Inside The "Low-flation" Myth: A Disquisition On Inflation Seen And Not Seen - Part 1

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by David Stockman via Contra Corner blog,

After paying my bills the other day I had home heating and electric utility costs on my mind—the winter having been an unusually harsh one in NYC like much of the rest of the nation. But then I noticed a story by an outfit called CNS that contained some great historical graphs on decades worth of utility prices, and I was duly reminded that this wintery winter wasn’t all that: Home utility and fuel costs have been rising at a pretty robust clip for more than a decade now.

Indeed, notwithstanding the modest weight (5%) ascribed to utilities and fuel in the BLS price basket, there are few households in America that have escaped their relentless grind higher. Nor would most everyday Americans shuck this off as a trivial component of their own cost-of-living index or express relief that all remains copasetic on the inflation front— since these large utility and fuel gains have been offset by falling iPad prices and hedonic adjustments to the price of their $40,000 family sedan.

The fact is, the price index for electrical power increased by 5.3% during the past 12 months and has reached an all-time high. But I get it. That doesn’t count as “inflation” because its not in the Fed’s preferred measuring stick—the PCE deflator ex-food and energy. And, yes, they do have a point about the short-run volatility of commodity-driven components of the index like the price of Kwh’s from your local utility.

Heck, the price of power is even seasonal—-rising in the spring, peaking with the summer air-con load and then re-tracing in fall-winter. The latter is supposedly already factored into the BLS’ seasonal maladjustments. But, still, it can be granted that on a short-run basis of a few quarters or even years there is probably a lot of off-trend “noise” in electricity prices.

When it gets to a time frame of a decade running, however, I’ll put my foot down. Back in 2004-05, the government said the average price for electrical power was 9.0 cents/ Kwh compared to the 13.5 cents posted last week for March. Doing the math, that’s a compound growth rate of 4.5% over a decade. And that’s not noise. Its signal. Its inflation.

Electricity Price in March

In its article on the surging trend in utility bills, actually cited the whole index numbers for March and prior year, not just the monthly delta. It then added insult to bubble news injury by placing the utility power gain in the context of overall energy prices trends:

The BLS’s seasonally adjusted electricity price index rose to 209.341 this March, the highest it has ever been, up 10.537 points or 5.3 percent–from 198.804 in March 2013…..Over the last 12 months, the energy index has increased 0.4 percent, with the natural gas index rising 16.4 percent, the electricity index increasing 5.3 percent, and the fuel oil index advancing 2.1 percent. These increases more than offset a 4.7 percent decline in the gasoline index.”

So the above paragraph begs some questions. For one thing, given the magnitude of the index number change for electricity and the double digit year/year change for natural gas something other than falling iPad prices comes to mind. Yet the financial press has so dumbed-down the economic data release narrative via near exclusive focus on algo-feeding monthly “deltas” that our monetary politburo can get away with ludicrous memes like “low-flation”. The trends which refute this nonsense are actually there in plain sight in the data—but are rarely encountered by even the attentive public.

So herein an essay on the overwhelming evidence of inflation during the decade long era in which the central bankers have been braying about “deflation”. Herein, too, some startling evidence of the complicity of the government statistical mills in using the inflation that is not seen (i.e. “imputed”) to dilute and obscure the inflation that is seen (i.e. utility bills).

To be sure, the above paragraph from CNS News might be read to mean that on a 12-month basis inflation is well-contained—even in the energy world. While electrical power and natural gas prices have been roaring upward, weakness in crude oil based products—fuel oil and gasoline—have off-set nearly all the rise. So possibly nothing to see here. Just more “noise” in the index to be left to the experts in the Eccles Building.

Not exactly. Some deep historical perspective is always a good place to start. Otherwise you get caught up in the Fed’s futile mind game of trying to assess the vast outpouring of short-term noise and signal emanating from a $17 trillion post-industrial economy. Indeed, such “in-coming” data is so riddled with guesstimates, imputations, faulty seasonal maladjustments and subsequent revisions as to be nearly meaningless.

And the proof of that is in the transcripts of Fed meetings themselves—released as they are with a 5-year lag. The transcripts show that especially at turning points in the economic and financial cycle, the monetary politburo is essentially clueless—- as it was in much of the spring, summer and early fall of 2008. More importantly, the “in-coming” data cited with grave authority by many FOMC participants with respect to GDP components, jobs, inflation and other macroeconomic trends is often nowhere to be found in the current official data—it having been revised away in the interim.

