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"Everyday Price Index" up 8%
Old 03-14-2012, 08:31 AM   #1
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"Everyday Price Index" up 8%

For what it's worth, I think the CPI grossly understates "real" inflation people who primarily buy the basic essentials have been feeling for years. But I'm not sure this doesn't overstate it:

The EPI Reflects Basic Economic Change | AIER

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To address this, we have revised the Everyday Price Index to allow for constantly adjusting weights. Weights are simply the proportion of your total expenditure that you spend on each good or service you purchase each month. Dynamic weights allow for day-to-day changes in consumer behavior related to price changes. This weighting results in a 2011 average annual inflation rate of 8 percent as measured by the Everyday Price Index, compared to a mere 3.1 percent from the CPI.
One of the biggest problems is what to do with housing. It's easy to deal with for renters (just track the changes in rents for the same property over time), but once most people buy a property their "price" for housing is more or less fixed for many years. So when falling housing prices make the CPI shrink, the people who already own homes aren't seeing their own housing expenses fall at all (apart from falling adjustable rate mortgages, perhaps).

And:

Quote:
Chart 1 on, right, shows that the CPI and EPI trended closely until around the early years of the last decade. (Both indices are set to 100 in January 1987 to ease comparison.) After 2002, the prices of everyday goods and services began to increase faster than the overall price level, becoming much more volatile.

From January 1987 to December 2011, the CPI roughly doubled: it increased from 100 to 202.9. During the same time, the EPI increased substantially more—from 100 to 234.5. This translates into an inflation rate of about 2.9 per year on average for the CPI and 3.6 per year on average for the EPI.
Yeah, the bold-face is, I think, what most people are feeling. The unsettling thing that the price of "everyday" stuff seems to be inversely correlated with wage growth over the same time -- the less wages grow, the more food and energy prices (especially) seem to rise.

And finally:

Quote:
Prior to 2002, CPI inflation may have been a reasonable approximation for the price increases people faced in their everyday purchases. But this is no longer the case.

This means that indexing various payments—Social Security benefits, for example—to the increase in the overall CPI no longer adequately compensates recipients for rising everyday costs. This has the strongest impact on individuals who rely on fixed incomes from savings or Social Security. These people need to plan for essentially uncontrollable changes in everyday costs.
Sure feels that way. Biflation -- yuck.
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Old 03-14-2012, 09:18 AM   #2
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The proper way to measure inflation is to include all the things we buy. There is no good reason to focus on "everyday" items and exclude things bought less frequently. We still buy cars, and diswashers, and new roofs for the house. And although we don't buy these things "everyday", when we do buy them, they tend to constitute very large expenditures. Amortized over their lives, the purchases of these more durable goods is every bit as important to the rate of inflation as things we buy everyday.

If you're looking to measure inflation, EPI widely misses the mark. If you're looking to explain why people "feel" inflation is far higher than it really is, EPI gives us the answer: the prices people see everyday are rising faster than the prices they encounter less often. Frequency bias causes us to "feel" like all prices are increasing rapidly, even though they aren't.
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Old 03-14-2012, 09:32 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by Gone4Good View Post
If you're looking to measure inflation, EPI widely misses the mark. If you're looking to explain why people "feel" inflation is far higher than it really is, EPI gives us the answer: the prices people see everyday are rising faster than the prices they encounter less often. Frequency bias causes us to "feel" like all prices are increasing rapidly, even though they aren't.
Again, I think it comes back to housing. I think both the CPI and the EPI miss the mark (but to be honest I don't know how to do it better).

It's easy for renters, but is complicated by ownership. Namely, those who own their homes (outright or mortgaged) will essentially have a "housing inflation" of 0% -- meaning the CPI will "understate" inflation when housing is generally declining in value and may "overstate" it for these people when housing is rising rapidly in value.

