Did prices go up or down? Depends on how one looks at the data
Jul 06, 2021
The U.S. media have been flooded with reports of runaway inflation recently, and it's refreshing to see a nice article in the Wall Street Journal that takes a second look at the data. Because as my readers know, raw data can be incredibly deceptive.
Inflation typically describes the change in price level relative to the prior year. The month-on-month change in price levels is a simple seasonal adjustment used to remove the effect of seasonality that masks the true change in price levels. (See this explainer of seasonal adjustment.)
As the pandemic enters the second year, this methodology is comparing 2021 price levels to pandemic-impacted price levels of 2020. This produces a very confusing picture. As the WSJ article explains, prices can be lower than they were in 2019 (pre-pandemic) and yet substantially higher than they were in 2020 (during the pandemic). This happens in industry sectors that were heavily affected by the economic shutdown, e.g. hotels, travel, entertainment.
Here is how they visualized this phenomenon. Amusingly, some algorithm estimated that it should take 5 minutes to read the entire article. It may take that much time to understand properly what this chart is showing.
Let me save you some time.
The chart shows monthly inflation rates of hotel price levels.
The pink horizontal stripes represent the official inflation numbers, which compare each month's hotel prices to those of a year prior. The most recent value for May of 2021 says hotel prices rose by 9% compared to May of 2020.
The blue horizontal stripes show an alternative calculation which compares each month's hotel prices to those of two years prior. Think of 2018-9 as "normal" years, pre-pandemic. Using this measure, we find that hotel prices for May of 2021 are about 4% lower than for May of 2019.
(This situation affects all of our economic statistics. We may see an expansion in employment levels from a year ago which still leaves us behind where we were before the pandemic.)
What confused me on the WSJ chart are the blocks of color. In a previous chart, the readers learn that solid colors mean inflation rose while diagonal lines mean inflation decreased. It turns out that these are month-over-month changes in inflation rates (notice that one end of the column for the previous month touches one end of the column of the next month).
The color patterns become the most dominant feature of this chart, and yet the month-over-month change in inflation rates isn't the crux of the story. The real star of the story should be the difference in inflation rates - for any given month - between two reference years.
In the following chart, I focus attention on the within-month, between-reference-years comparisons.
Because hotel prices dropped drastically during the pandemic, and have recovered quite well in recent months as the U.S. reopens the economy, the inflation rate of hotel prices is almost 10%. Nevertheless, the current price level is still 7% below the pre-pandemic level.
What you can do is to go to https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/consumer-price-index-cpi and set the time range to 5 years, and then look at the trend. Current CPI appears to be above the trend line. Should really use a log chi axis but that requires finding somewhere to get the data for free.
Posted by: Ken | Jul 07, 2021 at 03:46 AM
Ken: Yes, a trend line is the most straightforward to show whether prices have returned to previous levels. Part of the difficulty here is the public hasn't been exposed to price levels, and the reporter has to stick to "inflation" numbers which has the same difficulties as the "vaccine efficacy" numbers that I have been writing about on the book blog. These are ratios that are highly sensitive to what is the "base level".
CPI data are public information. The source is Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Posted by: Kaiser | Jul 07, 2021 at 10:15 AM