Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

• An incendiary mix! Inflation, CPI and the U.S. Federal Reserve

Posted by Ron Robins on May 28, 2008

The U.S. Consumer Price Index (CPI) does NOT measure inflation
It is stunning how confusion reigns on the subject of inflation. Simply put: the Consumer Price Index (CPI) does not measure inflation. It tries, imperfectly, to measure the cost-of-living. Inflation and cost-of-living are not the same thing! As elite economists from Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman to the Bank of England’s Mervyn King comment, inflation is a monetary phenomenon. It is evidenced by excessive expansion of the money supply which exceeds economic growth. Therefore, the basis for higher prices in an economy is ‘too much’ money.

One measure of current U.S. broad money supply shows it growing at an annual rate of over 16%! However, there is considerable debate as to what money supply measure best links it with inflation. (I suspect that for developed countries, we might see credit expansion playing a much more important role in understanding the inflationary process than is currently appreciated. But that is for another post to research.)

Most people believe the CPI measures a fixed basket of goods and services over time. That is again, incorrect. It used to be the case, but not anymore. The current CPI basket of goods and services is constantly changing according to what bureaucrats think people are buying, and by numerous statistical alterations they deem ‘appropriate.’

How the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) modifies the CPI to show tame inflation
The kind of huge modifications the U.S. CPI is subjected to include the following:

  • Substitution of products. Should prices rise, it is inferred people will substitute with something less expensive.
  • ‘Hedonic’ adjustments. If computers’ performance doubles, the relevant index component is halved.
  • Weighting changes of index components. If an item becomes suddenly expensive, it may receive a smaller index weighting.
  • Chain-weighting. Applies to some ‘versions’ of the CPI. This smoothes-out sudden price changes over many months and means indexes using this are always ‘behind-the-curve.’
  • Intervention analysis/seasonal adjustments. Bureaucrats adjust index components according to historical seasonal variations, whether warranted in the current year or not. (See: The Government’s Statistical Whopper of the Year, by Robert P. Murphy.)

Hence, the BLS is able to manipulate the CPI to whatever doctrine holds sway at the time. Prior to about 1980, there actually was a fixed basket of goods and services that comprised the CPI. It did a much better job of measuring inflation caused by monetary expansion. But politicians and some academics did not like this as they said it overstated the actual cost-of-living. For instance, they figured that if beef became expensive, people might buy chicken, and so on, thereby reducing living costs, and thus effectively lowering the index.

Of course, these types of changes also inferred lower living standards. But no politician, or a bureaucracy headed by a political appointee such as the BLS, would want to say that!

CPI inflation over the past year: using 1980’s configuration, nearly 12%; using current methodology, 3.9%!
So around 1980 the CPI began to be massively modified and thus began the trek of divorcing it from monetary inflation. The difference in numbers between the 1980s CPI inflation measure and today’s cost-of-living CPI is extraordinary! John Williams at http://www.shadowstats.com/alternate_data shows that for April 2008, the CPI using 1980s methodology shows inflation over the past year of close to 12%; using CPI (CPI-U) as constructed today it is just 3.9%!

There is no doubt that the ideal of trying to get a consumer price index that reflects the reality of consumer buying behaviour is a good one. But to rely on the current CPI as a means of determining U.S. inflationary pressures so as to modify its monetary policy, is, at first glance, illogical. However, there is something else going-on here.

The Federal Reserve uses current CPI to fool the world in supporting U.S. economy and artificially high bond, stock prices
The U.S. Federal Reserve often cites the CPI as being very influential in shaping its monetary policy. From the foregoing this seems to be a very strange policy. When viewed through a political lens and the need to maintain confidence in the U.S. economy though, it makes sense to try to fool the world at large that inflationary pressures are minimal within its economy.

The U.S. economic problems are so big that if the Federal Reserve and other government agencies came clean on the true rate of inflation, we would see:

  • U.S. economic growth would be shown to have been negative for several years now (real GDP growth rate = nominal growth less inflation)
  • Bond yields would soar
  • Stock market could rise in highly inflationary environment or crash should deflation take-over
  • U.S. government deficit rocket higher
  • Severe economic downtown. Perhaps a depression

As consciousness rises investors everywhere will begin to understand the distinction between U.S. monetary based inflation that is in the double digits, and a highly stylized, theoretical, consumer price index that minimizes the monetary inflationary threat. Prices of everything will then be re-set accordingly.

There is huge danger ahead should the U.S. monetary and credit expansion continue unabated. The excess funds will find their way into more asset classes and lead to further big asset bubbles – and busts. Commodities anyone! Oh, what an incendiary mix!


© Ron Robins, 2008.


2 Responses to “• An incendiary mix! Inflation, CPI and the U.S. Federal Reserve”

  1. GDAEman said

    Nice synopsis of the way the CPI is currently adjusted. I tend to make a distinction between “monetary inflation” and “price inflation,” which are directly related, tho at times it might not seem so (times of stagflation).

    Now it seems that money is evaporating (particularly on Wall Street) and the Fed continues to add money to the system. The “net’ monetary inflation might be near zero.

    I appreciate your blog.


  2. huntert545 said

    The difference between the 1980 CPI and today’s is really important to understand because, as the y-o-y percentage differences between the two methodologies continue to increase, the actual gap in purchasing power has a compounding effect, making 12% or 3% have an exponential effect on consumer’s over the long run. Check out my recent article to see some interesting graphs showing the upturn in inflation.



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