So starting off with a 100-year perspective on electrical power prices, the chart below makes the big picture point that the rise of Keynesian central banking after August 1971 has been associated with persistent inflation, not deflation. Thus, between 1913 and the early 1960s, electrical power prices in the US were flat—there was no trend inflation whatsoever.

Not coincidently, that era ended with the Johnson-Nixon assault on fiscal rectitude and sound money after 1965. Indeed, ever since the official arrival of discretionary central banking in 1971—that is, floating money anchored to the whims of only the FOMC— there has been a systematic inflationary bias in utility prices as is self-evident below.

Electricity Price Index

But there’s more. June 1997 can well be pinpointed as the date at which the Greenspan Fed went all-in for its modern policy of endless financial market accommodation as its primary policy tool. At that juncture the Fed had spent a few months contemplating Greenspan’s famous “irrational exuberance” warning of December 1996 and had actually made a half-hearted attempt to slow Wall Street’s thundering herd by nudging up interest rates in April. After a decidedly negative reaction, however, rates were eased in June 1997, and the Eccles Building has never looked back.

During the subsequent 17 years the Fed’s balance sheet has exploded from $400 billion to what will soon be $4.5 trillion. Call it 10X. For perspective, compare it to money GDP of 2X over the same period.

More importantly, recall that during most of this period the Fed has conducted recurrent jousts against threated, looming or just imagined “deflation”. Yet as the graph below shows, the average CPI gain over the period was 2.3%/year; and, appropriately, nothing is “ex’d” out of that number because every single American citizen did eat and need heating and transportation fuel during that 17-year time frame.

But here’s the bigger point. With respect to that part of inflation which is “seen”, as in a monthly utility bill, the rate of increase was much higher at 3.5% per annum. For those who think this kind of “moderate” inflation is a salutary thing, consider what a dollar saved today would be worth after a thirty year working life time under that 3.5% inflation regime. Answer: 35 cents.

In short, not a single one of America’s 115 million households—renters, owners and borrowers alike—escape the monthly electric utility bill. At $200 per month its not trivial, and the 3.5% trend of the past 17 years has just accelerated to 5.3%. And that happened straight into the jaws of what is being heralded as “low-flation”.

The above flat-out inflationary trend of nearly two decades running is by no means unique to electrical power prices. Consider gasoline, which has ticked down slightly during recent quarters, but about which there is no doubt regarding the trend.

Over the past seventeen years, retail gasoline prices are up at a 6.5% CAGR and by an almost equally inflationary 6.0% over the past nine years. Even giving allowance to the skyrocketing global petroleum prices after September 2007 and their subsequent crash after crude peaked at $150/bbl. a year later, gasoline prices have been heading upwards at a 3.0% rate since the eve of the financial crisis.

So let the recent downward squiggles depicted in the chart below not trouble the monetary politburo. People who travel by internal combustion machine have experienced a steady wallop of inflation for a long as the Fed’s fireman have been professing to be warding off deflation.

OK, there were some people around the Princeton campus who didn’t own a car and ambulated by bike or on foot. But they did need heating fuel in the winter and there was nothing disinflationary about meeting that expense—especially for the 10 million households who heat with home heating oil.

During the last 17-years the index has climbed at a 11% annual rate; and by a 6% CAGR since 2007. The fact that we are not at the momentary oil-price blow-off peak of mid-2008 is truly a case of “cold comfort”. An essential commodity that cost about $0.50 per gallon when Bernanke first started gumming about the “deflation” danger in 2002 now costs $3.00.

Yes, over reasonably long periods of time, most people eat and drink, too. Self-evidently, there is nothing deflationary, disinflationary or otherwise benign about the BLS sub-index for food and beverages. It is up by 2.4% annually during the 17-years since Greenspan kicked monetary discipline out of the Eccles building; and by 2.0% per year since Bernanke launched his own war against deflation in late 2007.

Moreover, there is nothing in that relentlessly ascending curve that speaks of a sudden downshift in recent quarters. During the 12 quarters ending in March 2014, food and beverage prices rose at a 2.2% annual rate.

The above observation leads to an obvious corollary. If you heat it, you have to rent it or own it. For the 40 million households who rent their castle, there has obviously been nothing very deflationary for a long time. For the past 17-years, rents have risen a 3.0% compound rate. And there is no sign of meaningful deceleration there, either. Rents were up by 2.8% in the year ending in March, and by 2.7% in the year before that.

There remains the 75 million households who own their homes, and according to the BLS, the rate of inflation there has been considerably more benign. We will take that apart forthwith, but it is worth noting that whether households own or rent, they end up with costs for water and sewer, trash collection and repairs.

