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According to the Biden administration, it’s the #PutinPriceHike. That is, don’t blame anything Washington has or hasn’t done for the the bulk of the high gasoline prices Americans have been paying lately. Instead, blame Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, his aggression against Ukraine, and the global oil market turmoil it’s triggered.

The trouble is, if you look at these prices in a comprehensive, statistically legitimate way, scapegoating Putin in this case isn’t justified yet. But the same methodology shows that Mr. Biden and his aides are off the hook, too – at least until recently.

Critics (see, e.g., here) have countered the Biden claims by noting that strong U.S. gasoline inflation predates the Ukraine war and even Russian military buildup by many months, and they’re right. As known by RealityChek readers, however, that’s far from the whole story. In particular, they’re ignoring the impact on gasoline and other prices of the ongoing aftermath of the CCP Virus pandemic, the brief but sharp recession created by the disease and related lockdowns and voluntary behavioral changes, and ongoing stop-start U.S. economy that’s still resulting.

In other words, they’re ignoring the “baseline effect” caused by the economic shocks of the 2020 pandemic year in particular. These drove economic activity down to such low levels, and kept it there so long, that any major return to normal (and therefore normal prices) is going to produce unusually lofty inflation stemming from a catch-up effect. Therefore, it won’t be possible to determine the role of other contributors to inflation in gasoline or any other goods and services until this baseline effect fades significantly and finally disappears. And therefore, scapegoating Biden for soaring gasoline prices pre-Ukraine buildup isn’t justified, either.

RealityChek reported yesterday that the latest official U.S. figures show that the baseline effect has ended for headline inflation, and looks on the way out for core inflation (which strips out food and energy price. And roughly the same is true for gasoline prices.

The table below shows their monthly year-on-year percentage changes for last year (2020-21) in the middle column and for pandemic-dominated 2019-2020 (in the righthand colum). The numbers begin in March because March, 2020 was the first month in which the virus began significantly affecting the economy.

Gasoline price annual percentage changes      2020-21             2019-20

March:                                                               22.58                 -10.05

April:                                                                 49.68                 -32.03

May:                                                                  56.51                 -33.67

June:                                                                  45.42                 -23.41

July:                                                                   41.93                -20.12

Aug.:                                                                  42.76                -16.67

Sept.:                                                                  41.93                -15.43

Oct.:                                                                   49.52                -18.15

As is evident, starting in March, 2020, gasoline prices began nosediving from their levels of 2019, and steep annual drops continued (though at a slower pace) through October. It’s easy to understand why. The combination of lockdowns and stay-at-home behavior caused automotive travel to crater, and national demand for gasoline naturally plummeted as well. Further, that’s clearly a big part of the reason why during the following March-October period, gasoline prices prices skyrocketed on the same annual basis. They were returning to normal from an artificially low base. And as a result, it’s wrong to blame the Biden administration exclusively or even mainly for this hot gasoline inflation.

From that point, however, the Blame Biden case gets stronger. The above table stops in October, 2021 because November was when the Putin military buildup began – and according to the Biden argument, gasoline prices really began taking off. What happened to annual gasoline prices increases from then until the end of  2021, and how strong was the baseline effect? Here are the numbers for November and December, with the 2020-21 annual increases in the middle column and the 2019-20 increases in the righthand column:

Gasoline price annual percentage changes      2020-21             2019-20

Nov.:                                                                  57.76                 -19.53

Dec.:                                                                  49.34                 -15.34

The strong 2020-21 yearly price increases continued for these two months. But the baseline effect (from the big 2019-20 price drops) weakened. In fact, the December, 2019-20 annual 15.34 percent annual gasoline price decline was the smallest such figure since March, 2019-20’s 10.05 percent. And the annual increase for the following March (22.58 percent) was less than half December’s 49.34 percent.

What about this January and February? For these months, of course, the comparison years are 2021-22 (whose increases are presented in the middle column) and 2020-21 (in the right hand column).

Gasoline price annual percentage changes      2020-21             2019-20

Jan.:                                                                   40.02                  -8.90

Feb.:                                                                   38.01                   5.42

So the story for the first two months of this year – between the start of Putin’s buildup and the (late February) invasion – is that annual increases slowed, but the baseline effect vanished much faster. Indeed, between February, 2020 and February, 2021, gasoline prices actually rose. So the administration’s #PutinPriceHike claims hold much less water.

Blaming Putin will become more credible going forward, as sales of Russian oil worldwide are curbed by sanctions. Since the global oil market is so thoroughly integrated, U.S. oil supplies will be crimped and upward price pressures will strengthen. But this is also the point at which other major administration policies will rightly attract attention for their role in spurring torrid gasoline inflation. They include in particular measures and rhetoric that throughout the President’s term have convinced oil and other fossil fuel providers that their industries’ growth will keep facing ever greater policy obstacles, and whose cumulative effect has undercut their ability to ramp up output quickly to fill the Russia gap.(See, e.g., here and here.)

All of which means that, as is the almost always the case with major economic trends and developments, recent gasoline price inflation has many causes, not one. And they can change profoundly in their nature and respective importance with the kinds of changing circumstances that have shaken the global oil and U.S. energy policy landscapes since the CCP Virus pandemic began. Let’s all hope, therefore, that American leaders across the political spectrum begin spending more time developing effective responses to oil price inflation, and less on bombarding each other and the rest of us with facile talking points.