August 2012 CPI Up Slightly to 1.7% Annual Inflation Mostly Due to Oil

by Steven Hansen and Doug Short

The August 2012 Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) annual inflation rate grew from 1.4% back to 1.7%. Core inflation (CPI less food and energy) eased slightly from 2.1% to 1.9% annual inflation.

The dynamics are energy and food price components were mixed – and overall offsetting. This is why the month-over-month change was zero.

The Producer Price Index (released yesterday) are showing that intermediate and crude goods are continuing to deflate (although significantly less year-over-year) – but the knock-on effects into the PPI finished goods and the CPI will would be mitigated by a new round of food and energy inflation.

Percent Change Year-over-Year – Comparing PPI Finished Goods (blue line) to PPI Crude Materials (red line)

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.

First, the major inflation issue in month-over-month CPI from remains moderate upward pressure from food, but the obvious big item was used cars.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.6 percent in August on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.7 percent before seasonal adjustment.

The seasonally adjusted increase in the all items index was the largest since June 2009. About 80 percent of the increase was accounted for by the gasoline index, which rose 9.0 percent and was the major factor in the energy index rising sharply in August after declining in each of the four previous months. The food index increased 0.2 percent in August, with major grocery store food group indexes mixed.

The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.1 percent for the second month in a row. The indexes for shelter, medical care, personal care, new vehicles, and recreation all rose in August. These increases more than offset declines in the indexes for used cars and trucks, apparel, household furnishings and operations, and airline fares.

The 12-month change in the index for all items was 1.7 percent in August, an increase from the July figure of 1.4 percent. The index for all items less food and energy rose 1.9 percent for the 12 months ending August, a slight decline from the 2.1 percent figure in July and its smallest increase since July 2011.

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 countering the downward pressure on the CPI by the Producer Price Index.

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 market expected month-over-month CPI-U growth at 0.6% (versus ___% actual), with the core inflation expectations at 0.1% to 0.2% (versus ___% actual).

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).

/images/z cpi1.png

And one look at the different price changes seen by the BEA in this PCE release versus the BEA’s GDP and BLS’s 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 Bureau of Labor Statistics released the CPI data for August this morning. Year-over-year unadjusted Headline CPI came in at 1.69%, which the BLS rounds to 1.7%, up from 1.41% last month (1.4% in the BLS record). Year-over year-Core CPI (ex Food and Energy) came in at 1.91% (rounded to 1.9%), down fractionally from 2.10%% last month.

The first chart is an overlay of Headline CPI and Core CPI (the latter excludes Food and Energy) since 1957. The second chart gives a close-up of the two since 2000.

On the next chart I’ve highlighted the 2% level, which is generally understood to be the Fed’s target for core inflation. Here we see more easily see the widening spread between headline and core CPI since late 2010, a pattern that began changing last October as headline inflation declined while core continued to rise, although it has revsered directions over the past few months. We also see the jump in headline inflation in August owing mostly to the recent rise in gasoline.

Federal Reserve policy, which focuses on core inflation, and especially the core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), will see that the latest core CPI is fractionally above the target range, even though the more volatile headline inflation has fallen below two 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 Consumer Price Index contains hundreds of sub-indices which should be used to show price changes for a particular subject.

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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