Even aside from the housing question, I think some of the gimmicks used in the CPI (like substitution -- steak becomes too expensive so we substitute with chicken and say food prices are falling) are not an honest way to measure inflation of a *constant* package of goods and services. But yeah, the EPI has shortcomings (and I said right off the bat that I think it overstates overall inflation) as well. Having said that, for many retirees who own their home free and clear, and who don't intend to buy another home in the future, the EPI is probably closer to reality than the CPI, yet their COLAs are tied to the CPI.
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Old 03-14-2012, 09:49 AM   #4
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So from 1987 to 2011 the CPI averages 2.9 percent and the EPI averages 3.6 percent? I actually doubt that either number is as precise or important as the "experts" think it is. The important thing I see in this is that for around the last 25 years inflation has averaged around 3 percent. A very tame number compared to inflation for the decade or two prior to 1987. This entire discussion reminds me of all the people I know who are fixated on following gasoline prices. When they start yet another of their discussions of the price of gas down the street this morning compared to across town last week I am tempted to tell them to STFU and I will buy them ALL the freaking gas they can burn if they will just pay my taxes. Rant over, I feel better now.
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Old 03-14-2012, 09:50 AM   #5
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This shows that low-income people who spend more on essentials than luxury goods would feel the pain more than people who could afford multiple houses for retirement.
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Old 03-14-2012, 09:54 AM   #6
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CPI is a joke, and not reality. MY personal inflation rate is what I pay attention to.......
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Old 03-14-2012, 09:58 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Gone4Good View Post
The proper way to measure inflation is to include all the things we buy. There is no good reason to focus on "everyday" items and exclude things bought less frequently. We still buy cars, and diswashers, and new roofs for the house. And although we don't buy these things "everyday", when we do buy them, they tend to constitute very large expenditures. Amortized over their lives, the purchases of these more durable goods is every bit as important to the rate of inflation as things we buy everyday.

If you're looking to measure inflation, EPI widely misses the mark. If you're looking to explain why people "feel" inflation is far higher than it really is, EPI gives us the answer: the prices people see everyday are rising faster than the prices they encounter less often. Frequency bias causes us to "feel" like all prices are increasing rapidly, even though they aren't.
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Old 03-14-2012, 10:09 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by ziggy29 View Post
Even aside from the housing question, I think some of the gimmicks used in the CPI (like substitution -- steak becomes too expensive so we substitute with chicken and say food prices are falling) are not an honest way to measure inflation of a *constant* package of goods and services.
This doesn't sound right to me and in fact, on further checking, the BLS explicitly states that it does NOT do this type of substitution:

When the cost of food rises, does the CPI assume that consumers switch to less desired foods, such as substituting hamburger for steak?
No. In January 1999, the BLS began using a geometric mean formula in the CPI that reflects the fact that consumers shift their purchases toward products that have fallen in relative price. Some critics charge that by reflecting consumer substitution the BLS is subtracting from the CPI a certain amount of inflation that consumers can "live with" by reducing their standard of living. This is incorrect: the CPI's objective is to calculate the change in the amount consumers need to spend to maintain a constant level of satisfaction.

Specifically, in constructing the "headline" CPI-U and CPI-W, the BLS is not assuming that consumers substitute hamburgers for steak. Substitution is only assumed to occur within basic CPI index categories, such as among types of ground beef in Chicago. Hamburger and steak are in different CPI item categories, so no substitution between them is built into the CPI-U or CPI-W.

Furthermore, the CPI doesn't implicitly assume that consumers always substitute toward the less desirable good. Within the beef steaks item category, for example, the assumption is that consumers on average would move up from flank steak to filet mignon if the price of flank steak rose by a greater amount (or fell by less) than filet mignon prices. If both types of beef steak rose in price by the same amount, the geometric mean would assume no substitution.

In using the geometric mean the BLS is following a recognized best practice for statistical agencies. The formula is widely used by statistical agencies around the world and is recommended by, for example, the International Monetary Fund and the Statistical Office of the European Communities.
From http://www.bls.gov/cpi/cpiqa.htm
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Old 03-14-2012, 10:16 AM   #9
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In a country and economy as large and complex as ours, "one way" to look at things leads to oversimplification. CPI measures changes in price levels, which may help understand dynamics between parts of the economy but not how price changes impact people's standard of living.

The EPI may not be the best way to look at how price changes affect lower income people but it does raise important questions.
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Old 03-14-2012, 10:23 AM   #10
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On the flip side - buying/owning a house is much cheaper due to the favorable financing rates available. I am paying a third of the interest rate I was paying 10 years ago.

All of my electronics are way cheaper and way better. Digital TV over the air is free and good quality vs what I was paying for from the cable company 10 years ago. My home phone service is less than half of what it was 10 years ago, and I get free long distance, voice mail, message transcription, call waiting etc etc. Natural gas prices this winter were much lower than recent history.

MowNBlows come by the house asking $20 for the whole yard. About what it was 10 years ago. Heck I was earning $20 for a whole yard back in the 90's when I was a kid.

