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Announcement

The seasonally adjusted consumer price index for the month of November was unchanged. The consumer price index has increased over the last twelve months by 1.9 percent.

In November, the core index, which excludes energy and food prices, increased by .4 percent (4/10 of one percent). The core index has increased 2.8 percent over the last twelve months.

Data Trends

The monthly and annual rate of inflation during November was zero. Prices did not increase during the month. In November, prices of energy fell significantly and prices of food decreased slightly. Increases in prices of shelter, new vehicles, and tobacco countered those decreases. The core rate of inflation represents the consumer price index without the influences of changes in the price indices for food and energy. The core rate of inflation reached 0.4 percent for the month of November, an annual increase of 4.6 percent.

Figure 1 below shows recent inflation data reported for each month. Inflation increased in 1999 and 2000 when compared to1998, slowed throughout much of 2000, and then increased slightly in 2001. If inflation is considered over the four quarters 2000 and the first three of 2001, the annual rates of change were 6.1, 2.6, 2.8, 2.1, 4.0, 3.7, and 0.7 percent. Although the rate of inflation was high in January through May of 2001, inflation has been decreasing since that point. Over the third quarter, inflation is actually very close to zero.

What is really quite obvious from figure 1 is that the changes in inflation from month to month are much more dramatic from 1999 on, when compared to 1998. The increased volatility is primarily due to fluctuations in the prices of oil and food. The core rate of inflation (excluding food and energy) gives a much better idea of longer-term trends and that is why it is often featured in news reports. See figure 2.

The core index did increase at a faster rate than at any time in almost six years. While we should be careful in placing too much importance on any single month's change, the faster rate of increase may indicate increasing inflationary pressures in the future.

Figure 1: Monthly Inflation in Consumer Prices at Annual Rates

Figure 2: Monthly Core Inflation Rate (excludes food and energy)

Compared to the rates of inflation in the 1970s and much of the 1980s, the current rate of inflation is quite low. See figure 3 below. Few observers would describe the most recent rates as high and they are not, when compared to those of the past thirty years.

Figure 3: Inflation in Consumer Prices since 1970

Definitions of Inflation and the Consumer Price Index

Inflation is a sustained increase in the overall level of prices. The most widely reported measurement of inflation is the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI measures the cost of a fixed basket of goods relative to the cost of that same basket of goods in a base (or previous) year. Changes in the price of this basket of goods approximate changes in the overall level of prices paid by consumers.

The seasonally adjusted consumer price index in November was 177.6. The price index was equal to 100 during the period from 1982 to 1984. The interpretation is that prices in market basket of goods purchased by the typical consumer increased from the 1982-1984 period to November 2001 by 77.6 percent.

Inflation is usually reported in newspapers and television news as percentage changes in the CPI on a monthly basis. This month is rather unusual as the monthly change and annual change are the same - both are zero.

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. A number of exercises in National Council on Economic Education publications, student workbooks, and textbooks should help students think about the consequences of inflation.

  1. 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 produce goods and services of value. Those goods and services given up are a true cost of inflation.
  2. High rates of inflation discourage businesses planning and investment as inflation makes the 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 is higher. The unpredictability associated with fluctuating interest rates makes customers less likely to sign long-term contracts as well.
  3. The adage "inflation hurts lenders and helps borrowers" 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.
  4. Inflation does reduce the purchasing power of money.
  5. Inflation does redistribute income. 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.

Causes of Inflation

Over short periods of time, inflation can be caused by a decrease in production or an increase in 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.

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.

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 there are high levels of unemployment, then there is less, or at least a slower growth in, spending in the economy and the inflation is subdued. If there is low unemployment, then wages are increasing to attract workers to jobs and this creates upward pressure on prices, that is, inflation. That relationship disappears when inflation is primarily caused by increases in costs. Unemployment and inflation can then rise simultaneously.

Other Measures of Inflation

The GDP price index (sometimes referred to as the implicit price deflator). The GDP price index is an index of prices of all goods and services included in the gross domestic product. Thus the index is a measure that is broader than the consumer price index. The producer price index This index measures prices at the wholesale or producer level. It can act as a leading indicator of inflation. If the prices producers are charging are increasing, it is likely that consumers will eventually be faced with higher prices for good they buy at retail stores.

The Future of Inflation

The Federal Reserve's report on economic conditions across the country is released in the "Beige Book" (named for its beige cover) two weeks prior to each meeting of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee. The following is an excerpt from the Beige Book released on November 28, 2001, in preparation for the FOMC meeting on December 11, 2001.

"Reports from the Federal Reserve districts indicate that economic activity generally remained soft in October and the first half of November, with evidence of additional slowing in most regions outweighing signs of recovery in a few districts. Manufacturing activity weakened further, with declines in production, new orders and employment widely reported. Consumer spending was mixed--aggressive financing incentives drove automobile and light truck sales to exceptional levels, but tourism remained weak and non-auto sales were spotty, with stronger sales growth in some areas offset by weaker sales elsewhere. Retailers' outlook for spending during the upcoming holiday season was also mixed. Store managers had already begun discounting prices in some areas to counteract weak customer traffic, while in other areas retailers' expectations for the season had brightened recently. Residential real estate generally held its own, with sales of moderately-priced homes steady and permits for new construction increasing modestly in all but a few regions. In contrast, the demand for commercial space eased further, pushing vacancy rates higher and rents lower in many areas. In the finance sector, the pace of residential mortgage refinancing activity accelerated as mortgage interest rates fell further. Business lending weakened though, reflecting softer loan demand and some tightening of lending standards. Labor markets continued to ease. Layoffs and downsizings contributed to a greater supply of available workers and wages were steady to lower. Prices were generally stable, although lower prices were in evidence for automobiles, gasoline, and computers. In contrast, prices for insurance and health care rose sharply."

The Beige Book report can be found at:
www.federalreserve.gov/FOMC/BeigeBook/2001/20011128/Default.htm

Between January and December 2001, the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee decided to lower the target federal funds rate eleven times, for a total decrease of 4.75% in the target federal funds rate. The discount rate was also lowered each time. Here is an excerpt from the press release following the December 11, 2001 meeting - the last time the federal funds rate was lowered.

"The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower its target for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points to 1-3/4 percent. In a related action, the Board of Governors approved a 25 basis point reduction in the discount rate to 1-1/4 percent.

Economic activity remains soft, with underlying inflation likely to edge lower from relatively modest levels. To be sure, weakness in demand shows signs of abating, but those signs are preliminary and tentative. The Committee continues to believe that, against the background of its long-run goals of price stability and sustainable economic growth and of the information currently available, the risks are weighted mainly toward conditions that may generate economic weakness in the foreseeable future.

Although the necessary reallocation of resources to enhance security may restrain advances in productivity for a time, the long-term prospects for productivity growth and the economy remain favorable and should become evident once the unusual forces restraining demand abate."

The original press release is available at:
www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/press/general/2001/20011211/default.htm

Case Study

  1. What are the key parts of the consumer price index and the Federal Reserve announcements?
  2. What are the relevant economic concepts?
  3. What are the policy options for the Federal Reserve?
  4. Analyze current conditions with regard to policy options.
  5. Based on the analysis and the goals, choose the correct economic policy.