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INTRODUCTION

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 wager 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 March 17, 2011, BLS press release of data on the consumer price index for the month of February, 2011.  This lesson adds  information about U.S. regional and international price levels.

For the latest updates on U.S. economic indicators, go to:

TASK

  • Identify the rate and change in the consumer price index and rate of inflation in the United States in February, 2011.
  • Identify factors that have influenced recent changes in the price level.
  • Describe how inflation impacts different groups in the economy.
  •  Distinguish between the CPI-U, core rate and other measures of inflation.

PROCESS

In February, 2011, while most U.S. consumer prices remained fairly stable, some prices went up more than others and a few went down.  Energy prices led the increases - gasoline was up 4.7 percent and fuel oil was up 5.8 percent in February.  Apparel prices decreased in February.

Take a look at the latest BLS report on consume prices to better understand how these changes affect your life.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release
Consumer Price Index - February, 2011

Released March 17, 2011

“The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.5 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 2.1 percent before seasonal adjustment.”

The February monthly CPI-U increase was just slightly greater than the 0.4 percent increases in December, 2010, and January, 2011.  The increase over the past year was at a greater pace than that of the previous two months - an annual rate of +1.5 percent in December, 2010, and January, 2011- and significantly greater than the average annualized rate through the previous six months.

Remember, the reference to the “all items index” means the index that includes the more volatile energy and food prices.  Often, this is called the “headline” number because it is the number most often reported in the news.

"Though the seasonally adjusted increase in the all items index was broad-based, the energy index was once again the largest contributor. The gasoline index continued to rise, and the index for household energy turned up in February with all of its components posting increases. Food indexes also continued to rise in February, with sharp increases in the indexes for fresh vegetables and meats contributing to a 0.8 percent increase in the food at home index, the largest since July 2008."

Again, energy and food prices were the primary contributors to the overall price level increase.  The "core” CPI-U, which factors out energy and food prices, showed a more modest increase of 0.2 percent in February.  Over the past year, the core index increased only 1.2 percent.

"The index for all items less food and energy rose in February as well. Most of its major components posted increases, including the indexes for shelter, new vehicles, medical care, and airline fares. The apparel index was one of the few to decline."

"The 12-month changes in major indexes continue to trend upward. The all items index increased 2.1 percent for the 12 months ending February; the figure was 1.1 percent as recently as November. The 12-month increase in the index for all items less food and energy reached 1.1 percent in February after being as low as 0.6 percent in October. The 11.0 percent increase in the energy index is the largest since May 2010, while the 2.3 percent rise in the food index is the largest since May 2009."

How have you been affected by ibflation in recent months?  Do you spend a bug portion of your income on gasoline and food?

What categories of consumer prices changed in February and over the last year?

Figure 1, below, shows the price level changes for the major spending categories of the CPI market basket that increased and decreased on the month of February and over the past year. 

Do you see any patterns?

Figure 1: Percent Changes in CPI All Urban Consumers
U.S. City Average
February 2011
(Seasonally adjusted)
  February
2011
12 months
Feb.-Feb.
All Items 0.5% 2.1%
   Food 0.6% 2.3%
   Food at home 0.8% 2.8%
   Food away from home 0.2% 1.6%
   Energy 3.4% 11.8%
   Energy commodities 4.8% 19.3%
   Gasoline 4.7% 19.2%
   Fuel oil 5.8% 27.1%
   Energy services 1.1% 0.2%
   Electricity 0.4% 2.2%
All items less food and energy 0.2% 1.1%
   New vehicles 1.0% 0.9%
   Used cars and trucks 0.1% 1.9%
   Apparel -0.9% -0.4%
   Shelter 0.1% 0.8%
   Transportation services 0.5% 3.5%
   Medical care services 0.4% 3.0%


Some Prices Go Up

Look again at energy commodities, gasoline, and fuel oil.  If many people in your region heat their homes with fuel oil, their budgets were hit hard by this month’s price increase.  Did they think ahead and buy fuel oil in September?

Those who drive long distances commuting to work or who plan to drive to their summer vacation may feel the early 2011 gasoline price increase more than others.

Some Prices Go Down

As usual, some price categories decreased.  Why do you think apparel prices decreased?  It must have something to do with supply and demand!

How the overall price level change affects each individual is determined by their individual consumption pattern.  Remember, the CPI is a “market basket” of goods and services that reflects typical consumer purchasing.  The impact will be significant different between demographic and geographic groups.
 

