U.S. gas prices aren’t quite at record highs, if you account for inflation, but soaring oil costs could change that soon

March 10, 2022, 11:16 AM UTC

On Tuesday, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline broke a 14-year record in the U.S., according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), as the national average gas price soared past its previous peak of $4.144 per gallon, set in July 2008, and continued rising to hit $4.318 per gallon on Thursday.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted an already tight oil market, in which prices have increased on the back of a post-COVID economic rebound. But calling current gas prices a “record-high” isn’t really comparing like with like. If you account for inflation, gas prices still have a while to go before they break the 2008 record.

Adjusted for inflation the real cost of a gallon of gas from July 2008 shoots up to $5.37 in today’s dollars—well above the current cost of $4.318 per gallon.

The spike in oil prices in July 2008 came at the tail end of a decade-long energy crisis. Surging demand from developing economies, stagnant production, financial speculation, and tension in the Middle East caused oil and gas prices to steadily climb over the 2000s.

Gas prices quickly crashed, however, with the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, hitting a low of $1.67 per gallon in the last week of December 2008, or about $2.18 at today’s prices.   

But if oil prices continue to soar—reaching as high as $240 per barrel, according to some analyst projections—then today’s gas prices might soon break the record set in 2008, even after adjusting for inflation. Conservative estimates using the current price of oil suggest gas costs might reach as high as $4.41 per gallon in the next few days and spike to $5.84 per gallon if crude passes $200 per barrel. 

And even if gas prices aren’t breaking inflation-adjusted records, they may still end up hurting the wallets of Americans.

Inflation has an effect on wages too. Nominal wages—which don’t account for inflation—in the U.S. increased by 4.5% since December 2020, in the largest increase since 1983. But when you adjust for inflation—especially the high rates of inflation seen over the past year—the rise in worker salaries looks far less rosy.

According to Jason Furman and Wilson Powell, writing for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, inflation-adjusted wages fell by 2.1% in 2021, compared to the year before, and accelerated their decline in the last quarter. Looking at just the last three months of 2021—when inflation was breaking records—inflation-adjusted wages fell at an annualized rate of 4.3%.

A rapid increase in inflation “can reduce real wages—especially if employers do not build cost-of-living adjustments into their wage increases,” write Furman and Powell.

Someone making today’s average hourly wage—$31.58 per hour—would need to work 1.6 hours to earn enough money to fill a 12-gallon gas tank. A retail worker, who on average makes $19.24 per hour, would have to work for 2.7 hours to fill the same tank. In 2008, when the median U.S. hourly wage was $15.57, an average employee would have to work 3.2 hours to fill a 12-gallon tank at peak prices. A retail worker, on a median $9.86 per hour in 2008, would have to work five hours.

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