May CPI Puts Inflation Hawks in Feeding Frenzy

The consumer price index (CPI) rose 0.6 percent in May, with the core index (which excludes food and energy) rising at an even more rapid 0.7 percent. This brought the increases in the overall and core index over the last year to 5.0 and 3.8 percent, respectively.

Does this mean the inflation hawks were right? Did Biden’s recovery package throw too much wood on the fire and is now setting off an inflationary spiral?

A little closer look at the numbers indicates that caution is still advised. First of all, prices plunged last April and May of last year, as the economy was shutting down in response to the pandemic. This means that the year-over-year comparison is not very informative.

To get a more honest evaluation, we should look at the rate of change of prices since February of 2020, before the pandemic was having an impact. Using this as a base, the overall CPI has increased at a 3.0 percent annual rate, while the core has increased at a 2.6 percent annual rate.

The 2.6 percent rate is somewhat above the Fed’s 2.0 percent target, but the Fed targets the personal consumption expenditure deflator (PCE), not the CPI. For coverage and methodology reasons, the core PCE is generally 0.2-0.3 percentage points lower than the core CPI.

Also, as the Fed has stated explicitly, the 2.0 percent target is an average, not a ceiling. Given that inflation has consistently run well below 2.0 percent, to maintain a 2.0 percent average the inflation rate has to be above 2.0 percent on occasion, so there is nothing in the data to indicate that we have a problem, accepting the Fed’s target.

The Used Car Crisis

In fact, even this above 2.0 percent inflation figure can be a bit deceptive. Used car prices have soared in recent months, rising 7.3 percent in May and 10.0 percent in April. (These are monthly increases, not annual rates of increase.) If we take the period since February of 2020, used car prices have increased at a 23.2 percent annual rate.

The weight of used cars in the core CPI is 3.8 percent. This means that this jump in used car prices alone added almost 0.9 percentage points to the rate of inflation in the core index in the months since the pandemic began. That means that if we pull used cars out of the core index, it would have been increasing at just under a 1.8 percent annual rate since the pandemic began, well below the Fed’s target.

The reason for the jump in used car prices is not a mystery. The worldwide shortage of semi-conductors has slowed auto production, leading several assembly lines to shut down for a period of time. (Most are now back up and running.) The shortage of new cars led many people to turn to buying used cars, sending their prices soaring.

This shortage of cars is a problem. People need cars for transportation and rental car companies need cars to restock their fleets, which they sold off at the start of the pandemic to conserve cash. But this is clearly a temporary problem. Semi-conductor output will increase as existing plants add capacity and new ones come back on line. When that happens, we are likely to see the price of used cars return to something comparable to their pre-pandemic levels. New car prices, which have also risen rapidly, should also fall back in line with pre-pandemic trends.

If we take the car story out of the picture, there is not much of a story of run-away inflation. The prices of some items have been rising rapidly, but this is a bounce back from price declines at the start of the pandemic. Apparel prices jumped 1.2 percent in May, car insurance 0.7 percent, and air fares 7.0 percent. These indexes are respectively 2.2 percent, 0.2 percent, and 6.3 percent below the February 2020 level.

Inflation in the rent indexes remains well contained. The rent proper index rose 0.2 percent in May, while the owners equivalent rent index rose 0.3 percent. Over the last year, they are up 1.8 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively. The medical care index, which has been a major source of inflation, has risen at just a 1.7 percent annual rate since the pandemic began. The index for college tuition has risen at less than a 0.6 percent annual rate.

We will see more erratic price movements as the economy continues to reopen. There will be some spot shortages of different items and there will be cases where strong demand gives workers the bargaining power to raise their wages, but there is not a story of an inflation crisis in these data.

Dean Baker

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He has worked for the World Bank, the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, and the OECD's Trade Union Advisory Council. His latest book is "Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer"

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