Each month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases an estimate of the level of the consumer price index (CPI) and the rate of inflation in the United States for the previous month. The report provides the most recent current and seasonally adjusted consumer price indexes for all urban consumers, urban wage earners, and the chained index, plus a breakdown by major expenditure groups. The BLS also collects price level data for major metropolitan areas and regions.
This lesson focuses on the January 16, 2013, BLS press release of data on the consumer price index for the month of December, 2012.
For the latest updates on U.S. economic indicators, go to:
- EconomicIndicators.gov: http://economicindicators.gov/
- BLS Economic Indicator: www.bls.gov/bls/newsrels.htm#major
- BEA Economic Indicators: www.bea.gov/newsreleases/glance.htm
You can subscribe to receive monthly BLS email news releases. To subscribe, go to the BLS News Service Subscription Page. www.bls.gov/bls/list.htm
- Identify the current rate and recent changes in the consumer price index.
- Identify the factors that have influenced recent changes in the rate of inflation.
- Identify the potential policy implications of the current economic conditions, including deflation.
- Describe how inflation and deflation impact individuals, families, and different groups in the economy.
On January 16, 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported, "On a seasonally adjusted basis, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers was unchanged in December after decreasing 0.3 percent in November. The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.1 percent in December, the same increase as in November."
Thanks to a decrease in energy prices in December, the overall Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) did not decrease over the month. Food and some other prices increased, but not by much. So - what does it mean to you?
To better understand the price level data, it is important to start with a couple of key price level basic concepts.
Note: Unless specifically referenced, quoted data in this lesson is directly from the January 16, 2013, BLS announcement. www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/cpi_01162013.htm
What is the Consumer Price Index?
The Consumer Price Indexes (CPI), reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is a monthly measurement of changes in the prices paid by urban consumers for a representative market basket of goods and services. An increase in the CPI over time may be evidence of "inflation" in the price level or a reduction in U.S. consumers' purchasing power.
The CPI measures changes in prices over time. By selecting an appropriate base year and setting the index level for that time period at 100, the CPI compares one month's price index level with the base year or any other time period. The current standard reference base period is the average of the period from 1982 to 1984.
To see how the CPI works, you can go to the BLS CPI Calculator. The CPI inflation calculator allows you to calculate the value of current dollars in an earlier period, or to calculate the current value of dollar amounts from years ago. Consumer Price Indexes often are used to escalate or adjust payments for rents, wages, alimony, child support and other obligations that may be affected by changes in the cost of living.
Students: Pick a time period to determine the U.S. rates of inflation over that time periods. What factors may have influenced prices during that time period. Was there economic growth or decline? What was happening in other parts of the world? Was the population growing?
What is Inflation?
Inflation is generally defined as a continual increase in the overall level of prices. It is an increase in average prices that lasts at least a few months. Often, a one month increase in prices is referred to as inflation, but a longer-term upward trend of prices is a more accurate definition. The most widely reported measurement of inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI). For this announcement, the BLS reports the CPI-U - the consumer price index for all urban consumers.
The CPI compares the prices of a set of goods and services relative to the prices of those same goods and services in a previous month or year. Changes in the prices of those goods and services approximate changes in the overall level of prices paid by consumers. If the price level of consumer goods and services increases over a period of time, the consumer's purchasing power decreases (assuming, of course, that the consumer's disposable income and spending pattern remain the same).
Just the opposite of inflation, deflation is generally defined as a continual decrease in the overall level of prices. It is a decrease in average prices that lasts at least a few months. If the price level of consumer goods and services decreases over a period of time, the consumer's purchasing power increases (assuming, again, that the consumer's disposable income and spending pattern remain the same.
Students: Is what you thought inflation is? You may remember from your U.S. History classes the times when inflation was very high in the United States - as recently as the early 1980s.
Who is Included in the Determination of the CPI-U?
