“What people don’t know is that 70% of the increase in inflation was the consequence of Putin’s price hike because of the impact on oil prices. Seventy percent.” — President Joe Biden, remarks at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina, April 14
Two days after the Labor Department reported that consumer price index had risen to 8.5%, the fastest 12-month pace since 1981, the president made the remarks above, appearing to pin much of the blame for the dismal inflation report on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Energy and food prices can be volatile and so many economists focus on the “core” inflation rate that excludes those items. But even that showed rate of 6.5%, or about 25% lower than the overall rate.
So how can Biden make this claim? Many readers were eager for an answer — especially since some people on Twitter truncated his comment to leave off “because of the impact on oil prices,” making it seem especially absurd.
Let’s dig into the weeds. It turns out he’s not referring to the headline inflation number.
The individual items in the CPI report make for grim reading. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 13.7% from March 2021 to March 2022, used cars and trucks rose 35.3%, airline fares rose 23.6%, butter jumped 12.5%, coffee rose 11.2% rose and apparel rose 6.8%.
Gasoline prices rose 48%, while overall energy prices rose 32%.
Energy makes up only 7.547% of the basket of goods in the CPI so even with that big jump, how does Biden get to 70%?
Without saying so directly, he’s referring to the monthly change in prices, not the annual change.
Let’s go through the math, using the monthly numbers.
Price rose 1.2% from February to March. (That translates into a 15.9% annual rate.) Now let’s express this increase in basis points, which is one hundredth of 1 percentage point. So 1.2% jump would be 120 basis points.
Energy prices rose 11% last month. Since energy is 7.547% of the basket, we multiple that figure by 11. That gives us 83 basis points. That is then divided by the overall number of 120 basis points (83/120), yielding 69.1%. In other words, that’s how much energy prices contributed to the monthly increase. Biden rounded that up to 70%.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers did a similar calculation in a tweet it posted on April 12, after the report was issued.
How did Biden set up this line in his remarks? He said: “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up gas prices and food prices all over the world. Ukraine and Russia are the one and two largest wheat producers in the world. We’re three. They’re shut down. We saw that in yesterday’s inflation data.”
Many people might believe the president was referring to the headline annual number in the inflation report — 8.5% — and that Biden was saying 70% of that figure was due to an increase in energy costs. We certainly did when we first heard this line. But if energy prices had not risen at all in March, the 12-month increase in prices still would have been 7.6%.
A White House official pointed to the CEA tweet as an explanation for Biden’s comment, saying it should have been clear he was referring just to one month’s data as it would not be logical to claim a war that started less than two months ago was responsible for a year’s worth of inflation. He noted that White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier in the week referred to one month data: “While energy accounted for 70% of the monthly inflation in March on CPI data, it counted for a substantial portion of PPI [Producer Price Index] inflation as well,” she told reporters on Wednesday.
Another way to look at it: Excluding the increase in energy prices from last month’s 1.2% increase still translates into an annual rate of almost 5% per year. (That’s 31% of a 15.9% annual rate.) That can’t be blamed on the Russian invasion — and we highly doubt Biden would have thought such a high inflation rate would have been acceptable a year ago.
This is one of those clever talking points that pose a conundrum when doing the Pinocchio Test. Biden’s math is defensible, especially because his full quote — not the truncated one circulating on Twitter — specifically refers to the impact of oil prices.
But at the same time, ordinary people might certainly have assumed he was referring to the 12-month inflation rate, not the one-month figure. Moreover, even not counting energy costs, the inflation number is relatively high. Most Americans care about the inflation rate over the past year, not the past month.
We went back and forth over whether some level of Pinocchios was warranted. We were tempted to award Two Pinocchios, essentially half true. We certainly would be more comfortable if Biden had referred specifically to monthly inflation figures. But he did reference the invasion that began 50 days ago. So we will leave this unrated and let readers decide for themselves.