Independent Inflation Tracking Numbers
Updated June 26, 2012
For some reason people don’t seem to trust the government. I can’t understand why. Surely the government only has our best interests at heart and wants to take care of us like good parents, and they are just protecting us from ourselves. And of course all politicians are honest, selfless, hard-working civil servants. Right?
Well, Okay maybe they don’t always have our best interests at heart. And maybe it would benefit the budget if they didn’t have to pay so much for cost of living increases but surely they aren’t fudging the Consumer Price Index are they?
I frequently get emails, and occasionally phone calls, asking just that question. Often the conversation will go something like this: I know that a few months ago when I went to the grocery store my favorite Arnold Oatnut bread cost $2.50 and only a few months later it is costing me $2.89 so lets see that’s a 15.6% increase in six months so annual inflation must be around 31% right? And the government is telling us that inflation is less than 3.5% so they must be lying!
I recently got a call from someone who was convinced that the CPI didn’t reflect reality because the government has started leaving out food and energy. This is a common misconception because you can look at the “Core CPI” which doesn’t include food and energy. The core CPI though is primarily for statisticians who are trying to track the effects of increases in the money supply and food and energy are often subject to other outside forces including everything from the weather to unrest in the Middle East.
So if you are a statistician you can look at the core CPI, otherwise it is pretty much worthless, but you can also look at just food or just energy or almost any other combination you like. But if you want to track the entire 10,000 item list of goods that the “average” consumer might buy you can look at the “Consumer Price Index for all Urban Consumers” (CPI-U) or just “CPI” for short.
Even though the CPI does not exclude food and energy it is still possible that the government is fudging the numbers like John Williams at Shadow Stats contends. John says the government has changed the way it calculates the CPI over the years and thus it is chronically under reporting the inflation rate so he tacks on a flat 4% to the government numbers to make up for their “under reporting”. Some how that doesn’t sound right with me either.
I have always wished I could track a bunch of items and have my own price index. Then I could compare it to the CPI. Then I would know exactly how the CPI stacks up and I’d also know how my purchase prices have changed over time. Apparently I’m not the only one… recently two economists, Alberto Cavallo and Roberto Rigobon at M.I.T. have developed a brilliant way to do just that. As a matter of fact, they have developed an ingenious way to track inflation on a daily basis instead of just monthly. Rather than doing it like the government does and hiring thousands of workers to call businesses and find out the current price of everything from apples to Zip-Lock bags, they have developed a system that tracks online prices and calculates the inflation rate.
They freely admit that it won’t be exactly the same as the CPI since it only tracks online prices but it does track supermarkets, electronics, apparel, real estate and many other things. Unfortunately it doesn’t track services because they are generally unavailable online. At this point they are actually tracking over 5 million individual items compared to the CPI’s 10,000 so for the categories it tracks, it actually provides a greater level of accuracy in addition to providing data daily instead of just monthly.
Cavallo and Rigobon are working on making it a world-wide index. They are currently tracking prices in over 70 different countries. Of course, many of those items don’t apply to the U.S. inflation rate because they are priced in Rubles or Lira or something other than Dollars. But you can limit your search to just the United States. So that is exactly what I did. Since they track it on a daily basis I compared their data on the last day of the month with the CPI for that month (which comes out two weeks later from the government). Cavallo and Rigobon call their index the “Billion Price Project” or “BPP”. In the following chart we can see that their BPP index is consistently higher than the CPI lending some credence to the idea that the government is under-reporting inflation.
But in the following chart we see the BBP vs the CPI on an Annual Inflation Basis:
Looking at the chart above you will see how the two compare. I find it interesting that the BPP numbers actually track the government numbers quite well. There was a period during 2010 where the Government numbers were significantly lower but recently they seem to agree quite well. And recently the BPP numbers have actually fallen faster than the CPI.
Recently, I happened to be in the grocery store and was thinking about prices back when I was in college in the late 1970′s. My roommates and I used to do the grocery shopping together and buy the little 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce (not the standard 16 oz size). We always bought the cheapest stuff we could find. Store brand or “White label” and I still remember the price… 25¢ a can. So today when I was in the store I happened to see the little cans and guess what… the store brand was 35¢ and the white label was 25¢ a can. This is 35 years later and the inflation on a can of tomato sauce is between 40% (@ 35¢) and zero % (@ 25¢).
Even if the total inflation is 40% the Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) is only 0.97% (the same as if the annual inflation rate was 0.97%).
So maybe tomato sauce isn’t a good example. So from the grocery store I went to Sam’s and there I was amazed to find a microwave for $69. I think my parents paid about $700 for theirs back in 1978 (admittedly it was bigger). But I’m sure I couldn’t buy any size microwave for $69 in 1978.
In 1981 my college was the first college in the country to require all incoming freshman to have a personal computer… an “XT” if I remember correctly, monstrously heavy desktop, generic brand, 256k RAM memory, school discount pricing, $3000.
Today you can get a laptop with 4 gigabytes of ram and a processor that is many multiples faster than an XT for about $500 without any special discounts and recently Walmart had desktops for $300.
So a lot depends on which products you are looking at. Where’s your focus? Is the glass half empty or half full? Are we getting killed by inflation or are things incredibly cheap? If you don’t trust the government, I don’t blame you. I don’t trust them either. But the folks at MIT have less reason to fudge the numbers, they aren’t paying out billions based on their calculations. In fact, they are using the data for research purposes like calculating the “green markup” i.e. “What premium is paid in stores for “green” or “organic” products?” and for “How much do prices adjust internally when the exchange rate, or the international price of commodities change?” so they have incentives for getting the most accurate data possible. They also have technology on their side as they use the Internet to automatically collect prices. So personally I think their numbers are probably the most reliable out there.
There is even more evidence that the government is fudging the unemployment numbers as well. See Employment vs. UnEmployment to see how the government’s own numbers don’t agree. Also see Is the Government Fudging Unemployment Numbers? to see a comparison of the Government’s numbers to those collected by the Gallup pole people.
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