The CPI-U refers to all urban consumers. Because the spending patterns of rural, farm and some other groups are not consistent with typical "urban" consumers, the BLS restricts the measurement of the price indexes to urban consumers (CPI-U) or urban wage earners (CPI-W).
The BLS FAQ webpage explains: "The CPI reflects spending patterns for each of two population groups: all urban consumers and urban wage earners and clerical workers. The all urban consumer group represents about 87 percent of the total U.S. population. It is based on the expenditures of almost all residents of urban or metropolitan areas, including professionals, the self-employed, the poor, the unemployed, and retired people, as well as urban wage earners and clerical workers. Not included in the CPI are the spending patterns of people living in rural nonmetropolitan areas, farm families, people in the Armed Forces, and those in institutions, such as prisons and mental hospitals. "Link: www.bls.gov/cpi/cpifaq.htm#Question_3
Bureau of Labor Statistics Announcement
Consumer Price Index and Inflation - December 2012
Released January 16, 2013
"On a seasonally adjusted basis, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers was unchanged in December after decreasing 0.3 percent in November. The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.1 percent in December, the same increase as in November."
The BLS commented on the role of gasoline and food prices on the overall price level change. "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."
Figure 1, below, shows the monthly changes in the CPI-U for the past several years. Note the periods of increased and decreased prices.
The "Core" Price Index
Because energy and food prices tend to fluctuate more than most other consumer goods and services prices, the BLS also reports an "index for all items less food and energy." This is commonly referred to as the "core index" or "core CPI."
"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 12 Month Price Index Change
The BLS also reports the change in the price level over the preceding 12-month period, both the all items and core indexes.
"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."
"The index for all items less food and energy increased 0.1 percent in December after rising 0.2 percent in November. The indexes for shelter, recreation, medical care, and tobacco all posted increases, while the indexes for used cars and trucks, new vehicles, and apparel all declined." Again, energy prices were a significant factor in the recent period.
Students: What price changes have you noticed over the previous few months? Gasoline? Food? Other consumer goods? What about housing or rent? What was your holiday shopping experience in December 2012?
An explanation of seasonal adjustment from the BLS: “Because price data are used for different purposes by different groups, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes seasonally adjusted as well as unadjusted changes each month.
For analyzing general price trends in the economy, seasonally adjusted changes are usually preferred since they eliminate the effect of changes that normally occur at the same time and in about the same magnitude every year--such as price movements resulting from changing climatic conditions, production cycles, model changeovers, holidays, and sales. Snow shovel and ice-melt demand will increase in the winter. Bathing suit demand will increase in the spring and summer. This demand may result in higher seasonal prices.
The unadjusted data are of primary interest to consumers concerned about the prices they actually pay. Unadjusted data also are used extensively for escalation purposes. Many collective bargaining contract agreements and pension plans, for example, tie compensation changes to the Consumer Price Index before adjustment for seasonal variation.” Source: BLS, When Should I use Seasonally Adjusted Data?
Note: The 12-month index is not seasonally adjusted, because it includes all seasons and seasonal events each year. Some adjustments may be made by the BLS for single events that do not occur each year. This is rare.]
Students: Can you identify goods and services that are affected by seasonal changes? Can you identify how the demand for some goods and services is impacted be seasonal changes, such as the weather?
What was the Nominal Level of the CPI-U in December 2012?
"The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 1.7 percent over the last 12 months to an index level of 229.601 (1982-84=100). For the month, the index declined 0.3 percent prior to seasonal adjustment."
The CPI-U at the end of 2012 was 229.601. That means that a "basket" of goods and services that cost $100 in the base period of 1982-1984 now costs $229.60. Since 1982-84, inflation has been just over 129 percent.
The BLS also measures the CPI-W for a more narrow urban population group - wage earners. The CPI-W is most commonly used for employment contract wage escalations (often called cost of living increases).
The BLS explains, “The Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) is based on the expenditures of households included in the CPI-U definition that also meet two requirements: more than one-half of the household's income must come from clerical or wage occupations, and at least one of the household's earners must have been employed for at least 37 weeks during the previous 12 months. The CPI-W population represents about 32 percent of the total U.S. population and is a subset, or part, of the CPI-U population.”
