Haver Analytics
Haver Analytics
| Oct 12 2023

Current CPI Is Flawed, But A "Real-Time" Price Measure Would Be Higher and More Volatile

Critics argue that the current inflation rate is much lower than the published rate. That is true; based on the current methodology, "real-time" consumer inflation is less than the published rate. Thirty-five percent of the prices used to estimate the consumer price index are not for the current month but reflect the prices over several months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of that involves the owner's rent index. Because rents change infrequently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures these service prices over six-month spans.

The owner's rent index is the brainchild of government statisticians and academia, supported by politicians who want a lower, less volatile price index. Yet, the owner's rent index has two "major" problems.

First, it is not a current price. Rent changes, up or down, would not be captured in the CPI until six months after they occurred. So, given its massive weight in the index, owners' rent would result in reported inflation running below current inflation at the beginning of the rent price cycle and overstate it at the end.

Second, it is not an actual price. The owner's rent index is supposed to measure or capture inflation experienced by people who own a house. But no homeowner pays that price. Economists and policymakers often talk about demand destruction from higher inflation, but there is no demand destruction here since no one pays the price.

A "real-time" and more accurate measure of inflation would require a shift back to the inflation methodology pre-1983. That would include house prices and mortgage rates, creating a real-time, more volatile, and higher published inflation rate. So pick your poison---a flawed index or a higher volatile index? Complaints about the current CPI are frequent, but they would only get louder if a shift to a real-time measure of inflation occurred.

  • Joseph G. Carson, Former Director of Global Economic Research, Alliance Bernstein.   Joseph G. Carson joined Alliance Bernstein in 2001. He oversaw the Economic Analysis team for Alliance Bernstein Fixed Income and has primary responsibility for the economic and interest-rate analysis of the US. Previously, Carson was chief economist of the Americas for UBS Warburg, where he was primarily responsible for forecasting the US economy and interest rates. From 1996 to 1999, he was chief US economist at Deutsche Bank. While there, Carson was named to the Institutional Investor All-Star Team for Fixed Income and ranked as one of Best Analysts and Economists by The Global Investor Fixed Income Survey. He began his professional career in 1977 as a staff economist for the chief economist’s office in the US Department of Commerce, where he was designated the department’s representative at the Council on Wage and Price Stability during President Carter’s voluntary wage and price guidelines program. In 1979, Carson joined General Motors as an analyst. He held a variety of roles at GM, including chief forecaster for North America and chief analyst in charge of production recommendations for the Truck Group. From 1981 to 1986, Carson served as vice president and senior economist for the Capital Markets Economics Group at Merrill Lynch. In 1986, he joined Chemical Bank; he later became its chief economist. From 1992 to 1996, Carson served as chief economist at Dean Witter, where he sat on the investment-policy and stock-selection committees.   He received his BA and MA from Youngstown State University and did his PhD coursework at George Washington University. Honorary Doctorate Degree, Business Administration Youngstown State University 2016. Location: New York.

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