The Level of the CPI-U in February 2011

The level of the CPI-U in February, 2011, was 221.309.  That is an increase of $1.09 from January.   Remember, the level of the CPI-U is relative to the base year level of 100.  The base year for most of the spending categories is the period of 1982-84.  That means the market basket of goods and services cost $100 in 1983-84.

How much inflation have we experienced since 1982-84?  The CPI-U index has increased by 121.309 points, so the price level has slightly more than doubled in that period of time, a 121% increase in 26 years.  Simply put, it has increased by an average of about 3-4 percent per year.

Figure 2, below, shows the monthly changes in the CPI-U from 2002 through February, 2011.  Note the great variations of change over the time period.  Note the spikes of monthly changes over one percent in September, 2005 and in June, 2008.  More recently, note the three month period of 0.7 percent monthly price level decreases in 2008.  At that time, deflation, a sustained drop in the price level was a serious concern for many economist, financial analysts, and planners.

Figure 2 CPIFor more detailed price index data for February, 2011, see Table 2 of the BLS news release.  Consumer Price Index - February 2011. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.nr0.htm

You can determine how inflation has affected your family since you were born.  Go to the BLS "Inflation Calculator" and put in your birthdate.  www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm

Not Seasonally Adjusted CPI measures

The annual level of the CPI-U is not affected by seasonal changes that may occur from one season to another, so it is reported as “not seasonally adjusted.”  The annual level is the index number.

“The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 2.1 percent over the last 12 months to an index level of 221.309 (1982-84=100). For the month, the index increased 0.5 percent prior to seasonal adjustment.”

“The Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) increased 2.3 percent over the last 12 months to an index level of 217.535 (1982-84=100). For the month, the index rose 0.5 percent prior to seasonal adjustment.”

BLS Note on Seasonal Adjustment

“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.”

“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.”

For more information, go to the CPI home page at www.bls.gov/cpi/ or contact the CPI Information and Analysis Section at (202) 691-7000.

U.S. Regional Differences in Price Levels

The BLS also collects and reports consumer price level changes in four large regions of the United States and major metropolitan areas through its regional offices.  Price levels will vary from region to region for a variety of reasons.  

Figure 3, below, show some of the key regional price data.  Note some regional differences.  The general price level is much higher in the Northeast than in other regions.  Prices are generally lower in the Midwest.  Energy prices increased more in the past year in the Midwest and less in the Northeast.
 

Figure 3: Regional Price Level Changes
February 2011
Region CPI-U 2010
Annual
Average
CPI-U
February
2011
CPI-U Change
Feb. 2010 to
Feb. 2011
Energy Prices
Feb. 2010 to
Feb. 2011
West 221.203 224.431 +1.9% +7.2%*
South 211.338 214.735 +2.2% +11.2%
Midwest 208.046 211.090 +2.2% +11.3%
Northeast 233.241 237.110 +2.0% +9.8%
U.S. Total 218.056 221.309 +2.1% +11.0%
*West region energy price change data is January 2011 to January 2011.


The following are the most recent BLS press releases on the regional consumer price indexes for February, 2011, in the Northeast, West and South regions, and for January, 2010 for the West region.

Northeast Region

Consumer Price Index, Northeast Region – February 2011

 “Regional Prices 0.5 Percent Higher Over the Month; 2.0 Percent Higher Over the Year”

“The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) in the Northeast region rose 0.5 percent in February, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Sheila Watkins, the Bureau’s regional commissioner, noted that the recent increase was mostly due to a 0.4-percent rise in the all items less food and energy index. Prices were also higher for both energy (1.3 percent) and food (0.5 percent) over the month. Within the energy index, higher gasoline prices led the recent increase."

"Over the last 12 months, the CPI-U increased 2.0 percent. The index for all items less food and energy advanced 1.1 percent over the year. Prices were also higher for both energy (9.8 percent) and food (2.5 percent) since February 2010.”

The Northeast region includes: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Midwest Region

Midwest Region Consumer Price Index – February 2011

“Prices in the Midwest up 0.3 percent in February and 2.2 percent higher over the year”

“The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) in the Midwest rose 0.3 percent in February the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Regional Commissioner Stanley W. Suchman noted that the index for energy advanced 1.2 percent and the index for food was up 0.2 percent. The index for all items less food and energy also increased 0.2 percent."

