Why Do We Care About Inflation?

The title question may seem obvious. “We” care about inflation because, ultimately, any dollars we have saved will purchase fewer real goods and services. Additionally, we might worry that our incomes are not keeping pace with the increase in the prices of good and services that we want to purchase.

But the answer to that question is a little more nuanced. “We” also care about why prices are increasing. I keep putting “we” in quotation marks because who the we is crucial for answering the question. For example, individuals and families primarily care about inflation for the reasons I stated in the first paragraph.

But central bankers care about inflation for different reasons. In broad terms, monetary policy is an attempt to smooth out the fluctuations in the economy, especially to make recessions shorter and less deep. But monetary officials want to know: is the policy they are putting in place leading to prices rising in general? If so, especially if inflation gets above certain target levels, it may mean that monetary has been “too loose.”

However, if particular prices are rising, say the price of cars (due to a lack of computer chips), central bankers don’t really care about this: it gives them no indication of whether they’ve done “too much” or “too little” with regards to stimulating the economy. Similarly, if gasoline prices rise, consumers really care about this. Central bankers, not so much: it doesn’t really tell them much about their goal (stimulating the economy with stimulating it too much).

And because some prices are so volatile, historical context is important for understanding what a recent increase or decrease means. For example, gasoline prices are up 45% in the past 12 months. That’s a lot! But it’s an increase from a very low base, and the historical reality is that gasoline prices today (around $3.00/gallon on average) are at similar levels to what they were way back in 2006, and are lower than they were for almost all of 2011-2014. And these are all in nominal terms, median household income has gone up a lot since 2006 (up 40% in nominal terms) and even since 2014 (up 25%).

All of this is important background for thinking about the latest release of the CPI-U data this week. The headline inflation number of 5.3% is indeed startling, similar to last month. We haven’t touched that level since mid-2008, and that was only for a few months. If consumer price inflation were to stay at around 5% for a sustained period of time, it would be a new, harsh reality for most consumers today: we haven’t had a year with 5% inflation since 1990, and for the past decade the average has hung around 2%.

So will it stay this high? Sadly, I have no crystal ball and I will just reiterate what I said last month: the picture is just too muddled right now to say anything concrete. Perhaps by the end of the year we will have a better picture. But is there anything we can say right now even with the muddled picture? I continue to like this chart from the Council of Economic Advisors:

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Bottom line: if we strip out the unusual supply chain disruptions to automobiles as well as airline/hotel prices making up for lost ground during the pandemic, inflation is at completely normal levels. It’s almost exactly 2%

But is this cheating? Can we really strip out the things that are increasing at rapid rates?

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Beer, Hot Dogs, and Inflation

The latest inflation data for the US has been released, and the headline CPI-U annual increase of 5.4% is once again raising worries that high inflation could be a permanent part of the landscape for the near future.

My personal opinion is that the picture is much too muddled now, between temporary supply issues and low bases for 2020 prices, to say much about the medium-term picture. I think we’ll have a better picture by the end of the year. Still, it’s worth drilling down into the data, as we have done in the past on this blog, to understand some things about economics, prices, and how price changes are impacting real people.

Certainly the prices of some goods are rising at alarming rates. Many of these are related to automobiles and transportation generally, but some categories of food have rose a lot in the past year too (though groceries overall are only up 2.6%).

But I want to talk about two categories of consumption: beer and hot dogs.

Actually, my co-blogger Zachary has already written about beer. And using the producer price index, he found that canned beer is actually cheaper than it was a year ago. If you like canned beer, rejoice! And for all beer at home, the CPI shows only a 1.8% increase since last year, after a similar small 1.6% increase last July (not much of a base effect… a clue for later!).

But not all Americans consumer alcohol. So let’s talk about that most American food product: the hot dog.

Why should we care about hot dogs? Read on.

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A Canned-Beer Kind of Guy

An  ex-co-worker was once complaining to me that the prices of things that he liked kept going up.

He was an economics major. Of course he knew that wages also increase. He wasn’t simply cantankerous about inflation. He knew all about improving productivity, income, and price level changes. He was being more specific. The *particular* items that *he* liked were getting more expensive. He was complaining about what, to everyone else, were relative price changes.

Unrelatedly, I was floating around the bls.gov website and examining their Producer Price Index (PPI) FAQs (I learned a bunch). The content is extensive. CPI is broken up into some subcategories. But PPI, being used by multiple industries and trade groups for real-life costs and benefits, is excitingly granular.

You want to know what happened to the price of red, white, rose, and carbonated wines each in particular?  They’ve got you covered. It really is amazing.

Back to my co-worker. I tried to explain that relative price changes reflected underlying economic value and scarcities. We wasn’t having any of it. He just didn’t want his prices to go up. We economists are known for being kind of dispassionate. We see relative prices change and we shrug. Man-on-the-street sees a relative price change and, boy, does he care about it – if it’s the purchasing price that *he* faces.

See the below graph. What kind of consumer are you? Since the start of the pandemic, canned, bottled, and kegged beer have all changed in price. Or maybe you’re a teetotaler and you’ve noticed the increasing price of bottled water.  For interpretability, let’s consider what had cost $10 at the start of the year 2020. Bottled water has gone up to $10.50 and bottled beer has gone up to almost $10.30.  You may not blink at a 3% price increase – unless it’s for 6 bottles of your favorite craft beer.

The price of canned beer, on the other hand, hardly increased at all. And in the last couple of months, the price *fell*. I sure hope that my co-worker is a canned-beer kind of guy. Otherwise, someone is sure to hear a lot of belly-aching.

