According to Google Trends data, Americans are searching the word “recession” more than at any other time since 2004. This makes sense, given the current collision of rising prices, elevated unemployment, and a reeling stock market.
Last week, the S&P 500 entered bear market territory — a decline of 20% or more from recent highs, and in this case, the exchange’s January heights. This symbolic, psychological hurdle for investors often indicates a recession. In addition, the consumer price index — a significant inflation gauge — rose 8.6% in the year through May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last Friday, marking its highest jump since December 1981.
While this may hurt wallets at the grocery store and at the pump, how much more are people really paying over the last couple of years? We can throw out statistics all day, but Reddit user DataIsBeautiful helps visualize price changes since 2020, with an animated chart. Using data from several leading economic evaluators, including Morningstar and Bloomberg indexes, DataIsBeautiful marks rising and falling prices via a moving bar graph for 10 critical commodities over the last two and a half years.
Not surprisingly, the graph indicates that gas prices have risen by an astounding 233.5% since January 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Association indicates that retail gas prices averaged $2.58 at that time, which meant that filling up a midsize sedan cost around $38. As of June 13, prices averaged $5 per gallon, which meant that filling up the same car cost about $73 (and even more if you live in California). While this isn’t exactly what the graph cites, it still gives people a good idea of how much gas has jumped in a short time. Why has fossil fuel increased so much in price? An almost unprecedented combination of economic forces and geopolitical actions and namely, the economy’s rapid post-pandemic recovery and a huge oil producer deciding to attack another country.
Gas prices were all the way down to $1.78 per gallon in May 2020, when essentially the entire planet shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prices shot up throughout the second half of 2021, as vaccines became more and more widely available and people were able to travel again. These prices began to stabilize in early 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, which led to a global backlash against Putin’s regime and escalating fuel costs, because Russia produces more oil than all but two other countries.
This conflict also has had an enormous effect on wheat prices, a staple found in a huge variety of foods, leading to higher grocery bills. Up over 110% in the last two years, this is what will happen when Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Europe,” isn’t able to grow the crop. According to Axios, wheat prices spiked not only after the Ukrainian invasion, but also after India announced a ban on wheat exports in mid-May to fight its own rising prices and demand for the commodity.
Corn costs are up almost by the same amount for reasons that include rising demand for the food staple due to the ongoing conflict. A decades-long mega-drought in the western U.S. and continuing low water levels elsewhere in the world have also contributed to greater rates. These conditions also are contributing to higher costs for coffee beans. Bloomberg notes that dry weather in Brazil has led Arabica bean prices to more than double over the past year. The beans also require shipment to the U.S., which, with supply chain turmoil and rising freight costs, are contributing to a lack of supply. Roasters are ripping through inventories as dwindling stockpiles monitored by the ICE Futures U.S. exchange note that levels are at their lowest in two decades.
Cotton prices have also doubled in the last two years due to similar factors — droughts in West Texas in concert with overseas demand, which, in order to fulfill, requires gas to be delivered across the world.
While this economic and geopolitical storm is swirling, it’s a good reminder of how interconnected the world has become. The downsides are obvious — food and commodity shortages, leaner wallets, less availability of goods — yet the advantage is that there are opportunities to make drastic and lasting structural changes in order to assure that not only the world economy makes it through this tempest, but is more resilient for the next one.
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