According to the BLS, there has been no signs of deflation in any of these expense categories, either. The cost of water and sewer and trash collection, for example, has doubled since Greenspan had his irrational exuberance moment. That amounts to an 4.5 % rate of annual increase in every day life. As for home repairs, the CAGR is up by 4.8% per year since 1997. And in none of these categories there been any significant deceleration during recent periods.


So that gets us to the proverbial owners equivalent rent(OER)—about which three things are notable. First, it counts for 25% of the regular CPI. Secondly, it comprises 40% of that unique specie of inflation visible in the Eccles building—that is to say, the CPI less things which are inflating such as food and energy. And finally, it is derived by a methodology that can only be described as a preposterous bureaucratic farce.

Specifically, each month several thousand survey respondents, who own their homes and would likely not dream of renting their castle to strangers, and who are also not in the professional landlord business, are asked what they might expect to earn monthly if the did rent their home.

Self-evidently, they have no clue— and so neither does the Commerce Department which conducts the survery or the BLS which processes the data. And that assumes that the raw data did indeed data come from respondents, rather than consisting of numbers plugged in at the end of the month by Census Bureau employees rushing to finish their quota of interviews. There have been some recent news leaks to exactly that point.

Yet even as so dubiously measured, there has been significant OER inflation over the last 17 years: 2.4% annually to be exact. That figure has mysteriously slowed down to 1.7% annually since 2007, but even that rate of gain would not exactly qualify as deflation. OER would double every 40 years at that rate.


But here’s the thing. During the same 17-year period home prices as measured by the Case-Shiller repeat sales index have risen at a 5.2% annual rate—double the OER. And that’s notwithstanding the partial round trip of the housing sector boom and bust during that period.

Undoubtedly, some spreadsheet wiz at the Fed would say do not be troubled by this yawning gap between housing prices and OER. In its wisdom, the Fed has radically repressed the benchmark Treasury rate over this period, meaning that the “carry” cost of homeownership has declined sharply. So, yes, the fact that the housing asset price rose at 2X the rate of imputed rents over the past 17 years all makes sense!

Needless to say, now that interest rates are beginning to normalize the implication would be that the carry cost of ownership—that is, OER—-should begin to accelerate, too. Self-evidently, the deflation fighters in the Eccles building do not expect that—perhaps because they have a front row seat at the government fudge factory where OER is manufactured.

There is one component of the CPI that has experienced genuine deflation since the 1990s—and that is tradable goods subject to the withering force of labor cost reduction that resulted from draining the rice paddies of East Asia. Thus, the index for household furniture, appliances, furnishings, tools and supplies—which has a 4% weight in the CPI— has actually decline slightly since 1997.

The same is true of apparel and shoes which account for another 3.5% of the CPI. Still, household goods are down by only a cumulative 2% over the past 17 years and apparel and shoes by 4%. Those welcome but modest declines pale into insignificance relative to the 50-100% cumulative gains for the commodities and services highlighted above.

And the decline in tradable goods prices do not even begin to off-set the massive but partially invisible rise in the cost of medical, education and other services as will be outlined in Part 2.

Suffice it to say, the monetary politburo has well and truly reached a point of sheer desperation. To keep the Wall Street gamblers in play it needs to keep the money market rates at zero, and therefore the carry trades in business. But 7 years of ZIRP is so insensible on its face that it requires the invention of a giant, preposterous lie—-the myth of “low-flation”—to keep the printing presses humming in the basement of the Eccles Building.

Part 2: The Inflation Which Is Invisible.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
HulkHogan's picture

Well, at least wages are keeping up with inflation.

SafelyGraze's picture

where the QE has gone to

spoiler: not real prince, not real money, and not real episode of The Voice

i_call_you_my_base's picture

People struggle so hard to explain inflation. In truth it's all around and is just absorbed.

Why have the input costs of everything gone down substantially due to technology advancement without price drop? How does the decrease in the cost of labor through illegal employment (immigration) impact overhead costs and the ultimate cost of a good without driving it down?

Where did all the money go? Who took it? Inflation is a giant suck on everyone and it's measured to fuck you. The charts and graphs are meaningless. It's stolen wealth and it's a protracted effort over a long period of time.

spinone's picture

Who took it?  Corporations took it and bought back their stock and paid executive bonuses, all the while avoiding taxes.  Thats why your tax bill keeps increasing too.

kchrisc's picture

"People struggle so hard to explain inflation. In truth it's all around and is just absorbed."

Inflation, "printing," is easy to understand: It is theft. Period.