Cars, Inflation, and the Quantity Theory of Money

You have probably seen the latest inflation data. The headline number is 5.4% increase in prices in the past year as measured by the CPI-U. That’s a lot! Even the Core CPI (removing volatile food and energy) is up 4.5%.

If you follow the data closely, you may also have heard that a big chunk of that increase comes from prices related to automobiles: new cars, used cars, rental cars, car parts. All way up!

If you are in the market to buy a car, or if you really need a rental, it’s a bad time for prices. (Conversely, if you have an extra car sitting around, it’s a great time to sell!)

But what if you aren’t in the market for a car? What does the inflation data look like? The White House CEA tweeted out this chart to deconstruct the factors in the recent CPI release.

What does it all mean?

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CEA on Inflation Today and WWII

This week the Biden Council of Economic Advisers blogged about “Historical Parallels to Today’s Inflationary Episode”.

Consumer demand in 2021 is roaring back after pandemic shutdowns. Demand for airline travel is exceeding expectations. Car dealer lots are empty.

The authors argue that, of all the periods of rapid inflation in American history, the boom after WWII has the most parallels to today.

During WWII, Americans were obviously in war mode. Price controls and supply shortages led to deprivation on the Homefront. Families had trouble buying cars, just like today.

Instead of focusing on consumer or industrial durable goods, manufacturing capabilities were concentrated on military production. Today’s shortage of durable goods is similar—a national crisis necessitated disrupting normal production processes. Instead of redirecting resources to support a war effort, however, manufacturing capabilities were temporarily shut down or reduced to avoid COVID contagion.

Remember when oil had a negative price in 2020? While people in the US were staying home, many were building up personal savings. As soon as the “war” ends, consumers compete as buyers and drive up the prices of the limited available goods.

They present the post-war inflationary episode as dramatic but temporary, because it only lasted for two years. It’s short compared to inflation of the late ‘70’s. They are standing behind the Powell “transitory” story, in their conclusion.

On the other hand, they say that the most comparable moment in history to today involved the price level spiking 20% and taking two years to come down. I’m pondering a very expensive repair on our car, just make sure I don’t have to buy a new one soon.

1970’s SNL on the Problem of Inflation

Any student of economics knows that inflation emerged as a big issue in the late 1970’s, first under the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The newly minted Saturday Night Live rose to the occasion. First, Dan Akroyd as Jimmy Carter proposed that that every American take 8 per cent of his or her money and burn it (Season 3, Episode 17, 4/15/1978), to reduce the money supply.

The President demonstrated leadership here by burning 8% of the $12.50 in his daughter’s little peanut bank:

A few months later (Season 4, Episode 4, 11/4/1978), the President changed his mind. Since austerity did not seem to be working, he offered a new approach – –  “Inflation is our friend”:

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What Forex says about cheap travel

The 2007-9 Financial Crisis turned Iceland into a major tourist destination, as a newly cheap currency combined with affordable flights and natural beauty. For anyone with plenty of time and a moderate amount of money, chasing the newly-cheap destination seems like a good travel strategy.

Since January 2020, here are the countries where the US dollar has gained the most vs the local currency:

Calculated using https://fx-rate.net/USD/?date_input=2020-01-01
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Let’s Talk About Inflation

You’ve probably seen the headlines. Corn prices are double what they were a year ago. Lumber prices are triple. You can find all kinds of other scary examples. Is runaway inflation just around the corner? Is it already here?

And yet, measures of prices that consumers pay are much more stable. The most widely tracked measure, the CPI-U, is up 4.2% over the past year. That’s through April — and keep in mind that it’s starting from a low base since March-May 2020 saw falling prices). The Personal Consumption Expenditures index, often preferred by economists, is up just 2.3% (though that’s only through March).

So what gives? Do these consumer measures understate inflation in some way? Or is the increase in commodity prices telling us that consumer prices will increase soon?

Let’s take that second question first. Do higher commodity prices necessarily lead to higher consumer prices? The answer is a clear no. First, we can see that in the data. The producer price index for all commodities (such as corn and lumber) is up 12% over the year (through March, with April data coming out tomorrow). That’s a big increase. But as the chart below suggests, that probably will not lead to 12% increases in consumer prices. It probably won’t even lead to a 5% increase in consumer prices.

Notice two things about this chart. First, commodity prices (the red line) are much more volatile than consumer prices, both on the upside and downside. Second, there really isn’t much of a lag, if any. The direction of change is similar in both indexes, almost to the month. When producer commodity prices go up, consumer prices also go up, that very same month, but not by the same amount. So all of that 12% increase in producer prices is probably already reflected in consumer prices.

Why might this be? Simple supply and demand analysis (hello Econ 101 critics!) can tell us why.

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Hyperinflationary Efficiency?

I’m advising a senior thesis for a student who is examining the strength of Purchasing Power Parity in hyper-inflationary countries. Beautifully, the results are consistent with another author* who uses a more sophisticated method.

For those who don’t know, absolute purchasing power parity (PPP) depends on arbitrage among traders to cause a unit of currency to have the same ability to acquire goods in two different countries. If after converting your currency you can afford more stuff in foreign country, then there is a profit opportunity to purchase there and even to re-sell it in your home country.

Essentially, when you make that decision, you are reducing demand for the good in your home country and increasing demand in the foreign country (re-selling affects the domestic supply too). Eventually, the changes in demand cause the prices to converge and the arbitrage opportunities disappear. At this point the two currencies are said to have purchasing power parity – it doesn’t matter where you purchase the good.

So does PPP hold? One way that economists measure the strength of PPP is by measuring the time that it takes for a typical purchasing power difference to be arbitraged away by 50% – its ‘half-life’.  The more time that is required, the less efficient the markets are said to be.

The ex-ante question is: Is PPP be stronger or weaker during hyperinflationary periods?

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