Something's Fishy About America's Official Inflation Data

When confronted with the Fed's claims that there's no inflation in the economy, most Americans who don't have a PhD in economics would probably react with a mixture of confusion, frustration and disbelief. The Fed likes to treat inflation like a giant mystery that can't be cracked.

But anybody who has been to a restaurant, supermarket or paid a rent check over the past decade can tell you: Prices are rising much faster than the CPI would have you believe.

The latest evidence of this discrepancy to make it into the US financial press arrived this weekend, courtesy of Bloomberg's annual Sushinomics Index, a novel cost-of-living gauge which tracks changes in prices for the popular Japanese cuisine across different metropolitan areas.

As it turns out, sushi prices are a fairly reliable proxy for the cost of living in a given area. For example, New York and San Francisco - the two most expensive cities in the US - also sport the highest sushi prices.

Meanwhile, New Orleans, one of the least expensive metro areas, also has some of the cheapest sushi in the US. The average prices for 'basic' sushi rolls in the "Big Easy" climbed just 1.1% over the past year, compared with an average national increase of 2.9%.

Of course, BBG advises that sushi shouldn't be used as an exact proxy for cost of living. Myriad idiosyncratic factors, including access to fresh ingredients, cost of refrigeration and transportation costs, as well as the competition between restaurants in a cities food scene, which could drive prices down, are at play when determining sushi prices.

Here's more on that from William Anderson, an economics professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland.

"What you’re doing is looking strictly at the demand side, but what are some of the other factors?" Anderson said. "You have to become almost an expert in the sushi business."

Still, it's difficult to ignore the correlation between factors like population growth and sushi prices. According to BBG's index,  Charlotte, NC and Houston, Texas - cities that have seen their populations explode over the past ten years - also logged some of the highest increases in sushi prices.

Sushi price inflation was 6.7% in Charlotte and 6% in Houston over the last 12 months, according to BBG. More Americans are flocking to these cities, pushing up prices for amenities like sushi and staples like rent, as the prohibitive cost of living in coastal enclaves like NYC forces more people to look for alternatives.

To sum up: So far, 2019 has seen the largest gap - 6.5 percentage points - between sushi prices and the CPI since BBG created its national Sushi Index in 2011. 

Pardon the pun, but we're starting to think there's something 'fishy' about the official inflation data.