The third CPI measurement reported monthly is the C-CPI-U, a "chained" price index. According to the BLS, the advantage of the C-CPI-U is that it uses a formula that includes "expenditure data in adjacent time periods in order to reflect the effect of any substitution that consumers make across item categories in response to changes in relative prices. The new measure is designed to be a closer approximation to a "cost-of- living" index than the existing BLS measures." In other words, it more accurately reflects actual consumer decisions, especially substitution, over shorter time periods.
In December, 2011, the C-CPI-U "increased 1.6 percent over the last 12 months. For the month, the index decreased 0.2 percent on a not seasonally adjusted basis. Please note that the indexes for the post-2010 period are subject to revision."
The C-CPI-U was designed as a way to adjust for consumer substitution over time periods. When consumers substitute one product for another, the relative prices may be different. When the price of a good or service increases (or decreases), consumers may choose to substitute another good or service.
Substitution: A good or service that may be used in place of another good or service; examples include tap water for bottled water (or vice versa) and movies for concerts (or vice versa).
One current debate in The U.S. Congress over reducing federal spending and the deficit is whether to use the C-CPI-U for cost of living adjustments and other price level adjustments for contracts and program expense adjustments. Using the C-CPI-U will reduce annual increases, because it generally reflects a smaller increase than the CPI-U. Proponents say ti more accurately reflects real consumer costs because it allows for substitutions.
Students: Have you substituted one good for another because of an increase in price or the difference in prices? For instance, have you stopped going to movies or purchasing a particular name brand?
Typically, a consumer will substitute one good for another good based on their relative prices. If consumers substitute one good for another good that is part of the market basket, it is not reflected in the CPI-U. The C-CPI-U is adjusted for these changes.
The level of the CPI-U in December, 2012, was 229.601. That means a market basket of goods that cost $100 in 1982-1984 (the base year period) now costs about $229.60.. That same basket cost just $225.67 in December of 2011. Over the year, the cost of the market basket increased by just under $4 - about 1.7 percent. If your monthly income has increased by about $4.00 in the past year, your income has kept-up with inflation (at least with the price of this market basket of goods and services.) Remember, this is a "sample" market basket. If your spending habits are significantly different from the "average" the impact of inflation on you is different. If you spent more than the average on energy in August, inflation affected you more.
To review the recent history of the CPI-U from 1990 to the present time, go to the BLS webpage: data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/surveymost
Real vs. Nominal Data Measurements
In many cases, data should be adjusted for a change in the price level to make comparisons over time more meaningful. The term nominal is used to refer to a measurement in current dollars. To adjust for inflation and determine a real or constant dollar value, the nominal value is adjusted by the price level change. A measurement such as gross domestic product in nominal terms refers to the measurement at current dollars (prices.) To compare GDP in two years, the rate of inflation between the years must be subtracted to determine the real change.
The same is true for income and purchasing power. Suppose Mr. Jones made $50,000 in 2011 and $52,000 in 2012. His income increased by $2,000 or 4 percent from 2011 to 2012. If the rate of inflation between 2011 and 2012 was 5 percent, Mr. Jones' purchasing power actually decreased by 1 percent. His 4 percent increase in income did not purchase the same amount of goods and services as it did in the previous year. Inflation reduced his purchasing power, even though he had more income.
Students: Make sure you know meaning of "real income" or "real GDP" as measurements of value adjusted for inflation and the importance of adjusting for inflation when making comparisons over time.
Why adjust some payments or measurements of the economy for the impact of inflation?