"Over the last 12 months the CPI-U rose 2.2 percent. The energy index, which includes motor fuel and household fuels, was up 11.3 percent since last February and the index for food rose 2.2 percent. Excluding food and energy, the CPI-U increased 1.1 percent over the year.”

The Midwest region includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

South Region

Consumer Price Index for the South – February 2011

 “Prices in the South up 0.5 percent over the month and 2.2 percent over the year”

“The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) for the South increased 0.5 percent in February, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Regional Commissioner Janet S. Rankin noted that prices advanced for energy, food, and all items less food and energy. Within the all items less food and energy group, shelter, apparel, and new vehicles were among those indexes that recorded increases."

"Over the last 12 months, the CPI-U advanced 2.2 percent. The index for all items less food and energy rose 1.1 percent over the year.”

The South Region includes: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

West Region

Consumer Price Index, West Region – January 2011

“Area Prices Were Up 0.5 Percent Over the Past Month, Up 1.4 Percent From a Year Ago.”

“Prices in the West region, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), increased 0.5 percent in January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Regional Commissioner Richard J. Holden noted that the January increase was influenced by higher prices for gasoline and groceries."

"Over the last 12 months, the CPI-U rose 1.4 percent. Energy prices advanced 7.2 percent, largely the result of an increase in the price of gasoline. The index for all items less food and energy advanced 0.8 percent since January 2010.”

The West region includes: Includes: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Take a look at the price level and inflation data for your region and/or your closest large metropolitan area.  Go to the link to your region.

All regional data links:  www.bls.gov/regions/cpi.asp

Check the recent price level history in your metropolitan area.  Go to: www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.t03.htm

International Price Level Comparisons

The BLS also publishes comparisons of price level data for the major industrialized nations; the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Take a look at the most recent data for the nine nations.  Figure 4, below, shows the consumer price indexes in the nine countries, by percent change from same period of previous year, for the years 1995 through 2010.

Figure 4:  Consumer Price Index in 9 Countries
Percent Change from the Previous Year
1995-2010
Year United
States
Canada Japan France Germany Italy Sweden Switz-
erland
United
Kingdom
1995 2.8 2.2 -0.1 1.8 1.8 5.3 2.5 1.8 3.5
1996 3.0 1.5 0.1 2.0 1.4 4.0 0.5 0.8 2.4
1997 2.3 1.7 1.9 1.2 1.9 2.0 0.5 0.5 3.1
1998 1.6 1.0 0.6 0.7 1.0 2.0 -0.1 0.0 3.4
1999 2.2 1.8 -0.3 0.5 0.6 1.7 0.4 0.9 1.5
2000 3.4 2.7 -0.8 1.7 1.4 2.5 1.0 1.5 3.0
2001 2.8 2.5 -0.7 1.7 1.9 2.7 2.5 1.0 1.8
2002 1.6 2.2 -0.9 1.9 1.5 2.5 2.1 0.6 1.7
2003 2.3 2.8 -0.3 2.1 1.0 2.7 1.9 0.6 2.9
2004 2.7 1.8 0.0 2.1 1.7 2.2 0.4 0.8 3.0
2005 3.4 2.2 -0.3 1.8 1.5 1.9 0.4 1.1 2.8
2006 3.2 2.0 0.3 1.6 1.6 2.1 1.4 1.1 3.2
2007 2.8 2.2 0.0 1.5 2.3 1.8 2.2 0.7 4.3
2008 3.8 2.3 1.4 2.8 2.6 3.3 3.5 2.5 4.0
2009 -0.4 0.3 -1.4 0.1 0.4 0.8 -0.3 -0.5 -0.5
2010 1.6 1.8 -0.7 1.5 1.1 1.5 1.3 0.7 4.6
  Source:  BLS:  ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/ForeignLabor/flscpim.txt

 
What nations have experienced more or less inflation than the United States during this time period?

Take a look at Japan, where the price level fell (deflation) each year from 1999 to 2005, and again in 2009 and 2010.  Many refer to the Japanese economy during the late 1990s and early 2000s as the "lost decade."

Note that the United Kingdom has experienced higher levels of annual price increases over the past several years than the other nations.

In a more detailed annual report, the BLS compares the consumer price indexes of 16 and 2 regions, the "International Indexes of Consumer Prices.

