Personal finance

How the Ukraine-Russia conflict is pushing up prices for Americans

A taxi driver refuels a vehicle at a Gulf gas station in Boston on Mar. 1, 2022.
Vanessa Leroy/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The economic effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a week ago have reverberated around the globe — leaving many households to wonder how the conflict might hit their wallet.

The short answer: Prices may be going up, especially for gasoline (and indeed already have). Costs for food and goods like smartphones may also rise, according to economists.

Inflation would largely result from shortages and rising costs of raw materials like oil, wheat and metals like palladium — all of which Russia is a major producer.   

It would also come at a time when consumer prices are already rising at their fastest annual pace in 40 years.

Yet some of the inflation (if it comes to pass) will likely take months to appear, economists said. The timing and scale are hard to predict given the fluidity of the military conflict, novelty of Western sanctions against Russia and possibility of yet harsher ones.

“What makes projecting this stuff so difficult is, all these measures are so new and so unprecedented as a model,” according to Julia Friedlander, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former advisor on sanctions policy at the U.S. Treasury Department.

“What’s it like to take the 11th largest economy offline in the course of days?” she said.

The Federal Reserve is also expected to start raising interest rates this month to fight inflation.

Oil and gasoline

The price of gasoline is how consumers are most likely to feel the war’s inflationary impact in the short term, according to economists. Indeed, gas prices have risen since Russia’s saber-rattling started, even before the Feb. 24 invasion.

Crude oil is the main component of gasoline.

It accounts for 56% of what Americans pay at the pump, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s why higher oil prices often translate to higher gas prices.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict pushed U.S. oil prices on Thursday to their highest level since 2008, at well over $100 a barrel. The global price jumped to a high unseen since 2012.

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Gasoline prices, in turn, edged up to $3.61 a gallon, on average, as of Monday — a jump of $0.33 a gallon since the beginning of 2022, according to federal data.

If high oil prices are sustained, the average cost may soon breach $4 a gallon, according to Andrew Hunter, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

That price would translate to an additional $75 billion of annual spending for households to fill up their gas tanks (relative to prices of $3.40 a gallon at the end of January), Hunter wrote in a research note Tuesday. The dynamic could cut households’ disposable income by 0.5%, he said.

“The single biggest issue is definitely what’s happening to oil prices,” Hunter said of the crisis’ consumer impact. “It looks like there’s more pain to come, unfortunately.”

President Joe Biden acknowledged the likely financial sting in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. The U.S. and 30 other countries are releasing 60 million barrels of oil from strategic stockpiles, only the fourth time such a coordinated release has occurred, to try diluting the price surge.

“A Russian dictator, invading a foreign country, has costs around the world,” Biden said. “These steps will help blunt gas prices here at home.”

Food

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has the potential to impact food prices — though the impacts will likely be felt most acutely overseas, economists said.

Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter. Ukraine and Russia together account for almost 30% of global wheat exports.

Wheat prices on Wednesday surged to their highest level in 14 years. That could impact prices for bread, pasta, cereal, baked goods and other wheat-reliant foods, if producers pass higher costs on to consumers.

Russia and Ukraine are also major exporters of other food products like barley, sunflower seed oil and corn.

However, the U.S. is a net exporter of agricultural commodities, particularly wheat, corn and soybeans, which will likely dilute any impact, according to Hunter.

“I wouldn’t expect grocery prices to suddenly start rising now because of these moves,” Hunter said. “If they’re sustained, it’s something you could potentially start to see over the coming months.”

Higher food prices are much more of an issue for the developing world, Friedlander said. Turkey, Egypt and Kazakhstan are the three biggest buyers of Russian wheat, respectively, for example.

“I don’t think it will affect the price of bread in Ohio,” Friedlander said.

Cars and technology

Russia is the world’s largest producer of palladium, supplying about a third of global demand.

Palladium is a metal used to manufacture semiconductor chips, also known as microchips, which are found in a range of consumer electronic products like smartphones, computers, TVs and digital cameras. Ukraine and Russia also account for the bulk of U.S. neon supply, also used for chip production.

Palladium is also a key metal used in catalytic converters, which control tailpipe emissions from cars.

“[That] will trickle down to production of high-end technology that relies on the Russian market,” Friedlander said of Russia’s palladium exports.

“It’ll take a while for the price to rise in the iPhone you buy, but eventually that could [happen],” she added.

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