The CPI Market Basket
The CPI market basket represents all the consumer goods and services purchased by urban households. Price data are collected for over 180 categories, which BLS has grouped into 8 major groups. These major groups, with examples of categories in each, are as follows:
- Food and beverages (ham, eggs, carbonated drinks, coffee, meals and snacks)
- Housing (rent of primary residence, fuel oil, bedroom furniture)
- Apparel (men’s shirts and sweaters, women’s dresses, jewelry)
- Transportation (new vehicles, gasoline, tires, airline fares)
- Medical care (prescription drugs and medical supplies, physicians’ services, eyeglasses and eye care, hospital services)
- Recreation (television sets, cable TV, pets and pet products, sports equipment, admissions)
- Education and communication (college tuition, postage, telephone services, computer software and accessories)
- Other goods and services (tobacco and smoking products, haircuts and other personal care services, and funeral expenses)
Figure 2, below, shows the December 2012 price level data for the primary categories in the CPI-U market basket, including the change from November to December, 2012, and for the most recent 12-month period.
The CPI is a Weighted Index
Because each product group (energy, food, etc.) represents a different portion of an average consumer's spending pattern, each category of given a "weight" or what the BLS calls "relative importance." These weights are based on typical percentages and, in this case, national averages. Figure 2, below, shows the weights assigned by the BLS to major product groups.
Weights for individuals may not follow this same pattern. Some people pay a larger portion of their income for rent or their mortgage than others. A high school student may spend a much greater portion of his or her income on gasoline, clothes and food than some other groups. A retired person who has paid-off a mortgage may pay a much smaller portion of his or her income for housing than other groups.
Note: The above data are national averages. The category weights differ from region to region. For instance, when the weight for food and beverage was 15.4 in the Boston region, it was 16.0 in the Cincinnati region. Food and beverage costs are a slightly larger portion of the market basket of the index in Cincinnati than in Boston.
Students: It may be interesting to determine your own "market basket." How do you spend your income? What percentages of your income do you spend on gasoline, clothes, entertainment, etc.?
The Consumer Price Index—Why the Published Averages Don't Always Match An Individual's Inflation Experience?
"The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of the average change in prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of goods and services. Because the CPI is a statistical average, it may not reflect your experience or that of specific families or individuals, particularly those whose expenditure patterns differ substantially from the "average" urban consumer." www.bls.gov/cpi/cpifact5.htm
Measuring Consumer Prices
There are several measurements or reported levels of the CPI. They are:
- CPI: A measure of the average change in prices over time of goods and services purchased by households.
- CPI-U: The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers. This includes approximately 87 percent of the total population, including wage earners and clerical worker households, groups such as professional, managerial, and technical workers, the self-employed, short-term workers, the unemployed, retirees, and others not in the labor force.
- CPI-W: The Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. This includes households of wage earners and clerical workers, representing approximately 32 percent of the total population.
- C-CPI-U: The Chained Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers. This measurement uses a formula that reflects the substitutions consumers make in response to changes in relative prices.
- Core CPI: The average price of the same set of goods and services, without some of the more volatile components, such as food and energy prices.
How is the CPI Calculated?
Assume that there are only three goods (instead of goods and services in over 200 categories in the actual calculation) included in the typical consumer's purchases and, in the base or the original year, the goods had prices of $10, $20, and $30. The typical consumer purchased ten of each good. Total cost of this "market basket" in the base year was $600.
In the current year, the three goods' prices are $11, $24, and $33. Consumers now purchase 12, 8, and 11 of each good. The total current price of this "market basket" is $622, but this would not be an accurate way to compare the "price level." An accurate comparison has to assume a constant pattern of purchasing.
The determination of the CPI for the current year uses the quantities purchased in the market basket in the base year (ten of each good) times their prices in the current year divided by the quantities purchased in the market basket in the base year times their prices in the base year.
Thus [(10 x $11) + (10 x $24) + (10 x $33)] / [( 10 x $10) + (10 x $20) + (10 x $30)] = $680 / $600 = 1.133. That is, prices in the current year are 1.133 times the prices in the original year. Prices have increased on average by 13.3 percent. The quantities are the base year quantities in both the numerator and the denominator.
By convention, the indexes are multiplied by 100 and reported as 113.3 instead of 1.133.