The results, symptoms, are higher prices and destroyed returns on labor and capital, but the theft comes first.


"Aim small, hit big."


Hobo Sapien's picture

Good questions all. I've no ready answers but this:

so crank it.

james.connolly's picture

Inflation - "STUFF people needs goes up, think oil, and food"

Deflation - "STUFF people don't need goes down, think mcMansions, and big auto's, and consumer shit"

Recession - "when your neighbor is unemployed"

Depression - "when your unemployed"

>> for fun I'll add these

Fiat - "fake money, created by government for FREE"

DEBT - "The means the Government makes YOU a slave"

Today we're in a Deflationary Depression, started 2007, and they generally last 14 years +- a few years. Gold goes down (deflation), as people have to sell to BUY food. Oil/Food goes up, as the GOVERNMENT floods FIAT,

Everybody wants to BUY food, and everbody wants to SELL their Shit/Stuff, non-essentials. Food goes up, toys&crap go down.



fonzannoon's picture

How is this

"The Smartest Guys in the Room and remembers those tapes of Enron traders cackling about rigging energy prices on "Grandma Millie" and jamming electricity rates "right up her ass for fucking $250 a megawatt hour" 

factored into energy prices over the long term?

NoDebt's picture

David, that's a lot of damned writing and charts, but I'll give you the straight skinny of what's REALLY going down:  the government is going to tell you that you're doing just fine all the way down into abject poverty.  When that fact becomes undenyable to even the dullest and most unaware in our population, the narrative will change and there will be a big push to blame it on "them".  "Them" being anyone not in the then-current regime.

The decline is unstoppable at this point.  They know it, you know it, I know it.  What's left of middle class wealth is being strip-mined and off-shored at such a rate nothing will staunch the bleeding.  The only thing left is misdirection and apportioning the blame.


intric8's picture

"All these charts make head go boom!" - sheeple

I agree, its unstoppable, and these guys in power know exactly what they're doing

Colonel Klink's picture

The Federal Reserve has been raping America and fucking its people for over 100 years now.  We need to end the Fed.

Excursionist's picture

If only there were a way of distilling this content to the lowest common denominator.

I got to the 8th paragraph beginning, "So herein an essay on the overwhelming evidence of inflation during..." and wondered, of the ~310M Americans, how many would make it this far if the article were placed in front of them.

Top Chef, Toddlers in Tiaras and / or My 600 Lb. Life would quickly interfere.  No use folks.  The citizens of Rome are in a state of stupor just waiting for their gladiator games to begin after Labor Day.


WTF_247's picture

Owners equivalent rent(OER) should not be a survey.  There are mounds and mounds of data on what similar properties are selling for in the area.  All you have to do is plug in the mortgage rate for someone with 700 credit.  Include property tax, insurance.  Both are widely known. Assume 15% down, even 20% if you want.  When you go to get a loan, the bank knows exactly what the extra costs that have to be paid will be no matter where you are at within a very low margin of error.  They will not loan you an amount that will get you in trouble with the actual costs any longer.

The bottom basement OER would be the mortgage payment + taxes + insurance + 5% cushion (upkeep, repairs etc).  No one would rent out a property for less than the payment unless they are absolutely desperate.  I am sure some are.  But nationwide this is just not the case.

Even if you own your house outright, no one is going to rent out a $300,000 house for $1000.00 per month. Mortgage + insurance + taxes is likely  $1800 per month or more on a 30 year loan.  You look what other, similar houses are renting for and then go for that. If you have a very nice house you can get 10-15% more.  If your place is in shambles, perhaps less.  The rents will follow very closely the price of real estate purchases/mortgage costs ASSUMING you are not in somewhere like Detroit.

The survey is total BS.  Easy to use to fudge whatever numbers they need to goalseek the outcome.  They can, within a very small margin of error, determine what the OER is at the low end without even doing a survey.  BUT --- then they cannot mess around with the numbers to get the answer they want.

hooligan2009's picture

exactly right...and what happens about inurance premia and city taxes?

pitz's picture

Cash-flow real estate, on a long-term basis, with long-term maintenance expenses included, was a common theme of the bubble that culminated with the 2008-2009 collapse (and seems to have been re-constructed).  The OER approach is pretty simple, and evaluates the imputed rent from a property.

The tendency in RE is to under-estimate depreciation, under-estimate costs, and over-estimate returns. 

AdvancingTime's picture

Never before has mankind diverted such a large percentage of wealth into intangible products or goods.  I contend this is the primary reason that inflation has not become a major economic issue. 