OMG deflation?!?!?1
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Old 03-14-2012, 11:43 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by photoguy View Post
This doesn't sound right to me and in fact, on further checking, the BLS explicitly states that it does NOT do this type of substitution:
To a degree -- but they qualify it with this:

Quote:
If both types of beef steak rose in price by the same amount, the geometric mean would assume no substitution.
"Chicken for steak" may be an exaggeration, but they are still saying here that if you cut back from cuts of steak that went up in price by 20% and switched to cuts that only rose 5%, the index will reflect more of the cut that only rose 5%, which is still reporting a number on a "changing" basket of goods. We could instead, say "chuck steak for Porterhouse" and it's the same concept -- and not one contradicted in the quote above.

Everyone has a different inflation rate. I think the CPI understates it for most folks (though not as much as some think because we tend to have "recency bias") and this "EPI" probably overstates it. Nevertheless I think it provides an interesting insight on how we report this stuff. We can't have a government that gives people different COLAs based on their personal inflation rate, but that's no reason not to seek one that reports a close to a "median-level" inflation rate as reasonably possible, where half would feel more inflation and half would feel less. I'm not smart enough to have that formula, but IMO that would be the most fair way to calculate inflation as it relates to things like COLAs, I-bond interest and TIP value adjustments.

This thread wasn't intended to suggest EPI is the "real" rate, but it does a data point toward what many people have felt in recent years -- the CPI is simply not keeping up with the inflation people are feeling these days, especially those buying only consumer staples and "necessities" and not many big-ticket discretionary items.
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Old 03-14-2012, 12:11 PM   #12
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Our personal inflation rate certainly isn't 8%, but then we're constantly finding ways to save and making substitutions - without feeling deprived at all.

Housing does seem to be a concern, though a lot of people refinanced and reduced their mortgage payments in the last few years. Wonder if CPI housing captures that?

OTOH I wonder how quality of life improvements are factored in? Most everyone has a PC these days, almost no one did two generations ago. Most everyone buys larger and more TV's these days. Cars are far more advanced and efficient these days, so are appliances. Lots of people have landlines and "smart" cell phones these days. Most people have internet access, some through several devices. Should CPI absorb the costs associated with all these improvements? I did a quick look at bls.gov and didn't find an answer, but I may look further.

And prices of most consumer electronics have fallen considerably over the past decade or so.

I am not defending CPI or discounting EPI, just acknowledging that all this cuts both ways so we should acknowledge same. There is no possible right answer, and I support our Federal government basing COLA's on CPI based on what I know today at least...
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Old 03-14-2012, 12:21 PM   #13
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When I make purchases at the grocery store or gas station, I always bargain the price down by 8% because I should not have to pay for the higher fuel prices embedded in to the overall prices of products. I negotiate so that I only pay the product price that is based on 'core' inflation </sarcasm>

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Old 03-14-2012, 12:27 PM   #14
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I worry about the effect of inflation on elderly people on non-COLA pensions. I do agree that since so many of the elderly own their own homes outright, housing price decline really doesn't help them much if at all. Also, the elderly probably don't drive as much as most, so increases in gas prices may not affect them as much as they affect younger people.

Our food prices actually went down from 2010 to 2011, but that is because we are choosing less expensive restaurants now than we did during our first year of retirement. To me it seems very difficult to come up with a truly meaningful personal inflation rate for myself.
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Old 03-14-2012, 12:45 PM   #15
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Again, I think it comes back to housing. I think both the CPI and the EPI miss the mark (but to be honest I don't know how to do it better).
I think the proper way to do it is the way BLS does. If you rent a house, the cost is what you pay monthly in rent, very easy. If you own a house, your cost is a bunch of separate direct costs (property taxes, insurance, maintenance, etc) PLUS the opportunity cost of the money you have tied up in the property. How do you measure the opportunity cost? I'd say the best way is to use an estimate of what the property would rent for.

If you don't think opportunity costs matter, then consider my situation where my previous primary residence and now rental property is vacant while I wait for it to be sold. I can tell you the absence of rental income to compensate me for the $$$,$$$ of equity sitting idle is a very real cost. No different then if I lived in it.
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Old 03-14-2012, 01:05 PM   #16
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I think the proper way to do it is the way BLS does. If you rent a house, the cost is what you pay monthly in rent, very easy. If you own a house, your cost is a bunch of separate direct costs (property taxes, insurance, maintenance, etc) PLUS the opportunity cost of the money you have tied up in the property. How do you measure the opportunity cost? I'd say the best way is to use an estimate of what the property would rent for.
I don't think you could use what the property would rent for, because you would have to get another place to live if you rented out the property. And if you just sold the house and pocketed the cash instead, the better number (IMO) would be a reasonable rate of return on cash equivalents which is almost zero today.

