, have been coordinating with OPEC to boost oil prices. “The thing that’s amazing is that it’s an incredibly disciplined cartel at the moment,” Tom Kloza, head of energy analysis for the Oil Price Information Service, told AARP in November. “It’s a real tight ship. And that has pushed up the price of crude.”
President Biden has authorized release of oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve and authorized additional drilling permits on public land. You need oil to make gasoline, of course. Currently, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is $4.16, according to AAA, down from a record $4.33 on March 11, 2022.
Used Cars and Trucks
12-month increase: 35.3 percent
March decrease: -3.8 percent
As if shopping for a used car wasn’t difficult enough, it’s even harder to find a bargain these days. Normally, new cars lose about 20 percent of their value when you drive them off the lot. In April used cars, from Hyundais to Mercedes, were selling for more than new ones, according to iSeeCars.
Blame the pandemic. Normally, there’s a plentiful supply of used cars, as drivers exchange their old cars for new ones. During the lockdown, people were either working from home and not driving much, or they were too worried about keeping their job and therefore holding on to their old cars.
Supply chain shortages, which still plague car manufacturers, meant that fewer new cars were being built, and those that were being built were more expensive. (New car prices jumped 12.5 percent over the 12 months ended in March.)
Fortunately, some of the conditions that sent used car prices soaring are beginning to ease. Pandemic restrictions have been falling, and new car sales are booming: Both Ford and General Motors say that the global computer-chip shortage, which stalled new-car production, is easing. More Americans are returning to workplaces, which means a need for working wheels. And the U.S. consumer is in good condition to go shopping: The personal savings rate stood at a robust 6.3 percent in February, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
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12-month increase: 23.6 percent
March increase: 10.7 percent
Are you planning a trip this summer? Congratulations! So is everyone else, because so many people have had to postpone vacations during the pandemic. Now they are not only itching to get away but have the money for it, too.
Unfortunately, airlines have been hit with a triple whammy: higher fuel prices, fewer flights and higher labor costs. Let’s start with fuel costs. On May 1, 2020, a gallon of kerosene-type jet fuel cost $1.96 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration; it costs about $4.23 a gallon now.
Air travel plunged 40 percent in 2020, the lowest on record. While it has been rising slowly, it remained below pre-pandemic levels in 2021. War in Ukraine is also making travel to some areas more difficult. Because so many people in the travel industry were laid off during the pandemic, the industry has had to offer higher wages and, in some cases, bonuses to lure workers back.
As a result, you’re paying more to get to Disneyland or the South Seas. You’re paying more when you get there, too: Hotel prices have jumped 29 percent over the past 12 months, and car rentals — when you can get them — are up 23 percent.
12-month increase: 20.4 percent
March increase: 0.2 percent
You’re going to pay more for slapping that steak on the grill this summer, and it’s not because of a shortage of cattle. Instead, a shortage of processing capacity is at the heart of the problem. Meat packing is a tough job, and it doesn’t pay much. (Meat packing companies, however, are doing quite well: Tyson reported that first-quarter 2022 earnings rose 48 percent year over year.)
Furthermore, cows eat corn and corn prices have gone up, in part because of the cost of fertilizer, which is based largely on energy prices. Natural gas, an important component for making fertilizer, has risen 21.6 percent over the past 12 months.
If steak is taking too much of a bite out of your budget, consider throwing hamburger on the grill instead: It’s up a more palatable 13.8 percent over the past 12 months. And ham, while up 14.6 percent over the past 12 months, actually fell 1.2 percent in March.
12-month increase: 16.8 percent
March increase: 0.3 percent
Supposedly, Oscar Wilde’s last words were “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Many people confined to home during the pandemic can probably understand why demand for living room, kitchen and dining room furniture, along with other household items, is soaring.
Unfortunately, supply for those items is tight. If you’re thumbing through a furniture catalog, be aware that the divan of your dreams may well be on a container ship off the California coast, waiting to be unloaded. The Global Container Freight Index, which measures the cost of shipping, has soared to 8,152 in March 2022, from 4,872 a year earlier. Since the start of the pandemic, the shipping industry has had to struggle with port closures and congestion, labor shortages and difficulties with capacity utilization, as well as a lack of new shipping containers, according to Statista.
It’s not just shipping: It’s also demand. People who have been staying home the past two years have decided that those window shades or that sofa just has to go. Window coverings are up 18.4 percent; bedroom furniture is up 14.7 percent; clocks, lamps and decorator items are up 12.2 percent.
John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.