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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