That would work if the rental price was equal to upkeep (taxes, insurance and maintenance) plus the "safe" return on the home's value in savings -- but sometimes the market is pretty askew from that. My house is probably worth around $75K. I estimate it would rent for about $550 a month in the current market.

I *could* sell the house and move into a comparable one for $550 in rent. So in *that* sense you could say there's an imputed $550 'opportunity cost' in living in this house -- $6,600 a year.

Of course, what are my real costs? Property tax is about $850 a year. Insurance, about $600. Maintenance, maybe another $750 (using the rule of thumb that maintenance is about 1% of value per year). That's $2,200 in expenses even with a paid off home. That's $2,200 in annual expenses I wouldn't (directly) pay if I rented (since these costs are presumably baked into the rent I'd pay).

But by renting I pay $6,600 a year, offset by the interest income from the $75K I'd have if I didn't own this house. And if I took out that $75,000 by selling the house (assuming no commission or cost of sales - ha) and put it into a savings account earning even 1% (optimistic these days) -- there's another $750 a year, so the net cost (rent minus interest income) is $5,850.

$2,200 versus $5,850 -- really not that close. In short, given historically putrid rates on safe cash investments, there's really not much "opportunity cost" lost in the value of the interest one could have earned with the money had it not been tied up in the house (in my example, only $750 a year -- less than $63 a month).

I recognize that in any given market condition the assumptions in the CPI calculations may or may not be close, but I guess the expectation is that the differences will mean-revert over time so it's close over the long run. And having said all that, I recognize this is purely an academic exercise at this point...
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Old 03-14-2012, 01:16 PM   #17
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I don't think you could use what the property would rent for,
You're over thinking things.

As an owner-occupant you are both landlord and tenant. The cashflows wash out so you don't ever see them, but you are indeed paying rent to yourself. Why else would you invest in an asset (a house) that gives you zero return judging from the explicit cash flows? Because you understand that it really does give you a return . . . the avoided rent you'd have to pay if someone else owned the property but get to pay yourself instead.

Edit to add: In your example, I wouldn't use the risk free rate of return to do the math. Owning a house isn't risk free. If you re-do the math to include returns on a more appropriately risky portfolio, I think you'll see the cash flows come out pretty close. True, certain properties will look better or worse, depending on conditions (that's why we do the "rent vs. buy" analysis). But we shouldn't expect to find real estate values and rents universally out of line with other investment options.
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Old 03-14-2012, 01:24 PM   #18
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I've seen a chart that showed how the equivalent-rent CPI (instead of using more direct house prices) understated inflations during the housing bubble - 2002-2006 and overstates inflation now.

You can see how perhaps Greenspan would not have left the easy money policy in place nearly so long if they had used the "house prices" version. But today, it would call for even more easing by the Fed!!!

I wish I had kept a copy of the chart! Someone posted it over at Morningstar, and it is long buried now.

I am just tracking my personal inflation

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Old 03-14-2012, 01:58 PM   #19
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I've seen a chart that showed how the equivalent-rent CPI (instead of using more direct house prices) understated inflations during the housing bubble - 2002-2006 and overstates inflation now.

You can see how perhaps Greenspan would not have left the easy money policy in place nearly so long if they had used the "house prices" version. But today, it would call for even more easing by the Fed!!!

I wish I had kept a copy of the chart! Someone posted it over at Morningstar, and it is long buried now.

I am just tracking my personal inflation

Audrey
I remember the charts and some intense discussions. Bill Gross dedicated his monthly investment newsletter to inflation measurement a number of times. Along with others, he was very critical of hedonic adjustments and the implied rent formula.

The CPI number has no bearing on how inflation affects people on fixed income or those in the lower income quintiles. My gut feeling is the loss to inflation is greatest where the income is lowest, and this is compensated only when public assistance is available, but not from CPI adjustments.
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Old 03-14-2012, 02:56 PM   #20
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My gut feeling is the loss to inflation is greatest where the income is lowest, and this is compensated only when public assistance is available, but not from CPI adjustments.
I would guess there is a decile at the bottom who receive government handouts that are so extensive as to mostly shield them from inflation. I'm thinking the folks getting WIC, food stamps, TANF (or whatever they call it now), medicaid (or unpaid emergency room visits), public housing/sec 8, utility supplements, using heavily subsidized public transit, etc.

Probably the 2nd and 3rd deciles (from the bottom) who are paying part or all of their expenses are really getting the shaft with high food and energy and medical inflation.
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