The Elbert Files: CPI inflation doesn't feel right
Friday, January 03, 2014 7:00 AM
Sometime around Thanksgiving, I noticed that the price for my wife’s breakfast cereal had increased 7.5 percent from $3.99 to $4.29 a box.
That got me thinking about inflation, and how it always feels worse than the government’s Consumer Price Index says it is.
A friend says that’s because the CPI is an amalgam of prices that don’t match any real person’s lifestyle, and I’m sure he’s right.
He says the inflation calculations published by economist John Williams at a website called ShadowStats.com are a better reflection of the real world than the CPI.
ShadowStats.com has a lot of followers, and the worst criticism I’ve heard is that Williams’ statistics are basically CPI numbers with an “adjusted for inflation” factor of 3 to 4 percentage points.
For example, when the government’s CPI for November showed a 12-month increase of 1.2 percent, Williams put it at about 4.7 percent, which seems closer to the truth, although there are days when I’d swear it’s 10 percent.
I went to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ official CPI website last week to see if the price hike in my wife’s breakfast cereal might show up. It did not.
But I guess that’s not surprising, given that the brand she likes is a niche product imported from Canada.
According to the CPI, breakfast cereal prices have gone up and down a couple of times during the past year, but as of November, they were pretty much where they were a year ago.
Some food items did make big price swings last year, according to the CPI website. Bacon made the biggest jump. It was up more than 10 percent for the 12 months ending in November.
But there were also substantial decreases. According to the CPI, the price of roast coffee was 8 percent lower in November than it was a year earlier, and the price of peanut butter was down about 6 percent.
Those changes seemed to ring true for me. I don’t eat a lot of bacon anymore, but I do buy my share of coffee and peanut butter.
Burrowing deeper into the CPI website, I could see that even when there were price increases for essentials, such as food, housing and transportation, they were offset by decreases in other categories – furniture, apparel and appliances, for example.
The biggest price deflator for a decade or more has been consumer electronics.
The price of television sets in November was about 14 percent less than a year earlier, according to the CPI, while prices for personal computers were down about 9 percent from a year ago.
Most of us don’t notice those decreases, because unlike bacon and coffee, we don’t buy a new TV or computer every week, or even every year.
But we do buy gasoline often enough to notice that pump prices have moved up and down quite a bit in recent years.
The end result is usually up, although not right now.
It was somewhat comforting to see that the CPI, like your neighborhood service station, showed that the price of gasoline was down 5 percent to 6 percent for the 12 months ending in November, although I’m sure it will be back up by summer.
The flip side of price inflation is income. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, income from wages and salaries increased 3.75 percent during the 12 months ending Sept. 30.
In Iowa, the gain was 3.08 percent, which is about triple the CPI price increase of 1.2 percent.
This is where the disconnect comes for most people, because it sure didn’t feel like incomes kept pace with price inflation last year, let alone led it by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
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