By Karl-Friedrich Israel
The Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) consists of 12 subindices, which are weighted according to their shares in total household expenditures. If, for example, food and non-alcoholic beverages (subindex 1) account for 15% of expenditures, they should also be given a weight of 15% in the overall index. In this way, each expenditure category would be given the importance it has for an average household. This is the claim of official statistics. But here, too, as so often, aspiration and reality diverge.
In Germany, the traditionally largest subindex covers housing, water, electricity, gas, and other fuels (subindex 4). It has always accounted for more than 21% of the overall index since the mid-1990s. Between 2020 and 2022, the weight had increased to slightly more than 25%. The official statistics thus assumed that German households spend on average around a quarter of their total expenditure on goods of this category. This is too little in the eyes of some critics. Many households spend significantly more on goods of this type. In larger urban areas, households often spend more than a third of their income on rent alone.
There has now been an unexpected change in 2023. The Federal Statistical Offices did not increase the weight of subindex 4, but lowered it from 25.2% in the previous year to 16.5%. No valid justification for this has yet been provided. On the website of the Federal Statistical Offices, there are only empty phrases: “The Corona pandemic, which has been prevalent since 2020, with its restrictions on public life and the resulting consequences, makes it necessary to change the usual procedure for updating the goods weights for the third year in a row as well.” (translated with DeepL because AI is really good at translating bureaucratic talk.)
How could one even justify such an implausible adjustment? As a matter of fact, the adjustment means that from now on official statistics will assume that the average German household spends only 16.5% of its total expenditure on housing, water, electricity, gas, and other fuels. Whether this assumption is realistic is something everyone can consider for themselves.
What is clear is that the down-weighted subindex 4 has been showing above-average inflation rates for some time now. Between 1996 and 2022, it has risen by 84% overall, but the HICP as a whole has risen by only 59%. Only subindex 2 for alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and narcotics has risen even more strongly during this period, by 115%.
During the inflationary phase of last year, prices in subindex 4 rose the most of all. The inflation rate here was 13.9%, more than 5 percentage points above the official average inflation. That the Federal Statistical Offices have now decided to lower the weight of this subindex has one practical effect: the officially measured inflation will be lower. But it measures past reality.
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This article originally appeared here and has been reprinted under the Creative Commons license.
About the Author:
Karl-Friedrich Israel is a professor of economics in the Department of Economics and Business at Western Catholic University in Angers, France, and the Chair for Economic Policy at Saarland University in Germany. He is also an associate researcher at the Liberales Institut in Zurich, Switzerland. He worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Economic Policy at Leipzig University in Germany and taught at the Berlin School of Economics and Law.
He obtained his doctorate degree in Economics from the University of Angers in France in 2017 working on the costs and benefits of central banking. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in economics, applied mathematics, and statistics from Humboldt-University of Berlin, ENSAE Paris, and Oxford University.