Bacon, Inflation, And "What Gets Measured Gets Managed"

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Core inflation, which excludes the effect of food and energy prices and is how every self-respecting economist measures price increases, is up 8.75% over the past five years. However, as ConvergEx's Nick Colas notes, this is a poor indicator for the true cost of living for many Americans. Having scrubbed the data, Colas has found the top 10 items that appreciated the most from 2008 to 2013 and the 10 items that became substantially less expensive, according to the government's Consumer Price Index (CPI). The data is deceiving though, as the CPI's "hedonic quality adjustment" distorts the amount of money people actually spend. Even more importantly, Colas warns, things that have a relatively low weighting in the CPI and that people use selectively – such as healthcare and education – don't have a big impact on the core number, but represent considerable expenses for many Americans. Thus we must use caution when using one figure to make policy decisions for an entire nation, and consider what happens to inflationary expectations if and when the still-sluggish economic recovery finally finds second gear.

Via ConvergEx's Nick Colas,
 
Note from Nick: For something that policymakers essentially think is a non-issue, we regularly get more questions about inflation than any other economic topic.  The most common observation is that “Real world” prices are rising far faster than the benign CPI readings used by the Federal Reserve to make decisions about interest rate policy.  Moreover, Treasury prices - essentially the market’s take on future inflation - may not be telling the whole story due to continued risk aversion among some investors.  Today Beth takes on the topic head on, looking at how the CPI gets calculated and why so many Americans are losing faith in this index as a measure of inflation. 
 
I can easily go through Costco’s 4-pound “family pack” of bacon in a week; nowadays it goes on and in everything – cupcakes, ice cream, muffins, scallops… and best of all smothered in brown sugar and baked to candied bacon perfection. 
But fellow bacon lovers beware.  In the past five years the price of bacon has jumped more than 32%, according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  This places it at number seven on our list of items that have appreciated the most from 2008 to 2013.  Unleaded regular gasoline tops the list with a 95.56% price increase, followed by fuel oil (+49.04%) and cigarettes (+48.27%).  Energy prices are a bit deceptive, however, as five years ago they were still in the massive slump induced by the global financial crisis.  
 
On the other hand, the price of television dropped more than any other item, falling 65.45% in the past five years, according to the CPI.  Round out the bottom three are personal computers (38.02%) and photographic equipment (-29.72%).  In fact, a majority of the bottom 10 items are technology-related and this is a result of what the CPI calls a “hedonic quality adjustment” (more on this later).  Toys (-24.13%) and dishes (-21.27%) also make an appearance on the list, which is likely a result of the continuing trend of outsourcing to low-cost manufacturing bases such as China.  See the tables following the text for the complete top 10 and bottom 10 lists.
 
Over the same period of time, headline inflation and core inflation (excluding food and energy prices) increased 10.86% and 8.75%, respectively.  However, there is much more to the story that impacts the true cost of living for many Americans, as the average inflation figures are typically don’t reflect how people actually spend their money.  For example, a middle-aged man who is footing the bill for his family’s healthcare expenses and saving for multiple college tuitions likely sees higher cost of living-driven inflation than indicated by the CPI, as healthcare and education expenses are of relatively little importance in the inflation calculation.  Read on below for our three most important and interesting takeaways from out top/bottom 10 analysis, including more on the variability of what people experience in their actual lives versus what the CPI represents.

First, why is bacon so expensive right now?  More interesting than important in the grand scheme of socioeconomic things, the cost of a pound of retail bacon surged to an all-time high of $5.07 last year; meanwhile, the wholesale price of pork bellies, which are cured into bacon, hit a record higher and exceeded $190 for one hundred pounds in 2013.  So what gives?  A mysterious virus – Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) – began killing mass numbers of piglets in April when it was first discovered in a U.S. herd.  In just one month, pork futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange spiked to more than $100 from $78 in March prior to the outbreak of the virus.  And in CPI data, the price of bacon in the supermarket officially increased 32.55% in the last five years.  On the plus side, reports indicate that the virus is subsiding and 2014 should bring with it lower bacon prices – so go ahead, eat up.

