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That Crazy, Lying, Deceptive Consumer Price Index

Here's a CNBC summary from an interview with billionaire investor Sam Zell yesterday, griping about the Consumer Price Index (CPI):

Misleading government data is fooling investors into believing there is no inflation, said Zell, who pointed out that 42 percent of the Consumer Price Index the government uses to gauge inflation is housing, where costs have been flatlining or falling. In the meantime, energy costs are up 9 percent and food is up 12 percent.

This is common grumble about the CPI: Housing holds a huge weighting in the index, and housing costs are currently falling. Thus the CPI is understating inflation as housing drowns out the screams of other goods that are surging, like oil and food.

But hold on a second. Shouldn't housing have the biggest weighting in the index? It's most people's biggest expense by far. Zell is correct that CPI gives housing a 42% weighting. And an official poll of how consumers actually spend their paychecks -- the Consumer Expenditure Survey -- shows that's probably about right:


Weight CPI Uses

Amount of Paychecks Consumers Spend, According to Consumer Expenditure Survey










Medical Care















Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Sure, maybe the CPI is giving housing a bit too much weight, but perhaps it's also overstating food, transportation, and education. Or maybe the survey is understating them all. These things aren't perfect. The important point is that housing is most people's largest expense, so it deserves the largest weighting in the CPI. Who could imagine it otherwise?

And what about those energy costs Zell bemoans? Interestingly, most of where the CPI captures energy prices is actually in the housing segment, where utilities, heating, and electricity costs are measured. So in one sentence Zell complains that CPI's housing segment is falling. In the next, he wails that energy prices are surging -- never mind that energy is part of the housing segment.

But what about soaring food prices we hear so much about? The Consumer Expenditure Survey shows wheat products make up roughly 1% of most people's budget. Meat is about 1.7% -- fruit, 1.3%. It's not hard to see how the prices of these goods can surge without making a dent in most people's overall purchasing power. I eat a lot of oranges. The price of oranges has risen over the past year. How much will the increase cost me? An entire $3 a month. Even for a humble writer, this affects my household budget by precisely nothing. If the cost of housing shot up 20% or 30%? That'd be trouble. That'd be inflation I'd notice. The weightings of these things matter.

More importantly, just because commodity prices are rising doesn't mean the price you pay at the store is rising by the same amount. The prices of commodities you hear cited in the news -- or by people like Zell -- are typically wholesale, not retail, units. When was the last time you bought a bushel of wheat? Probably never. Instead, you buy bagels. And while the price of a bushel of wheat might be exploding, the price of bagels by and large is not. Bagel producers are either absorbing rising wheat prices out of profits or have wheat prices hedged.

It's that way for most sellers right now, including Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) . Take a specific example, grocery giant Safeway (NYSE: SWY  ) . After a year of surging food commodity costs, CEO Steven Burd noted in the company's last conference call that "Price per item, which had been negative all year, was flat when compared with Q4 of last year."

That bears repeating: The average consumer price of Safeway's products has been flat or declining, all in the face of surging commodity costs. This is why it's important to know the difference between wholesale and retail.

Sarah Palin got in a tiff with the Wall Street Journal over this stuff last year. First, Palin noted in a speech that grocery store prices were surging. Sudeep Reddy of the Journal responded that simply wasn't true. Along came Palin's retort: "That's odd, because just last Thursday, November 4, I read an article in Mr. Reddy's own Wall Street Journal titled 'Food Sellers Grit Teeth, Raise Prices: Packagers and Supermarkets Pressured to Pass Along Rising Costs, Even as Consumers Pinch Pennies.'"

Reddy shot back (emphasis mine):

The Nov. 4 Wall Street Journal article noted, in its first sentence, "the tamest year of food pricing in nearly two decades." It does indeed report that supermarkets and restaurants are facing cost pressures that could push their retail prices higher -- but it hasn't happened yet on a large scale.

It's difficult to pass price increases along to consumers while the economy is weak. That's a major reason the CPI shows tame inflation even while most commodity prices surge. No doubt this will end some day -- maybe soon -- and widespread consumer inflation will emerge. When it does, you'll see it in the CPI. In some areas, particularly gasoline, inflation is already brewing -- and that segment of the CPI already reflects it.

It boils down to this: As messy and imperfect the CPI is, it's not nearly as bad as some make it out to be. It's flawed. It's faulty. But it isn't lying to you. It's good at what it's supposed to provide: a very rough measure of consumer prices. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Ford Motor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Procter & Gamble is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Ford Motor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 11:04 AM, prginww wrote:

    Hold on, now. Who does your grocery shopping for you???? If you did your own you certainly would know prices are steadily creeping up.

