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posted on 26 February 2015

January 2015 CPI Annual Inflation Rate Now Shows Deflation!

by Doug Short and Steven Hansen

The Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) year-over-year inflation rate is now slightly deflating. Of course energy prices decreased. The year-over-year core inflation rate again was unchanged at 1.6%, and continues well under the targets set by the Federal Reserve.

The market expected:

month over month change Consensus Range Consensus Actual
CPI-U -0.8 % to -0.2 % -0.6% -0.7%
CPI-U less food and energy 0.1 % to 0.2 % +0.1% +0.2%

Unadjusted CPI-U - Year-over-Year Change (blue line, left axis) and Month-over-Month Change (red line, right axis)

As a generalization - inflation accelerates as the economy heats up, while inflation rate falling could be an indicator that the economy is cooling. However, inflation does not correlate well to the economy - and cannot be used as a economic indicator.

Energy and Shelter was the major influences on this month's CPI.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) declined 0.7 percent in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index decreased 0.1 percent before seasonal adjustment.

The energy index fell 9.7 percent as the gasoline index fell 18.7 percent in January, the sharpest in a series of seven consecutive declines. The gasoline decrease was overwhelmingly the cause of the decline in the all items index, which would have risen 0.1 percent had the gasoline index been unchanged. The fuel oil index also fell sharply, and the index for natural gas turned down, although the electricity index rose. The food index was unchanged in January, with the food at home index falling for the first time since May 2013.

The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.2 percent in January. The shelter index rose 0.3 percent, and the indexes for personal care, for apparel, and for recreation increased as well. The medical care index was unchanged, while an array of indexes declined in January, including those for household furnishings and operations, alcoholic beverages, new vehicles, used cars and trucks, airline fares, and tobacco.

The all items index declined 0.1 percent over the last 12 months, the first negative 12-month change since the period ending October 2009. The energy index fell 19.6 percent over the span, with the gasoline index down 35.4 percent. The food index rose 3.2 percent, and the index for all items less food and energy increased 1.6 percent.

Historically, the CPI-U general index tends to correlate over time with the CPI-U's food index. The current situation is putting an upward pressure on the CPI.

CPI-U Index compared to the Food sub-Index of CPI-U

Notice the gap in the above graphic between the CPI and Food - historically this gap has always closed when the knock-on effect from higher food prices into other CPI components moderates.

The Federal Reserve has argued that energy inflation automatically slows the economy without having to intervene with its monetary policy tools. This is the primary reason the Fed wants to exclude energy from analysis of consumer price increases (the inflation rate).

In the above chart - the green boxes are significant elements moderating inflation, while the red boxed items are significant elements fueling inflation.

The graph below looks at the different price changes seen by the BEA in this PCE release versus the BEA's GDP and BLS' Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Year-over-Year Change - PCE's Price Index (blue line) versus CPI-U (red line) versus GDP Deflator (green line)

Detailed Analysis

The first chart is an overlay of Headline CPI and Core CPI (the latter excludes Food and Energy) since the turn of the century. I've highlighted 2 to 2.5 percent range, which the Federal Reserve currently targets for the CPI's cousin index, the BEA's Personal Consumptions Expenditures (PCE) price index.

The next chart shows both series since 1957, which was the first time the government began tracking the core inflation metric.

Click to View

In the wake of the Great Recession, two percent has been the Fed's target for core inflation. However, at their December 2012 FOMC meeting, the inflation ceiling was raised to 2.5% while their accommodative measures (low Fed Funds Rate and quantitative easing) are in place.

Federal Reserve policy, which has historically focused on core inflation, and especially the core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), remains slightly below the target range of 2 to 2.5 percent.

Caveats on the Use of the Consumer Price Index

Econintersect has performed several tests on this series and finds it fairly representative of price changes (inflation). However, the headline rate is an average - and will not correspond to the price changes seen by any specific person or on a particular subject.

Although the CPI represents the costs of some mythical person. Each of us need to provide a multiplier to the BLS numbers to make this index representative of our individual situation. This mythical person envisioned spending pattern would be approximately:

The average Joe Sixpack budgets to spend his entire paycheck or retirement income - so even small changes have a large impact to a budget.

The graph above demonstrates that fuel costs, medical care, and school costs are increasing at a much faster pace than the headline CPI-U.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has compiled CPI data since 1913, and numbers are conveniently available from the FRED repository (here). Long-term inflation charts reach back to 1872 by adding Warren and Pearson's price index for the earlier years. The spliced series is available at Yale Professor (and Nobel laureate) Robert Shiller's website. This look further back into the past dramatically illustrates the extreme oscillation between inflation and deflation during the first 70 years of our timeline. Click here for additional perspectives on inflation and the shrinking value of the dollar.

Click to ViewClick for a larger image

The chart below (click here for a larger version) includes an alternate look at inflation *without* the calculation modifications the 1980s and 1990s (Data from www.shadowstats.com).

Click to View
Click for a larger image

Because of the nuances in determining the month-over-month index values, the year-over-year or annual change in the Consumer Price Index is preferred for comparisons.

Econintersect has analyzed both food and energy showing that food moves synchronously with core.



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