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Who says inflation is down?
We're told inflation is low, so why is the price of everything from gas to healthcare going up?
April 13, 2004: 1:07 PM EDT
By Walter Updegrave, CNN/Money contributing columnist

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The U.S. is supposed to be in a low-inflation environment, but my experience doesn't reflect that. Gas prices are high, home prices are out of sight, medical expenses are rising...I just don't see that inflation is all that low. What gives?

-- Edgar Van Loef, Allston, Mass.

Is Inflation Making a Comeback?
Many goods are climbing in price, but the feds say inflation is in check (just 2.5% annually over the past 5 years and just 1.2% over the past year). Here's how much more (or less) we're paying for some selected items.
Item5-Year Price IncreaseAverage Annual Change
Cable TV41%6.9%
Movie Ticket29%5.2%
Medical Care23%4.3%
Housing Costs14.7%2.8%
Sources:BLS, Motion Picture Association of America, and Associated Press

There does seem to be a bit of a disconnect here. Over the past year we've had Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and other Fed governors warning about the danger of falling prices -- deflation -- while many of us feel that when it comes to buying a house, filling our gas tanks and buying other necessities that rising prices -- inflation -- is the real problem.

So how does one square the Bureau of Labor Statistics' official inflation statistic, which show inflation as low and under control, with the feeling on the part of many Americas that the prices they pay in the real world are rising at an accelerating pace?

Several factors

There are several explanations. To begin with, the Consumer Price Index figure released each month by BLS covers consumer expenditures in eight different categories, each of which receives its own weighting to reflect its share of the typical household budget.

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To get data for those categories, BLS collects prices for goods and services from some 23,000 companies as well as 50,000 landlords and tenants (to calculate rents, which are used for shelter costs) in 87 urban areas. That leaves a lot of room for divergence in the case of individual's experience, not to mention variation from city to city and region to region.

For example, for the year ended in February, the most common index of inflation -- the CPI for urban consumers -- rose 1.7 percent. But if you exclude the volatile food and energy components, which economists often do to arrive at "core" inflation, that rate of increase drops to 1.2 percent. The more of your budget that's devoted to these two items, the higher inflation will seem to you.

The inflation rate can also vary considerably from city to city. Between February 2003 and 2004, BLS stats put Philadelphia's inflation rate of 2.6 percent, Los Angeles's at 1.9 percent and San Francisco's at 0.2 percent. I haven't done a study on this, but I'd think that rental costs probably account for a lot of that difference, and even then I'd be surprised if there were big differences over long periods of time.

There's also a question of the time period one uses. Right now, the general feeling is that while inflation is still near historical lows, it's started to pick up a bit, as evidenced by rising energy and commodity prices. That means an inflation figure calculated over a more recent span -- say, the past three months -- is likely to be higher than one that covers the entire past 12 months.

And, indeed, that's the case. BLS stats show that the annualized inflation rate for the three months ended in February was 3.7 percent vs. 1.7 percent if you look at February 2003 vs. February 2004.

Statistics vs. individual experience

I could go on and on. There are tons of technical questions about the relative merits of measuring price changes in different ways, how to calculate the changes for specific categories, what weights the various categories deserve, etc., etc. But I won't.

The main point is that no single statistic is going to jibe with the experiences of every individual.

Given the inherent difficulties of tracking something like price changes in a country with the cornucopia of products and services available in the U.S., however, I think the BLS does a pretty good job of giving us a sense of the overall trends in inflation, not to mention a plethora of stats that, while not able to predict future inflation, at least enable economists and other interested parties to see how those trends are shifting on a month-to-month basis.

If you'd like to delve more into this issue, I recommend you visit the BLS Web site. In addition to finding lots of info on the methodology used to calculate the CPI, you'll also be able to find stats on the inflation rates for specific categories (food, apparel, medical care, transportation, etc.) and in specific cities and regions of the country.

And if you want to go for all the gusto you can get, check out the Inflation Calculator link in the upper left-hand side of the BLS home page under the Inflation and Consumer Spending heading. There, you'll find a calculator that will show you how the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar has changed over the years.

Ah, the fun never stops at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Walter Updegrave is a senior editor at MONEY Magazine and is the author of "We're Not in Kansas Anymore: Strategies for Retiring Rich in a Totally Changed World." He also answers viewers' questions on CNNfn's Money & Markets at 4:40 PM on Mondays.  Top of page

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