    And using housing cost to offset inflation in consummables is at least insane, but more likely just deception. Is the increase in gasoline and food offset by a decline in homeowners' monthly mortgage payments? Inflation impacts the economy by reducing comsumer buying power. That happens every day with grocery and fuel increases, but mortgage payments don't decline even if your house becomes worthless. However, if you sell your house at a loss then your buying power is further reduced.

    Using declining house prices to suggest there is no inflation is like pouring kerosene on the forest ahead of a wildfire and saying "everything will be ok now because we've wet down the fuel!"

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 11:10 AM, prginww wrote:

    "Hold on, now. Who does your grocery shopping for you???? If you did your own you certainly would know prices are steadily creeping up."

    I do, and I certainly haven't noticed that. See the Safeway quote above.

    "Is the increase in gasoline and food offset by a decline in homeowners' monthly mortgage payments?"

    Yes. Average mortgage payments as a percentage of disposable income have plunged over the past two years. Millions have walked away from mortgages they couldn't afford; millions more have refinanced at lower levels. Rents have declined as well.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 11:13 AM, prginww wrote:

    One more thing: When the CPI measures housing, it isn't measuring home prices. It's the "owners' equivalent rent," or the price an owner could receive monthly for their home. So when CPI's housing value is falling, it's because monthly costs are falling, not the value of the asset.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 11:15 AM, prginww wrote:

    while housing is a major portion of expenses, since most of households have existing mortages, that cost will remain the same and the same is for most other major expenses. Thus more weight should be given to the daily purchases that are eating up paychecks

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 11:25 AM, prginww wrote:


    Most people's mortgage payments have not remained the same. They've fallen. See second chart in this article:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 11:32 AM, prginww wrote:

    I have one word for you: hedonics

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 4:49 PM, prginww wrote:

    Of course the CPI is fudged to a downward bias! Neither the government nor the public wants to see a large number. I figured this out when I cashed in $3700 worth of Series I savings bonds last year, and moved the money to RPSIX in a Roth IRA. These bonds have a fixed rate determined by date of issue, and an inflation rate that is adjusted every 6 months.

    I started purchasing my $50 savings bonds starting in 2002, and at the time I thought this might be a safe, patriotic way to get a decent return. I bought $3000 worth of bonds over 5 years, held them a average of 5 years, and figure I got a 4.3% return. Presently, an I Series savings bond purchased as of Nov 2010 pays a 0% fixed rate and a 0.37% inflation rate, which is next to nothing. I know much better now how this all works.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 5:26 PM, prginww wrote:

    The housing component depends on mortgage rate, which is controlled by the federal reserve (bond purchase). So the federal reserve controls 42% of the CPI. Maybe not lying but definitely deceptive and manipulated.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 5:39 PM, prginww wrote:

    Unfortunately, it seems that some of the writers at the MF are very naive, or have a very limited understanding of basic economics.

    Morgan, you would do well to ask yourself the question "Who stands to gain from under-reporting inflation?"

    One needs to look no further than Argentina right now to see a government that is without a question manipulating inflation data to serve their own self-interest. For those of you that don't know, Argentina's gov'mt recently pegged inflation at a "modest" 11.2 % - meanwhile, private analysts have put that number at a frighteningly more generous 26.6 %.

    Manipulation of data to serve self-interests is nothing novel - it is in fact, simply an extension of greed and human nature. And as we all know by now (hopefully), this kind of behaviour is not only isolated to countries like Argentina.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2011, at 5:51 PM, prginww wrote:

    "Morgan, you would do well to ask yourself the question "Who stands to gain from under-reporting inflation?""

    Governments. No one's questioning that.

    That said, which part of the article did you find naive or showing "limited understanding of basic economics?" I've acknowledged CPI's shortfalls. But just because something has shortfalls doesn't mean every criticism is valid. I've tried to dispel some of those criticisms. If you can dispel my dispelling, have at it.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 7:49 AM, prginww wrote:

    Rejoice everyone, you refinanced that mortgage that you are upside down on... don't you feel richer? Your housing cost went down, right? And the govt. only misreported your savings (upwards) by a small fraction.

    Don't pay any attention to rising commodity costs. It's those crazy speculators causing all of the problems- that is what they want you to believe.

    derekrlee made an excellent point. If an entity is appointed with the task of collecting, collating, and reporting data that it has a vested interest in, the results will almost always be skewed. A case in point- there are (practically) no new jobs being created and yet the government reports lower unemployment numbers.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 9:20 AM, prginww wrote:

    CPI does not accurately indicate the finicial situation for many who happen to be retired and living on a fixed(?) / limited income.