The base year index simply divides the prices in the base year (times the quantities in the base year) by the prices in base year (times the quantities in the base year). The base-year index then is 1.00; or multiplied by 100 equals 100.
Figure 4, below, shows how the change in the CPI was determined for December, 2012.
How the CPI Data are Collected
The Bureau of Labor Statistics samples the purchases of households representing 87 percent of the population. The Consumer Price Index measures prices of goods and services in a market basket of goods and services that is intended to be representative of a typical consumer's purchases. Forty-one percent of the market basket is made up of goods that consumers purchase. The other fifty-nine percent includes services.
Goods and services sampled include food, clothing, housing, gasoline, other transportation prices, medical, dental, and legal services and hundreds of other retail goods and services. Taxes associated with the purchases are included. Each item is weighted in the average according to its share of the spending of the households included in the sample. Almost 80,000 prices in 87 urban areas across the country are sampled by Bureau of Labor Statistics professionals. Visits and phone calls are made to thousands of households and thousands of retail stores and offices.
Causes of Inflation
Over short periods of time, inflation can be caused by increases in costs or increases in consumer spending. Inflation resulting from an increase in aggregate demand or total spending is called demand-pull inflation. Increases in demand, particularly if production in the economy is near the full-employment level of real GDP, pull up prices. It is not just rising spending. If spending is increasing more rapidly than the capacity to produce, there will be upward pressure on prices.
Demand-pull example: If the economy and the population are growing at a fast pace, food and energy supplies may not be increasing fast enough. Prices will rise because of the "pull" of increased demand.
Inflation can also be caused by increases in costs of major inputs used throughout the economy. This type of inflation is often described as cost-push inflation. Increases in costs push prices up. The most common recent examples are inflationary periods caused largely by increases in the price of oil. Or, if employers and employees begin to expect inflation, costs and prices will begin to rise as a result.
Cost-push example: If OPEC and other oil producers restrict their output, oil prices will rise. Because oil is an important resource for the production of many consumer goods, the prices of those goods will rise because of the increased cost of production.
Over longer periods of time, that is, over periods of many months or years, inflation is caused by growth in the supply of money that is above and beyond the growth in the demand for money.
Inflation, in the short run and when caused by changes in demand, has an inverse relationship with unemployment. If spending is rising faster than capacity to produce, unemployment is likely to be falling and demand-pull inflation increasing. If spending is rising more slowly than capacity to produce, unemployment will be rising and there will be little demand-pull inflation.
That relationship disappears when inflation is primarily caused by increases in costs. Unemployment and inflation can then rise simultaneously.
The Costs of Inflation
Understanding the costs of inflation is not an easy task. There are a variety of myths about inflation. There are debates among economists about some of the more serious problems caused by inflation.
High rates of inflation mean that people and business have to take steps to protect their financial assets from inflation. The resources and time used to do so could be used to produce goods and services of value. Those goods and services given up are a true cost of inflation.
High rates of inflation discourage businesses planning and investment as inflation increases the difficulty of forecasting of prices and costs. As prices rise, people need more dollars to carry out their transactions. When more money is demanded, interest rates increase. Higher interest rates can cause investment spending to fall, as the cost of investing increases. The unpredictability associated with fluctuating interest rates makes customers less likely to sign long-term contracts as well.
The adage "inflation hurts lenders and helps borrowers" really only applies if inflation is not expected. For example, interest rates normally increase in response to anticipated inflation. As a result, the lenders receive higher interest payments, part of which is compensation for the decrease in the value of the money lent. Borrowers have to pay higher interest rates and lose any advantage they may have from repaying loans with money that is not worth as much as it was prior to the inflation.
Inflation reduces the purchasing power of money. If your income is fixed or does not increase as much as the rate of inflation, you cannot purchase as many goods and services this year as you could last year. Your real income decreases.
On average, individuals' incomes do increase as inflation increases. However, some peoples' wages go up faster than inflation. Other wages are slower to adjust. People on fixed incomes such as pensions or whose salaries are slow to adjust are negatively affected by unexpected inflation.
