Wednesday, 22 of May of 2019

Economics. Explained.  

Consumer Price Index

May 10, 2019

The CPI rose 0.3% in April after having risen 0.4% in March.  During the past year the CPI has risen 2.0%.  The March and April gains were almost entirely attributable to increases in the price of crude oil.

Food prices rose fell 0.1% in April after having risen 0.3% in March.  Food prices have risen 1.7% in the past twelve months.  These prices tend to be lumpy with increases reported for a few months followed by several months of declining prices.

Energy prices climbed an additional 2.9% in April after having jumped 3.5% in March.  These prices are always volatile on a month-to-month basis.   Over the past year energy prices have risen 1.7%.

The drop in energy prices late last year was  partly related to a drop-off in demand outside the U.S., principally in China.  It also reflects a huge jump in U.S. oil production.  As a result, oil prices plunged from $76 per barrel back in October to a low of about $45 billion in early January.  However, a rebound in demand in the U.S. combined with sizable declines in oil output from Venezuela and Iran, as well as a cut in Saudi output announced last month, has lifted prices back to about $62 per barrel.  The DOE expects oil prices to average $62.79 this year.

Excluding food and energy the CPI rose 0.1% in February, March, and April.  Over the past year this core rate of inflation has risen 2.1%.  We expect the core CPI will increase 2.1% in 2019.

The most interesting development in the CPI in recent years has been the dichotomy between the prices of goods (excluding the volatile food and energy components) and services.  For example, in the past year prices for goods have fallen 0.2% while prices for services have risen 2.8%.

With respect to goods prices, it appears that the internet has played a big role in reducing the prices of many goods.  Shoppers can instantly check the price of any particular item across a wide array of online and brick and mortar stores.  If merchants do not match the lowest price available, they risk losing the sale.  Thus, they are constantly competing with the lowest price available on the internet.  Looking at specific items in the CPI we find that prices have been unchanged or fallen for almost every major category in the past year.  Apparel prices have declined 2.9%, new cars have risen 1.2%, airfares have fallen 1.8%, televisions have declined 18.8%, audio equipment has  risen 3.8%, toys have fallen 9.8%, information technology commodities (personal computers, software, and telephones) have declined 6.5%.  Prices for all of these items are widely available on the internet and can be used as bargaining chips with traditional brick and mortar retailers.

In sharp contrast prices of most services have risen.  Specifically, prices of services have risen 2.8% in the past year.  The increase in this  broad category has been led by shelter costs which have climbed 3.4%.  This undoubtedly reflects the shortages of both rental properties and homeowner occupied housing. Indeed, the vacancy rate for rental property is at a 30-year low. This steady rise in the cost of shelter  will continue for some time to come and, unlike monthly blips in food or energy, it is unlikely to reverse itself any time soon.

The CPI, both overall and the core rate, will be relatively steady  in the months ahead.  Steadily rising shelter prices, gradually rising labor costs, and rising producer prices will tend to boost the CPI.  But on the flip side, productivity gains are countering much of the increase in labor costs, and the internet is keeping a lid on the prices of goods.  We look for an increase in the core CPI of 2.1% in 2019.

The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is not the CPI, but rather the personal consumption expenditures deflator, specifically the PCE deflator excluding the volatile food and energy components which is currently expanding at a 1.6% rate.  We expect it to climb 1.7% in 2019.  The Fed has a 2.0% inflation target.

Why the difference between the CPI and the personal consumption expenditures deflator?  The CPI is a pure measure of inflation.  It measures changes in prices of a fixed basket of goods and services each month.

The personal consumption expenditures deflator is a weighted measure of inflation.  If consumers feel less wealthy in some month and decide to purchase inexpensive margarine instead of pricey butter, a weighted measure of inflation will give more weight to the lower priced good and, all other things being unchanged, will actually register a decline in that month.  Thus, what the deflator measures is a combination of both changes in prices and changes in consumer behavior.

As we see it, inflation is a measure of price change (the CPI).  It is not a mixture of price changes and changes in consumer behavior (the PCE deflator).  The core CPI should increase 2.1% in 2019 while the core PCE climbs 1.7%.  That compares to the Fed’s targeted rate of 2.0%.

Keep in mind that real short-term interest rates are quite low.  With the funds rate today at 2.4% and the year-over-year increase in the CPI at 2.0% the “real” or inflation-adjusted funds rate is 0.4%.  Over the past 57 years that “real” rate has averaged about 1.0% which should be regarded as relatively close to a “neutral” real rate.  Given sustained growth in GDP growth this year and the inflation rate being close to target, the Fed is likely to leave the funds rate unchanged for the balance of this year.  However, at some point in time the next most likely rate change by the Fed will be a rate hike rather than a rate decline.

Stephen Slifer


Charleston, SC

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