    No increase in SS payments for3 years now yet my mininum water bill has increased by 30%,food prices, gas, electricy, auto , home, health insurance all up and life insurance is up by over 400% so no longer afforable.

    Good thing I do not have a morage , car payments ,credit card bills or we could not afford live at the fairly megar level which we do.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 12:19 PM, prginww wrote:

    Dose the consumer price for food consider the fact that things like the same orange juice containers now contain only 58 oz. when they used to contain 64 oz.? Most packages now days are deceivingly larger then that the product they contain.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 12:23 PM, prginww wrote:

    Actual inflation,using methods of calculation from Jimmy Carter days,is approximately 8.5%.Check it out at website.If you believe Safeway hasn't raised food prices you are really ignorant.Package downsizing is reaching mammoth proportions.Almost no food item package hasn't been downsized,several times.How about candy bars,that I bought,years ago, in larger sizes for .05 now selling for .99.It was about .49 a few years ago.Dreyers shrunk ice cream from an hones half gallon(64 oz) to 56 oz and now 48 oz.I sent an email to Dreyers and got a reply that they had to downsize since people wouldn't pay $7 for the original size.Consumer Reports mentioned one paper towel company that had downsized one product 7 times.So,if you're too rich to pay attention,like the author,you aren't going to be aware of reality and that may hurt your investment results.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 12:56 PM, prginww wrote:

    Thanks to jrj90620 for pointing everyone to I have been a follower for several years. Anyone who is a follower has probably hedged their portfolios with gold or other commodities to a large extent instead of maintaining a large cash pool. If you integrate the area under the curve of the official CPI vs the alternative the increase in the price of gold over the past 10 years starts to make some sense (or cents). Read the definition below to gain an appreciation for what the government is up to.

    QUOTE from

    The SGS Alternative CPI-U measures are attempts at adjusting reported CPI-U inflation for the impact of methodological change of recent decades designed to move the concept of the CPI away from being a measure of the cost of living needed to maintain a constant standard of living.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 4:16 PM, prginww wrote:

    Many of's criticisms of the CPI are flat-out wrong. His discussion of product substitution, hedonics, and core inflation are fatally flawed. Why anyone would give credence to that site is beyond me.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 4:16 PM, prginww wrote:

    Wow. Sam Zell brings the same deft touch to CPI analysis that he has shown in running Tribune Corp. Color me impressed.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 4:17 PM, prginww wrote:

    CPI removes items that it deems volatile from its "representative" basket of goods. That includes oil/gas.

    This basket of goods represents what the administration wants it to represent. Low inflation and stability.

    Housing is increasing, despite the drop in assessed value. Local and State government have increased the levy rate to minimize thier shortfalls. Most Governments can increase these rates by a certain percentage each year by statute.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 5:02 PM, prginww wrote:

    I just did a quick and dirty of our family's food and gas budget over the past 18 mos. We have gone from spending $1216.00 per month average over the first 6 mos of that time period to $1437.00 per month average over the last 6 months. Gas expenditures have doubled in the same time period. I suppose $3.00 extra for oranges is not much, maybe negligible for most. But an extra $2.00 for avacados, $3.00 for oranges, $6.00 for grain products, $4.00 for nuts, (we are vegetarian; our grocery bill has gone up $221.00 per month in 18 months). $20.00 per month for gas (now ave $624.00 per month), over the last 6 months, starts to add up to inflation to me. Maybe the government is oblivious to the obvious, but you should meet with common folks who buy gas and groceries every month, they will tell you a different story. Fortunately, I make a good income and can afford these "slight or mild" increases. But, you have to feel that most Americans are going to struggle with an extra $500-850 going out each month, where are they getting it from since salaries are certainly flat?

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 5:19 PM, prginww wrote:

    Housing probably the largest expense for households but it's weight in the CPI is misleading as homeowners housing expense only changes when they move, refinance or their adjustible mortgage adjusts. Meanwhile it's my understanding that the CPI uses area rent or what a homeowner would pay/receive in rent as their calculation for inflation while in reality only a small percentage of the 67% of the US that own homes are affected by changes in housing costs.

    I'd love to see an inflation figure published that excludes changes in housing costs as I think it provides a truer picture of changes in the vast majority of peoples cost of living--especially retirees living on a fixed income and probably less likely to move or refinance (which is probably over for everyone anyway).

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 7:13 PM, prginww wrote:

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 7:28 PM, prginww wrote:

    This morning my McDonalds breakfast sandwich cost 22% MORE than it did yesterday.

    I don't think they believe the CPI report. I know that I don't.