Inflation redistributes income. Those who owe money (borrowers) can repay it with inflated dollars (if their income increased to keep up with the inflation). Those who are owed money (lenders) receive dollars with less value when loans are repaid. Hopefully, the principal and interest received have at least the same purchasing power as the money loaned. In this situation, income is redistributed from lenders to borrowers.
Other BLS Price Indexes
The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes several other price indexes which can be used by consumers, government agencies and, private companies for budgeting and planning.
- Producer Price Indexes The Producer Price Indexes (PPIs) are a family of indexes that measure changes in the selling prices received by domestic producers of goods and services. They formerly were referred to as Wholesale Price Indexes. When the PPIs are released, the news media will most often report the percentage change in the index for Finished Goods. Producer Price Indexes also can be used in escalation contracts. A fact sheet named Escalation Guide for Contracting Parties further explaining the PPI details is available.
- Import and Export Prices The International Price Program measures change in the prices of imports and exports of nonmilitary goods between the United States and the rest of the world.
- Employment Cost Trends This program publishes quarterly statistics that measure change in labor costs (also called employment costs or compensation costs) over time; quarterly data measuring the level of costs per hour worked are also published. Indexes are available for total labor costs, and separately for wages and salaries and for benefit costs. Some information is available by region, major industry group, major occupational group, and bargaining status.
- Contract Escalation Consumer Price Indexes, Producer Price Indexes, and the Employment Cost Index may be used to escalate contracts.
- Consumer Price Indexes (CPIs) Consumer Price Indexes as published by individual countries, unadjusted for comparability, as well as harmonized indexes for a smaller selection of countries, are available on the International Labor ComparisonsTables page.
Students: Can you identify factors that influence the prices of the goods and service you purchase? Choose a good or service and identify the factors influencing the price over time. What are the possible demand-pull factors (income or some other change in demand) and cost-push factors (costs of inputs)?
Students: How does inflation or a rise in some prices impact different demographic groups - teens, families, older adults.?
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) did not change in December, 2012 (seasonally adjusted.) That doesn't mean that prices did not change. Some prices went up and some prices went down. Most importantly for the determination of the December CPI-U data, energy prices went down. In December, the seasonally adjusted "core" cpi (all items less food and energy) increased just 0.1 percent.
December, 2012, is a good example of why it may not be meaningful to think about the trend or "inflation" by looking at just one month's price data. Remember, inflation is a general price level rise over a period of time. If energy prices rise in January, 2013, the general price level may rise. Or, it may fall, depending on what happens with other prices.
Keep an eye on energy prices as a part of the more broad CPI-U over the coming months to determine if the CPI-U or the all items less food and energy (core) price level is the more meaningful for those who have to carefully plan their spending.
We tend to notice gasoline prices because they are posted in large numbers on street corners. We watch them move almost every day. We may not notice a price change for other items because we do not see them every day or purchase those items as often.
The CPI-U may not be a perfect measurement of the "cost of living" because it does not take into account individual differences, substitution or qualitative changes over time. It is, however, a standard measurement we have come to accept as we assess the health and dynamics of the economy.
Students: What things do you think affect your "cost of living"?
Critics of the BLS measurement of the CPI argue that the current measurement process of the CPI-U has flaws that affect the meaning of the numbers and their impact on consumers. For instance, the CPU-U measures only urban consumer prices. They say that the CPI-U does not adequately account for changes in spending patterns over time, substitutions, and quality changes. Is the CPI-U, as currently measured, meaningful?
Is CPI an accurate assessment of the cost of living? An article in the August, 2008, "Monthly Labor Review," addresses "Common Misconceptions about the Consumer Price Index: Questions and Answers " The BLS web page has a summary of the article.
Students: Read the summary of the "Misconceptions" and discuss whether or not the CPI-U is a meaningful measurement of cost of living. What are the "pros" and "cons"?