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December 2012 CPI Moderates to 1.7% Year-over-Year Inflation

by Doug Short and

The November 2012 Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) year-over-year inflation rate fell modestly from 1.8% to 1.7%. Core inflation (CPI less food and energy) remained at 1.9%.

The dynamics are moderate increase from food, but energy was the big headwind to inflation (even though electricity and gas rose).

The Producer Price Index (released yesterday) showed finished goods with a 1.3% year-over-year inflation rate – which should continue to moderate the CPI.

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.

Energy by far was the major influence on this month’s CPI.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) was unchanged in December 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 gasoline index declined again in December, but other indexes, notably food and shelter, increased, resulting in the seasonally adjusted all items index being unchanged. Gasoline was the only major energy index to decline; the indexes for natural gas and electricity both increased. Within the food category, five of the six major grocery store food groups increased as the food at home index rose for the third consecutive month.

The index for all items less food and energy increased 0.1 percent in December, the same increase as in November. Besides shelter, the indexes for airline fares, tobacco, and medical care also increased. The indexes for recreation, household furnishings and operations, and used cars and trucks all declined in December.

The all items index increased 1.7 percent over the last 12 months, compared to a 1.8 percent figure in November. The index for all items less food and energy rose 1.9 percent over the last 12 months, the same figure as last month. The food index has risen 1.8 percent over the last 12 months, and the energy index has risen 0.5 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 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 0.0% (versus 0.0% actual), with the core inflation expectations at 0.1% (versus 0.1% 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

In the above chart – the green boxes are elements moderating inflation, while the red boxed items are fueling inflation.  And the graph below looks 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 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 chart below I’ve highlighted 2 to 2.5 percent range. Two percent has generally been understood to be the Fed’s target for core inflation. However, the December 12 FOMC meeting raised the inflation ceiling to 2.5% for the next year or two while their accommodative measures (low Fed Funds Rate and quantitative easing) are in place.

Here we see more easily see the widening spread between headline and core CPI since late 2010, a pattern that began changing in October 2011 as headline inflation declined while core continued to rise, although it reversed directions earlier this year. We also see the jump in headline inflation since August owing mostly to the inevitable ripple effect of the rise in gasoline prices. With the decline in gasoline prices over the past few months, the headline number has continued to ease.

Federal Reserve policy, which has historically focused on core inflation, and especially the core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), will see that the latest core CPI is below the near-term target range of 2 to 2.5 percent, and the more volatile headline inflation has fallen further below target range.

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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