    I believe it was Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) that said that there were lies, damn lies and statistics.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 7:31 PM, prginww wrote:

    Any thoughts on MIT's 'Billion Price Project?'

    As an added plus, it's updated daily.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 10:05 PM, prginww wrote:

    The MIT BPP has all the appeal of a USA Today poll.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2011, at 10:33 PM, prginww wrote:

    Hi Morgan,

    Care to take a stab at this report:

    On a direct one-on-one exchange basis, the U.S. dollar now has the second lowest exchange value of any major currency.

    Stefan Karlsson notes that the U.S. dollar was the second highest valued currency by unit among the most freely traded currencies, after only the British pound. That is, in the past, if you had any other highly traded currency, except for the pound, it would take more than one unit of that currency do buy one dollar. Now, it's the reverse. It takes more than one dollar to buy a unit of any of the other highly traded currencies, except for the Japanese yen. The other currencies have become more expensive. Or, in other words, the dollar has dropped in value against them.

    Karlsson explains:

    "....there are now 5 major currencies with a higher [unit] value than the U.S. dollar, namely the British pound, the euro, the Swiss franc, the Canadian dollar and the Australian dollar. Only the yen has a lower [unit]value, and given the fact that its [unit]value is still more than 80 times lower, it will be a very long time, if ever, before its [unit]value surpasses that of the U.S. dollar. However, the yen has actually increased its value more than the others (except for the franc which has increased similarly), with its value being more than 4 times higher relative to the U.S. dollar compared to the early 1970s, about 3 times higher compared to the mid 1980s."

    This puts a hole in the argument of apologists for Fed inflation, like Bernanke and Krugman, that the price of commodities are going up in terms of all commodities. Well, yeah, but because it is more expensive for those with dollars to acquire other currencies, the price of commodities in terms of dollars is more expensive than the price for those holding other currencies.

    The one exception to this situation is British pound, since the Bank of England has been printing money more aggressively than even the U.S. Here's Karlsson, again:

    "...the one currency that has always had a higher value than the U.S. dollar, the British pound, has actually lost value against the U.S. dollar compared to the early 1970s and 1980s and it is the only major currency to have a lower value against the U.S. dollar compared to early 2000."

    That is because Mervyn King and his predecessors at the Bank of England has been just as, or even more, inflationist than Greenspan and Bernanke.

    But the fact that it costs more to buy commodities, for those holding the dollar than those holding other major currencies (except for the pound),there is something else going on beyond a possible general rise in commodity prices. That something else is, of course, the Fed's increase in money supply, which Bernanke and Krugman refuse to recognize.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2011, at 12:15 AM, prginww wrote:

    It's about time people start to realize that a lot of the government economic data has been manipulated, such as housing, unemployment, GDP growth, and inflation all are worse than actually reported.

    Check out the latest from the Capital Research Institute.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2011, at 1:37 AM, prginww wrote:


    as a finance major I can tell you that the value of a given currency is highly dependent on factors other then production capabilities. political stability is a very large driving force affecting currency valuation.

    however, if you take any of the other major currency over the last 30-40 years all of their productive values of their countries have gone up dramatically in comparison to the productive capacity of the US. we still have the "strongest" dollar, but it is not as relatively strong anymore as it use to be...

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2011, at 11:18 AM, prginww wrote:

    One of the biggest deceptions of the CPI is that it does not include the cost of government, i.e., taxes and fees. Shortcomings of the CPI are explored in some detail in "Whatever Happened to Penny Candy" by Richard Maybury.

    Look at your pay stub. The direct cost of government is 20-40% of most people's gross income. That's a pretty big chunk to get left out of the CPI. Then there are the "fees" you pay to all levels of gov't and the hidden taxes like the excess your city charges you for your water bill or electric bill that then get "donated" to the general fund.

    What about property taxes that went up because your property was worth more and then don't go down when you're upside down on your mortgage. And when valuations do go down, the county responds by raising the mil rate because they "can't" cut back like the rest of us (and our employers) have to.

    Cost of govt should be included in the CPIG.

    G for government.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2011, at 4:53 PM, prginww wrote:

    Not much to add to the existing comment, except to reiterate: check your hedonics. I hear arguments like this from the Fed and some (although not all) economists, and they're wrong.

    The Fed and the DoL have been twisting price, unemployment, and growth statistics since the 90s. This was part of the Greenspan hocus-pocus of inflated growth and wealth, which Bernanke and others have continued. The Fed isn't a central bank; it's a failed central planning agency, surrounding itself with self-serving, doctored statistics and inviting others to drink the Kool-Aid.

