If the official inflation rate is next to zero, how come prices are going up so much?
Sarah Palin was blasted by reporters and the Wall Street Journal in 2010 for pointing this out and explaining how food and fuel prices would soon skyrocket.
As this very writer explained in 2010. under Clinton the Consumer Price Index was changed so that government would never have to face the “misery index” and a proper measure of inflation again. They removed “Food & Fuel” from the index, you know, because nobody ever buys that stuff anyways, and they weighted the formula towards housing….. that’s right folks, housing.
When the economy turns south or hits a bump new housing starts talk and housing prices fall, thus showing negative inflation. So when the economy is in trouble and inflation is going up, the government reads it as zero inflation. If we still measured inflation like we used to it would be about 9.3% every year for three years. Of course, every shopper knows this as they see the prices for themselves.
A year later, investment guru Jim Rodgers weighed in, confirming the wisdom of Sarah Palin and this very writer:
U.S. government inflation data is “a sham” and is causing the Federal Reserve to vastly understate price pressures in the economy, influential U.S. investor Jim Rogers said on Tuesday.
The U.S. central bank uses inflation data that relies too heavily on housing prices, Rogers told the Reuters 2011 Investment Outlook Summit, and he criticized the Fed’s $600 billion bond-buying program.
“Everybody in this room knows prices are going up for everything,” Rogers told the Reuters Summit.
Price hikes for a particular item here or there don’t qualify as inflation. If one thing gets more expensive but something else gets cheaper, that’s what economists call a relative price change. Inflation is a simultaneous increase in prices across the board. Some measures of inflation, such as the GDP Deflator, track price changes that affect businesses as well as those that affect consumers. But the Consumer Price Index is supposed to focus on inflation at the consumer level. And the CPI has recorded minimal increases over the past four years. Since the recession ended, the 12-month change in consumer prices has averaged 2% and has never been as high as 4%.
There are lots of other ways to gauge inflation, however, that give very different signals. Gold was $930 an ounce when the recession ended, and today it’s $1,583. So if you believe in the gold standard, prices have increased 70% in four years – or an annualized rate of 14.2%. Of course, many economists dismiss the gold price as an archaic indicator. So it may be more meaningful to look at price increases over a broad range of commodities. The Reuters CRB Commodity Index, which tracks the prices of coffee, cocoa, copper, and cotton, as well as energy, is up 38% over four years, or 8.6% at a compound annual rate.
Perhaps the most telling indicator – albeit a slightly facetious one – is the Big Mac index, popularized by the Economist magazine. McDonalds hamburgers are available in many countries and their prices reflect the cost of food, fuel, commercial real estate, and basic labor. The price of a Big Mac, therefore, can be used to compare the economies of different countries – or serve as a bellwether of inflation in a single country. Since the recession ended, the cost of a Big Mac in the U.S. has risen from an average of $3.57 to $4.37, or 5.2% a year.
So why haven’t these more rapid increases shown up in the Consumer Price Index? One reason is that the index itself has been modified in a variety of ways over the past 35 years. Fluctuations in home prices have been smoothed out, for example. And the index has been adjusted periodically to reflect changes in what people buy, particularly if they shift from more expensive items to cheaper ones. Such revisions to the CPI have tended to reduce the official inflation rate, on balance. Various estimates of what the annual rate would have been over the past four years if earlier methods of calculation had been continued come up with numbers in the 5%-to-10% range.
Several conclusions can be drawn from all this. First, there is no absolute and objective gauge of inflation. Any particular measure is simply one way of making the calculation, based on a host of assumptions. Second, a number of the costs that middle-class households face are going up considerably faster than the CPI.