Economists who hold the popular view that expanding the money supply will provide the best medicine for our ailing economy dismiss the inflationary concerns of monetary hawks, like me, by pointing to the supposedly low inflation that has occurred during the current period of rampant Fed activism. In a recent blog post aimed specifically at me, Paul Krugman noted that the sub 2.5% increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past few years are all that is needed to prove me wrong. In fact, Krugman and others have even suggested that the CPI itself overstates inflation and that the Fed would be better able to help the economy if less strict methodologies were used. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the CPI is essentially meaningless as it woefully under reports rising prices.
Magazines and newspapers provide a good case in point. The truth has not been exposed through the economic reporting that these outlets provide, but in the prices that are permanently fixed to their covers. For instance, from 1999 to 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s (BLS) “Newspaper and Magazine Index” (a component of the CPI) increased by 37.1%. But a perusal of the cover prices of the 10 most popular newspapers and magazines (WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Sports Illustrated, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People, NY Times, USA Today, and the LA Times) over the same time frame showed an average cover price increase of 131.5% (3.5 times faster than the BLS’ stats). This is not even in the same ballpark.
Some defenders of the BLS may conclude that prices were held down by the availability of free online news content or the convenience of digital delivery. But that is beside the point. Prior to the digital age, the BLS could have claimed that newspaper costs were held down by public libraries that provided free access. It’s also true that online publications deliver less value on some fronts. Not only do many people enjoy the tactile process of reading physical newspapers or magazines, but they offer the secondary value in helping to kindle fires, housebreak puppies, pack dishes, and line birdcages.
Another stunning example is found in health insurance costs, which is a major line item for most families. According to the BLS we can all breathe easy on that front because their “Health Insurance Index” increased a mere 4.3% (total) in the four years between 2008 and 2012. Interestingly, over the same time, the Kaiser Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance showed that the cost of family health insurance rose 24.2% (5.5 times faster). But even if the BLS had reported higher costs, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the CPI itself. Believe it or not, health insurance costs are assigned a weighting of less than one percent of the overall CPI. In contrast, the Kaiser Survey revealed that in 2012 the average total cost for family health insurance coverage was $15,745, or almost one third of the median family income.
If the BLS could be so blatantly wrong in reporting the prices of newspapers and health insurance, should we believe that they are more accurate on all other sectors? If the inaccuracy of these two components were consistent with the rest of the CPI’s components, inflation could now be reported in double-digits!
Even more egregious than the manner in which prices are currently reported is the way that CPI methods have been changed over the years to insure that most increases are factored out. Since the 1970’s, the CPI formula has changed so thoroughly that it bears scant resemblance to the one used during the “malaise days” of the Carter years. Main stream economists dismiss criticism of the changes as tin hat conspiracy theories. But given the huge stakes involved, it’s hard to believe that institutional bias plays no role. Government statisticians are responsible for coming up with the formulas, and their bosses catch huge breaks if the inflation numbers come in low. Human behavior is always influenced by such incentives.
The newer CPI methodologies are designed to report not just on price movements, but on spending patterns, consumer choices, substitution bias, and product changes. In other words, the metrics have been altered to track not so much the cost of things, but the cost of living (or more accurately, the cost of surviving). But if you simply focus on price, especially on those staple commodity goods and services that haven’t radically changed in quality over the years, the under reporting of inflation becomes more apparent.
As reported in our Global Investor Newsletter, we selected BLS price changes for twenty everyday goods and services over two separate ten-year periods, and then compared those changes to the reported changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the same period. (The twenty items we selected are: eggs, new cars, milk, gasoline, bread, rent of primary residence, coffee, dental services, potatoes, electricity, sugar, airline tickets, butter, store bought beer, apples, public transportation, cereal, tires, beef, and prescription drugs.)
We know that people do not spend equal amounts on the above items, and we know their share of income devoted to them has changed over the decades. But as we are only interested in how these prices have changed relative to the CPI, those issues don’t really matter. We chose to look at the period between 1970 and 1980 and then again between 2002 and 2012, because these time frames both had big deficits and loose monetary policy, and they straddle the time in which the most significant changes to the CPI methodology took effect. And while the CPI rose much faster in the 1970’s, the degree to which the prices of our 20 items outpaced the CPI was much higher more recently.
Between 1970 and 1980 the officially reported CPI rose a whopping 112%, and prices of our basket of goods and services rose by 117%, just 5% faster. In contrast between 2002 and 2012 the CPI rose just 27.5%, but our basket increased by 44.3%, a rate that was 61% faster. And remember, this is using the BLS’ own price data, which we have already shown can grossly under-estimate the true rate of increase. The difference can be explained by how CPI is weighted and mixed. The formula used in the 1970’s effectively captured the price movements of our twenty everyday products. But in the last ten years it has been quite a different story.
If these price changes in our experiments had been fully captured, CPI could currently be high enough to severely restrict Fed action to stimulate the economy. Instead, the Fed is operating as if inflation is extremely low. As a result, they are making a huge policy mistake that will come back to haunt us. During the last decade the Fed spent many years denying the existence of a housing bubble, even as a mountain of evidence piled up to the contrary. That error caused the Fed to hold interest rates too low for too long, blowing more air into the bubble and imposing enormous negative consequences on the economy. The Fed, now similarly blind to the inflation threat, is repeating its mistake, only this time the negative consequences will be even more dire.
Apart from the statistical problems that hide inflation, there are also macroeconomic factors that have helped keep prices down despite the quantitative easing. Massive U.S. trade deficits and foreign central bank dollar accumulation mean that much of the printed money winds up in foreign bank vaults, not U.S. shopping centers. As foreign consumer goods flow in, and dollars flow out, a lid is kept on domestic prices. In effect, our inflation is exported as foreign central banks monetize our deficits and recycle their surpluses into U.S. Treasuries. The demand has pushed down bond yields which has allowed the U.S. government to borrow inexpensively. Of course, when the flows reverse, bond prices will fall, yields will climb, and a tidal wave of dollars will wash up on American shores, drowning consumers in a sea of inflation.
Unlike Krugman and the Keynesians, I would argue that it is impossible to create something from nothing. I believe that printing a dollar diminishes the value of all existing dollars by an aggregate amount equal to the purchasing power of the new dollar. The other side takes the position that the new money creates tangible economic growth and that real economic value can therefore be created by putting zeroes onto a piece of paper. I think that those making such absurd claims should bear the burden of proof. For more on the interesting topic of hidden inflation, see my video that I just posted.