    As for everyday price inflation, just check at your local gas station, supermarket, restaurant, doctor's office, and college or university. At the grocery store, notice and marvel how food processors keep prices the same, while shrinking what's in the package. Marvel at how the BLS keeps changing the workforce definition to exclude more and more unemployed. And while mortgage costs dropped for a couple of years, that drop stopped last summer. Rates are going back up. The equivalent rent numbers don't capture what's really going on. And the US inflation rate doesn't fully capture what's happening in Europe, Asia, and poorer countries, where inflation is more real. We're exporting a lot of it.

    While it should be taken with a grain of salt, take a look at for estimates of inflation, growth, and unemployment using the older and more honest methods. It's not a pretty picture. Or look at the Gallup unemployment survey.

    The inflationary pressure will dissipate with a more sane monetary policy. But for now, Sarah Palin is closer to the truth than are the bearded witch doctors from Princeton.

  • Report this Comment On March 07, 2011, at 5:00 PM, prginww wrote:

    Stick with Oatmeal, Beans, Bulk Chicken, and Noodles, and water and watch food/beverage/health care prices drop.

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2011, at 10:53 AM, prginww wrote:

    Not too much worthy here...the majority of income in a retiree's home that is devoted to housing is significantly lower than an "average" consumer, apparently. Those volatile food and energy costs are what eat up pensions and for that matter, the average older person/couple who have fixed rate mortgages and have PAID on them regularly for the past 10, 15, 20 or more years. How is the cost swings in housing affecting us? I'll tell you, very negatively!!! from the perspective that your and the CPI talking points cover. With the price of housing on the skids, I don't pay less for my house!

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2011, at 11:02 AM, prginww wrote:

    Add on to my previous post: Oh yeah, My equity in my house is significantly less than what it was 3 years ago according to every economist I follow and sure...I could leave my house and probably afford to move into a MacMansion now with the lower costs of housing, but why? The necessities of everyday living are significantly different for people in similar positions as I, Housing is NOT the 42% leach on my budget that you portray. My energy costs were less than 1/3 of my mortgage 10 years ago and now are over 1/2.

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2011, at 3:16 PM, prginww wrote:

    The problem I see in these figures is that they only count the amount consumers spend from their paychecks. But consumers spend a lot more than 6.6% on medical care ... it's just that much of it is paid by employers in place of higher salaries. Medical care is about 16% of the economy, so it should be weighted closer to 16% to reflect indirect payments -- and medical inflation has been running at 5 - 10% for years.

    Also, education is weighted at 6.4%. But if you count school tax (even if you rent you are indirectly paying school tax), plus college tuition, then the weighting has to be more than 6%. And school taxes and college tuitions have been inflating at a faster rate for years.

  • Report this Comment On March 08, 2011, at 9:55 PM, prginww wrote:

    Inflation has zero relationship with the CPI and hasn't since the Carter years and especially the Clinton years. The CPI has been manipulated to show only positive outcomes.

    Same goes for not measuring M-3.

    As continual governments have fiddled around we have lost meaningful means of measuring the supply of money and with that any meaningful way of measuring inflation.

    There should be zero surprise by anyone one that we are starting to see inflation on a world-wide basis; the increase in supply of the fiat currency can only lead to the reduction of its ability to provide purchasing power for goods and services.

    When we fell of the path that Milton Freidman put us on, we created a situation where investment is next to impossible on a rational basis.



  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2011, at 11:53 AM, prginww wrote:

    Of course,as Bernanke will tell you, we know that high price inflation can't happen in a country with a weak economy and high unemployment.Zimbabwe is one good example of that.Or not!

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2011, at 7:11 PM, prginww wrote:

    Food cost prices increases ... well, here we have a technicality.... manufacturers have been reducing the size of food packages and maintaining approximately the same price levels

    ..for example size of fresh juice containers reduced; some bread loaves now smaller weights; etc.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2011, at 8:01 PM, prginww wrote:

    That Sarah is so edumacated.

  • Report this Comment On April 10, 2011, at 4:23 AM, prginww wrote:

    Housing prices are completely different due to 1) their lack of liquidity. 2) the fact that they are both an expense and a store of wealth.

    It's just not the same thing as a Taco Bell seven layer burrito is just an expense. Falling housing prices are not an offset in the same way as some other component of the index. Except for renters.

    If home prices in my neighborhood fall, it does not reduce my expenditures.

    So from the macro view, the weighting is sensible, from the mircro view, it's completely idiotic.

  • Report this Comment On April 10, 2011, at 5:01 AM, prginww wrote:

    omg, don't tell the fed you can get a 7 layer burrito for 1.59, they will want to use that in their equations, lol.

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