Hot Button Issue: Rant Warning
We all have our hot button issues. It will not surprise you, probably, to learn that mine involves inflation. For the rant which follows, I apologize.
Reasonable people, smart people, learned people, can disagree on how precisely the Consumer Price Index captures the inflation in consumer prices. And indeed, over the one hundred years that the CPI has been published such disagreements have been played out among academics, politicians, labor leaders, and others. The debates have raged and many changes – some large, some small; some politically-driven, most not – have occurred in how prices have been collected and the index calculated. If you are interested, really interested, in the century-long history of the CPI, you can read a couple of histories here and here.
If someone is not interested in how CPI is calculated, in how and why changes were made in the methodological approach to calculating price change, then that’s fine. But if a person can’t spend the time to learn the very basics of this hundred-year debate, during which changes were made in the CPI with much public input, not in a smoky back room somewhere, then I wonder why such a person would spend time spewing conspiracy theories on the internet about how the CPI doesn’t include food and energy (um…it does), about how the CPI underestimates prices because it doesn’t account for changes in quality and quantity (um…it does), or about how sneaky methodological changes have caused the CPI to be understated by 7% per year for thirty years.
Recently, the CFA Institute’s monthly magazine for CFA Charterholders was duped into accepting an article that brings together some of the dumbest theories into one place. At some level, the article asks the “interesting” question about whether a consumer price index should include asset prices. Interesting, perhaps, but asked-and-answered: assets are not consumer goods but stores of value. If you are not consuming something, then why would you ever expect it to be included in a consumer price index? You might argue that we should include asset prices into some other sort of index that measures price increases. But we already do. They are called asset price indices, and you know them by names like the S&P 500, the NCREIF, and so on.
Worse, the magazine gives a great big stage to the person who has singlehandedly done more to confuse and anger people, to poison the well of knowledge about inflation, and to stir up the conspiracy theorists about inflation, than anyone else in the world – and all because he is selling an ‘analysis’ product to those people. I won’t mention his name here because I don’t want to advertise his product, but he claims that the CPI is understated by “about 7 percentage points each year.”
That this is being published in a magazine of the CFA Institute is almost enough for me to renounce my membership. It is offensively idiotic to claim that the CPI may be understated by 7% per year, and simple math (which CFA Charterholders were once required to be able to perform) can prove that. If inflation has risen at a pace of around 2.5% per year over the last 30 years, it implies the price level has risen about 110% (1.025^30-1). This seems more or less right. But if inflation had really been 9.5% per year, as claimed, then the cost of the average consumption basket would have risen about 1422% (1.095^30-1).
Can that be right? Well, Real Median Household Income, using the CPI to deflate nominal household income, has risen about 13% over the last 30 years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Median_US_household_income.png But if we use the 9.5%-per-year CPI number, then real median household income has actually fallen 84%. If this was true, we would be living in absolute Third-World squalor compared to how things were in the salad days of 1984. You don’t have to be an economist to know the difference between a slightly-better standard of living and one in which you can afford 1/6th of what you could previously afford. You just need a brain.
Any person who does even rudimentary research on the CPI – say, visiting http://www.inflationinfo.com and reading some of the hundreds of papers gathered there, or perusing the BLS website, or speaking with an actual inflation expert – cannot possibly think that this guy is anything other than a nut or a shill. It is a tragedy that the CFA Institute would publish such trash, and it tarnishes the CFA Institute brand. Let’s hope they publish an apologetic retraction in the next issue.
I also like to point out, when I am in rant mode over this (and, as an aside, let me thank the tolerant reader for allowing me to rant – this allows me to forever point people to this link when they bring up this guy), that if the CPI=9.5% number is right then you must also believe a bunch of other ridiculous things:
First: MIT is in on the conspiracy. The Billion Prices Project, which uses very different methodology from the BLS, figures inflation to be about the same as the BLS does. (Digressing for a bit, I think it’s also interesting that the BPP index has tracked Median CPI much better than headline CPI over the last year, when headline CPI has been dragged lower by one-off changes in medical care prices).
Second: Consumers consistently underestimate inflation, or else are serially optimistic about how it is likely to decline from 9.5% to something much lower. The University of Michigan survey of year-ahead inflation expectations – and every other consumer survey of inflation expectations – is much closer to reported inflation than to the shill’s numbers (see chart below, source Bloomberg). I’ve written elsewhere about why consumers might perceive slightly higher inflation than really occurs, but I cannot come up with a theory that explains why consumers would always say it’s much lower than what they are in fact seeing. Maybe we’re all stupid except for this guy with the website.
Third, and related to the prior point: Investors who pour money into inflation-indexed bonds must be complete morons, because they are locking up money for ten years at what is “really” -9% real yields (meaning that they are surrendering 62% of the real purchasing power of their wealth, rather than spending it immediately). We don’t see this behavior in countries where it is known that the official index is manipulated. For example, we know that in Argentina the inflation data really is rigged, and in September of last year long-dated inflation-linked bonds in Argentina were showing real yields of more than 20%. In recent months, the government of Argentina has begun to release figures that are much more realistic and real yields have plunged to around 10% as investors are giving the data more credibility. The upshot is that we have bona fide evidence that investors will base their demanded real yields on the difference between the inflation index they are being paid on and the inflation they think they are actually seeing. The fact that we don’t see TIPS real yields around 6% or 7% is evidence that investors are either really stupid, or they believe the CPI is at least approximately right.
Fourth, and related to that point: if inflation has really being running at 9.5%, then every asset is a losing proposition. There is no way to protect yourself against inflation. You’re not really getting wealthy as you ride stocks higher; you’re only losing more slowly. Since there is no asset class that has returned 10% over a long period of time, we are all doomed. The money is all going away. Especially housing, and real goods like hard commodities – there is nothing you can do that is much worse than holding real stuff, which is only going up in price a couple of percent per year over time while inflation is (apparently) ravaging everything we know and love. There is no winning strategy. Of course, the good news is that it turns out that the U.S. government is being extremely fiscally responsible, with the real deficit falling by 5% or more every year. Right.
I really should not let this bother me. It is good for me, as an investor with a brain, when mindless zombie minions follow this guy and do dumb things in the market. But I can’t help it. The Internet could be a tool for great good, allowing people access to accurate, timely information and the opportunity to learn things that they couldn’t otherwise. It allows this author to come into your mailbox, or onto your screen, to try to educate or illuminate or amuse you. But there is also so much detritus, so much rubbish, so much terribly erroneous information out there that does real harm to those who consume it. And perhaps this is why I get so exercised about this issue: I absolutely believe that people have a right to say and to believe whatever they want, no matter how stupid or dangerous. I am simply aghast, and deeply saddened, that so many people are so credulous that they believe what they read, without critical thought of their own. Everyone has a right to his/her opinion, but they are not all equally valid. There is no FDA for the Internet, so snake-oil salesmen run rampant among their eager marks.
I want my readers to think. If you all agree with me, then I know you’re not all thinking! Look, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that some minor improvements can be made to CPI. The number has been tweaked and improved for a hundred years, and it will be tweaked and improved some more in the future. It is in my opinion not reasonable to suppose that the number is completely made up and/or drastically incorrect. And that’s my opinion.