The modern economy is loaded with interwoven contracts reeking of contagion. If faith drops in these intangible "promises" and  money suddenly flows into tangible goods seeking a safe haven inflation could soar even as debts go unpaid and promises are left unfilled. This could really shake up the world, more on this subject in the article below.


damicol's picture

I'm not convinced.

I'm not convinced that the average American Moron could actually understand what David is talking about as involves higher mathematics and concepts that to the average American Moron is tantamount to asking a five year old questions in applied advanced quantum chromodynamics.

So they will never understand that fuckwits like benwanker and the fucking demented hag yeller are not  the same as a shit for brains Afghan goat herder strapping bombs on his kids and tossing them into souks, but infinitely more dangerous to the lives of Americans.

 Moronic variety or otherwise

Falconsixone's picture

Applied advanced quantum chromodynamics? Please explain.

Falconsixone's picture

So all the money/energy waisted on theory is why my bill is higher? And by the time their theory machine is built it's old news and time to build (waist more money and come up with bigger words) the next generation of theory machine instead of quantum thinking because that doesn't pay as well?


This means that thermodynamic expectation values of measurable quantities, e.g. of the energy are invariant.

Stuck on Zero's picture

Here in Southern California we're paying $.35 to $.40 per kilowatt hour,  The rest of you have it easy.


1stepcloser's picture

I'd watts riot if I were you!

Falconsixone's picture

Maybe if you could have kept your diseased liberals from spreading across the country there would be more sympathy for your situation.

Dakota Kid's picture

Maybe if Obama and the EPA, with the backing of the supreme court, would stop forcing the closing of so many coal-fired generators, electricity prices wouldn't be so high.

Falconsixone's picture

If only making crack took more energy. But berry the fairy buys his crack with tax $ anyway so he wouldn't notice the increase. His brutus wife halls it to him on 10 million a day everyday vacations so he doesn't have the walk the corner selling blowjobs for crack anymore. haha the prez in drag...what a guy

deerhunter's picture

yet those coal country people keep voting democraps.  Promising you the moon while closing the industry that feeds your kids and your future with their shiny white peroxide smiles.  It is hunger games already,  just look around.  Whistling past the graveyard is what Americans who can read and are fairly wide awake are doing.  America?  Glad I knew ya.  

The Blank Stare's picture

average American Moron here

So let me get this straight. Interest rates are kept low, wages have stayed the same, and the costs of food and energy have increased.

He could have just said that. But what do I know.

What really pisses me off is how the dollars are just circulated between the fat cats with their 1st class business trips, bonuses, advertising bullshit, and of course the fucking politicians. I wonder how much cheaper things would be if these costs were sliced off at the neck.

Rising Sun's picture

Electricity producers are unloading to their distributors at cost or paying their distributors to take excess load.


It is cheaper for nuclear plants to pay to give their production away than to shut down a reactor.


So distribution is getting paid by the producers and collecting from homeowners - and this is how goobermint is staying afloat these days.


Too funny how fucked we really are.  DEFLATION is picking up momentum.  Goobermint is trying to manufacture inflation by stealing, but they'll fuck this up too.

jaygould's picture

"the Fed’s preferred measuring stick—the PCE deflator ex-food and energy" is an incorrect statement! this is who u use to lecture your readers????????????????

Stockman became one of the most controversial OMB directors ever during a tenure that lasted until his resignation during August 1985.

His record was mixed at Blackstone, several large failures. During 1999, after Blackstone CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman curtailed Stockman's role in managing the investments he had developed, Stockman resigned from Blackstone to start his own private equity fund company, Heartland Industrial Partners, L.P.

major investments performed very poorly: Collins & Aikman filed for bankruptcy during 2005. Heartland sold Metaldyne to Asahi Tec Corp. during 2006, Heartland lost most of the $340 million-plus of equity it had invested in the business. During August 2003, Stockman installed himself as CEO of Collins & Aikman CorporationHe was ousted from that job days before a Chapter 11 filing on May 17, 2005.

On March 26, 2007, federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicted Stockman in "a scheme ... to defraud [Collins & Aikman]'s investors, banks and creditors. At the same time, the SEC brought civil charges against Stockman related to actions he performed while CEO of Collins & Aikman. Stockman suffered a personal financial loss, estimated at $13 million, along with losses suffered by as many as 15,000 Collins & Aikman employees.....

d edwards's picture

"Under my plan, energy prices would necessarily SKYROCKET" candidate 0bamao.


So, how's THAT working out for you?

Falconsixone's picture

Recycle, Reuse and Renew on Carousel.