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Headline and Core Inflation Below Fed Target

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    June 19, 2013

    The BLS’s Consumer Price Index for May, released on Tuesday, shows core inflation below the Federal Reserve’s 2% long-term target range at 1.68%. Core PCE, at the end of last month, is significantly lower at 1.05%, its all-time low. The Fed is on record as preferring Core PCE as its inflation gauge.

     

    The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee judges that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate. Communicating this inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee’s ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances. [Source]
    Note: Bolding added by me.

     

    Elsewhere the Fed stresses the importance of longer-term inflation patterns, the likelihood of persistence and the importance of “core” inflation (less food and energy). Why the emphasis on core? Here is an excerpt from one of the Fed FAQs.

     

    Finally, policymakers examine a variety of “core” inflation measures to help identify inflation trends. The most common type of core inflation measures excludes items that tend to go up and down in price dramatically or often, like food and energy items. For those items, a large price change in one period does not necessarily tend to be followed by another large change in the same direction in the following period. Although food and energy make up an important part of the budget for most households–and policymakers ultimately seek to stabilize overall consumer prices–core inflation measures that leave out items with volatile prices can be useful in assessing inflation trends. [Source]

     

    Fed’s Short-Term Target Broadened to 2% to 2.5%

    In the shorter term, however, the Fed has raised the top range of its inflation target by half a percent. The change was announced to the public in the December 12, 2012 FOMC press release:

     

    …the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored. [Source]

     

    The October 2010 core CPI of 0.61% was the lowest ever recorded, and two months later the core PCE of 1.08% was an all-time low, until the latest (April) reading of 1.05%. However, we have seen a significant divergence between the headline and core numbers for both indicators, especially the CPI, at least until a few months ago, when energy prices began moderating. The latest headline CPI and PCE are both well off their respective interim highs set in September.

     

     

    This close-up comparison gives us clues as to why the Federal Reserve prefers Core PCE over Core CPI as an indicator of its success in managing inflation: Core PCE is lower than Core CPI and less volatile. Given the Fed’s twin mandates of price stability and maximizing employment, it’s not surprising that in the past the less volatile Core PCE has been their metric of choice. On the other hand, the disinflationary trend of late give PCE additional significance as support for a sustained policy of quantitative easing.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Consumer Price Index and The Bureau of Economic Analysis’s monthly Personal Income and Outlays report are the main indicators for price trends in the U.S. The chart below is an overlay of core CPI and core PCE since 2000.

     

     

    Here is a long-term perspective from the actual beginnings of the two series.

     

     

    Here is a chart that helps us compare the cumulative change in the two indexes since 1960. Over time, the PCE price index reflects significantly lower growth in inflation than does CPI.

     

     

    For some technical data explaining the differences between the calculation of PCE and CPI, see this comparison article from the BEA.

    In the real world we can’t exclude food and energy from our monthly expenses. But the extreme volatility of these two expense categories, especially energy, often obscures the underlying trend, which is the focus of the chart above. For evidence of the volatility, see this overlay of headline and core CPI andthis one of headline and core PCE.

    Hostility Toward Government Inflation Analysis

    One the other hand, the volatile price of gasoline explains why so many people are angered by the exclusion of food and energy from core measures of inflation. The chart of gasoline prices below is based on the latest weekly data from the Energy Information Administration. The price volatility of gasoline in recent years have been quite dramatic.

     

     

    I’ll update these charts shortly after the next PCE report is released.

    Images: Flickr (licence attribution)

    About The Author

    My original dshort.com website was launched in February 2005 using a domain name based on my real name, Doug Short. I’m a formerly retired first wave boomer with a Ph.D. in English from Duke. Now my website has been acquired byAdvisor Perspectives, where I have been appointed the Vice President of Research.

    My first career was a faculty position at North Carolina State University, where I achieved the rank of Full Professor in 1983. During the early ’80s I got hooked on academic uses of microcomputers for research and instruction. In 1983, I co-directed the Sixth International Conference on Computers and the Humanities. An IBM executive who attended the conference made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.

    Thus began my new career as a Higher Education Consultant for IBM — an ambassador for Information Technology to major universities around the country. After 12 years with Big Blue, I grew tired of the constant travel and left for a series of IT management positions in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. I concluded my IT career managing the group responsible for email and research databases at GlaxoSmithKline until my retirement in 2006.

    Contrary to what many visitors assume based on my last name, I’m not a bearish short seller. It’s true that some of my content has been a bit pessimistic in recent years. But I believe this is a result of economic realities and not a personal bias. For the record, my efforts to educate others about bear markets date from November 2007, as this Motley Fool article attests.

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