 

Second, the CPI greatly distorts the true cost of anything technological.  For example, if you bought a TV this year, chances are you did not spend 65.45% less than on the TV you bought five years ago.  Yes, the average price of a 32-inch flat-panel television hit an all-time low average of $435 in 2012, down from $546 in 2011; however, from Q1 2012 to Q2 2012, the average price paid for a new TV increased, climbing to $1,190 to $1,124.  As technology improves, consumers opt for the more expensive, fancier TVs as opposed to the cheaper, archaic ones.  To account for this, the CPI employs a hedonic quality adjustment in which statisticians reduce the amount of a price increase due to quality by a certain figure.  So if the price of a computer rose by 10%, the CPI statisticians might claim that two-thirds of the price increase was attributable to quality improvements and report inflation as only 3.3%.  In the case of televisions, technological advances have occurred so rapidly that the CPI math has grossly underreported inflation for TV and other tech products as well.

 

And finally, technology aside, the CPI also distorts the true cost of living for many Americans.  For example, inpatient hospital services (#5) and outpatient hospital services (#9) are both on the top 10 list, with respective 5-year price appreciations of 35.82% and 30.71%.  Both are things that people use selectively – if you’re sick then you’re healthcare costs can be exorbitantly higher than for the average person, yet hospital services as a whole only constitute 2.081% of the entire CPI.  Educational books & supplies – #8 on the top 10 list with a 30.85% price increase tell a similar story.  If you’re got three kids in college, you’re expenditures on education and vastly higher than for a single person who done with his or her education.  Educational books & supplies make up 0.195% of the CPI, while the broader education category is just 3.244% of the index.  Most people in college (or parents of college-age children) likely spend more than 3-something percent of their income in education.

The bottom line is that, while core inflation is a useful estimate for price levels in many instances, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen doesn’t care – at a policy level - about 35% healthcare inflation, 31% education inflation or 96% fuel inflation.  A typical American family of four might care immensely about all three, but in the eyes of the Fed inflation a 5-year core inflation rate of 8.75% is relatively minimal.  This highlights a major issue of using one basket of goods for an entire population – things that people use selectively represent a very small fraction of the CPI, yet are a huge fraction of expenditures for a significant portion of the population.
 
Say you’ve got an aging relative who needs nursing care – an increasingly common challenge for many Americans.  A private room at a nursing home runs about $90,500 per year, so rather than accounting for 0.17% (the CPI weighting for nursing home and adult day care services) of the average household income of $51,016, nursing home services account for 177% of your particular income.  And rather than 10.86% inflation over the past five years – the headline CPI number – your 5-year inflation rate is a whopping 46.0%.  Another example would be a family with two kids enrolled in private colleges, which command an average tuition of $30,094.  College tuition and fees are not 1.81% of you income, as they are in the CPI, but rather 118% of the median household income.  Your resulting 5-year inflation rate is thus 24.3%, or more than twice the headline inflation rate.  Both situations are not at all uncommon and highlight the inefficiencies in applying one uniform inflation gauge to an entire population.
 
There’s an old saying in business circles; ‘What gets measured gets managed”.  The Consumer Price Index may be an efficient way for policymakers to shorthand an answer to the question of inflationary levels.  It is, however, not an accurate method of assessing how consumers feel the effects of higher prices.  This is an important distinction, for inflationary expectations are the true drivers of how both financial markets and consumers alter their behaviors.  Because of the slow-growth global economy of the past five years, both groups have given the Fed a pass on inflation for the moment.  If and when things improve, the psychology behind inflationary expectations may well be different, and more on a hair trigger, than prior recoveries.
 
At least we’ll always have bacon to ease the pain.