Go to this link: www.bls.gov/fls/intl_consumer_prices_annual.htm

Look at the graphs of the annual CPI changes for the nations.  Do you see any patterns?  Notice that all of the nations experienced a greater than normal increase in their CPIs in the year 2008.

Calculating the Price Index Changes

“Movements of the indexes from one month to another are usually expressed as percent changes rather than changes in index points, because index point changes are affected by the level of the index in relation to its base period while percent changes are not. The example below illustrates the computation of index point and percent changes.”

“Percent changes for 3-month and 6-month periods are expressed as annual rates and are computed according to the standard formula for compound growth rates. These data indicate what the percent change would be if the current rate were maintained for a 12-month period.”  Note: This example uses seasonally adjusted CPI data.

Index Point Change
Consumer Price Index (Nov. 2010) 218.771
Less Previous CPI (Nov. 2009) 288.177
Equals index point change 0.594
Percent Change
Index Point Difference 0.594
Divided by the Previous Index 218.177
Equals 0.0027
Results Multiplied by One Hundred 0.0027 x 100
Equals Percent Change (annual) 0.27%


BONUS ACTIVITY:  How much have consumer prices changed since you were born?

Use the BLS "Inflation Calculator" to determine how much the CPI has changed since the year you were born. LINK: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl

First, take a guess.  How much do you think consumer prices have changed in your lifetime? Put your year of birth into the calculator and hit "calculate" to find out the answer.

Finding Additional Data and Details in the BLS Report

The monthly BLS CPI report includes links to additional price level data, including expenditure categories, regional and metropolitan area price data.

CONCLUSION

The consumer price index for the United States has changed very little over the past month and year.  Inflation has not been a significant factor in most sectors, with the exception being the somewhat erratic fluctuations of energy prices.  As the U.S. economy slowly recovers and unemployment remains stubbornly high, there are few pressures in consumer prices to rise.

Energy priceso, expecially gasoline and heating fuel have jumped significantly in the past couple of months, as they have several times in recent years.  In the past, the prices have gradually fallen back to near "normal" levels.  Will they drop again?

When economic growth returns and jobs are created, consumer demand for goods and servces may pressure the price level to rise.  Some will see this as a good sign, as moderate inflation over time is a good sign for the economy.

Watch for possible Federal Reserve monetary policy actions to target some level of inflation.

ASSESSMENT ACTIVITY

Next complete the essay question on the interactive notepad below.


1. Which do you think is a more meaningful measurement of consumer prices over time - the CPU-U for all items or the "core rate" (minus energy and food)?

EXTENSION ACTIVITY

You Can Design Your Own Personal CPI
 
1.      Make a list of the goods and services you purchase regularly (gasoline, food, clothes, entertainment, etc.) - Create 6-8 categories of goods and services.
 
2.      Pick one "unit" of a product from the various categories for your "market basket."
 
3.      Identify the current price of that unit of the good or service.
 
    Examples:
Category
Unit
Unit Price
Basket Price
Energy
10 gal of regular gasoline
$1.99
$19.90
Entertainment
2 "first run" move ticket
$7.50
$15.00
Food
2 #3 "Extra Value" Meals
$5.75
$5.75
Clothing
1 pair of Levis 501 jeans
$35.00
$35.00

 
4.      Add the total cost of the items in your "market basket."   (For example, your market basket may cost $125.00 for all of the items (total number of each unit times the price.)
 
5.      Make the current price of the basket the "base" by designating it as 100.
 
6.      A month (or a year) from now, go back to the various stores and check the prices of the same items in the "market basket." Suppose the same items now cost $129.00. The price of the basket has increased by $4.00.
 
7.      Using this example, what has been your rate of inflation? A $4 increase from $125 to $129 is a 3.2% increase. (4/125 = .032) Your rate of inflation during that period was 3.2%.
 
8.      Determine the rate of inflation for your market basket. If you wait one month, you can multiply the monthly increase by 12 to determine an approximate annual increase (assuming that the prices rise at about the same rate each month).
 
9.      This will give you an idea of how a "market basket" price index works. Of course, you would normally have to measure the changes in the prices of your index items for a longer period of time to see much inflation.

What do you think has happened to the prices of the items in your "market basket" in the past year? 
       
What do you think will happen to those prices in the coming year? 

Does taking the food and energy items out of your basket make a difference?