Categories: General
      Date: Jan 19, 2012
     Title: Would the Real Inflation Rate Please Stand Up?

In Part 1, the necessity of thinking clearly about inflation was stressed, along with planning for future inflation rates. (For more on this, also see this recent Morningstar article.) However, as it turns out, just figuring out what the current inflation rate is turns out to be much more complicated than most people realize.

Determining price levels and the rate of inflation is not as simple as measuring other things. For example, when you weigh yourself in the morning you just step on the scale and get a nice digital readout. There are, of course, some similarities between prices and our weight--a lot of short term ups and downs, but generally a small percentage movement up and to the right every year. But, think about it. If you are trying to measure price movements, the first question is the price of what? Each of us spends our money on so many different goods and services over the span of a year, and each of us spends our money different than the next guy. If gasoline goes up 5%, and bread goes down 5%, and milk stays even--what does that say about inflation? What if light beer goes down in price, but microbrews go up 5%? What if cable TV goes up so darn much you drop it altogether, saving $100/month?

In order to get a handle on price changes the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics goes to great effort to construct two major categories of price indexes. The first set, which we will ignore for the purposes of this discussion, are the Producer Price Indexes which measure price changes from the perspective of producers along various points of the supply chain. The second set of indexes is the Consumer Price Index, which measures changes from the perspective of the end-use consumer. This is the most familiar, and has the most impact on most of our everyday lives. A quick scan of this document from the BLS tells you the first thing you need to know about inflation--it is an incredibly complex measurement that must take an army of economists and statisticians to pull together.


But wait, that's not all. You may not have realized there isn't just one CPI number--that would be too simple. There are actually a number of Consumer Price Indexes calculated. These indexes are calculated regionally, then averaged for the country. Also, the indexes are published in both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted form. If you are making any decisions from this data, you want to be careful to understand what you are looking at. Below are the key indexes you likely will see quoted in different contexts.

A couple of key points about inflation should be obvious by now. First, it is impossible to get an exact read on what inflation really is. The BLS goes to great effort, and probably does a superb job, but like most statistics about the economy it is an elaborate estimate that takes on the cloak of accuracy. Second, no CPI is going to measure your exact experience with price increases. You experience somewhat different inflation than your next door neighbor (the one drinking light beer while you sip your microbrew), not to mention the retiree in Florida, the oil worker in North Dakota, or the single mother in New Jersey.

What may not be obvious from all of this is the government conspiracy that is currently gaming the inflation numbers. (Yes, this is playing to the local crowd, but the best way to get Idaho readers to continue to the next post is to mention a government conspiracy or complain about the BCS. You get both in Part 3.)