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posted on 16 March 2016

February 2016 CPI: Inflation Moderates

by Doug Short and Steven Hansen

According to the BLS, the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) year-over-year inflation rate was 1.0 % - a decline from last month's 1.4 %. The year-over-year core inflation (excludes energy and food) rate grew 0.1% to 2.3 %, and remains slightly above the target set by the Federal Reserve.

The market expected (from Bloomberg):

month over month change Consensus Range Consensus Actual
CPI-U -0.3 % to 0.1 % -0.3 % -0.2 %
CPI-U less food and energy 0.1 % to 0.2 % +0.2 % +0.3 %

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.

The major influence on the CPI was energy prices.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) declined 0.2 percent in February on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.0 percent before seasonal adjustment.

The energy index continued to decrease and was the major cause of the seasonally adjusted decline in the all items index, more than offsetting increases in the indexes for food and for all items less food and energy. The gasoline index fell sharply, declining 13.0 percent, and the indexes for fuel oil and electricity also decreased, though the index for natural gas rose.

The food index increased 0.2 percent in February, as the food at home index rose for the first time since September. Major grocery store food group indexes were mixed. The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.3 percent. Increases in the indexes for shelter, apparel, and medical care were the largest contributors to the rise, but almost all major components increased in February.

The all items index rose 1.0 percent over the last 12 months, a smaller increase than the 1.4-percent change for the 12 months ending January. The energy index fell 12.5 percent over the past year, with all of its major components declining. The food index advanced 0.9 percent, with the index for food at home declining but the food away from home index rising. The index for all items less food and energy rose 2.3 percent, its largest 12-month increase since May 2012.

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. The highlighted two percent level is the Federal Reserve's Core inflation target 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) were in place. They have since reverted to the two percent target in their various FOMC documents.

Federal Reserve policy, which in recent history has focused on core inflation measured by the core PCE Price Index.

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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