The Trouble With Shadowstats

Often, when I talk about inflation being low, people who disagree tend to cite John Williams’ Shadowstats as evidence that price inflation is not low at all.

Now, I don’t disagree with the idea that some people have experienced a higher level of price inflation than the CPI. Everyone experiences a different rate of inflation based on their purchasing habits, so by definition everyone’s individual rate will diverge from the official rate to some degree; some will be higher, and some will be lower. And I don’t disagree that rising food and fuel prices have been a problem for welfare recipients and seniors on a fixed income, etc, who spend a higher proportion of their income on food and fuel than, say, young professionals with a lot of disposable income.

What I do disagree with is bad statistical methodology. Shadowstats is built on the belief that the Bureau of Labor Statistics changed their methodology in the 1980s and 1990s, and that if we were using their original methodology the level of inflation would be much higher. Shadowstats presents what they claim to be the original methodology. But Shadowstats is not calculating inflation any differently.They are not using the 1980s or 1990s methodology that they believe would be higher.  All Shadowstats is doing is taking the CPI data and adding on an arbitrary constant to make it look like inflation is higher!

This should be obvious from their data, which has the exact same curve as the CPI data at a higher level:

alt-cpi-home2 (1)

In fact, according to James Hamilton of Econbrowser, John Williams admitted in 2008 that his numbers are just inflated CPI data:

Last month I called attention to an analysis by BLS researchers John Greenlees and Robert McClelland of some of the claims by John Williams of Shadowstats about the consequences for reported inflation of assorted technical decisions made by the BLS. Williams asked me to update with a link to his response to the BLS study. I am happy to do so, along with offering some further observations of my own.

You can follow the link to Shadowstats’ response to Greenlees and McClelland and judge for yourself, but my impression is that the response is more philosophical than quantitative. In a separate phone conversation, Williams further clarified the Shadowstats methodology. Here’s what John said to me: “I’m not going back and recalculating the CPI. All I’m doing is going back to the government’s estimates of what the effect would be and using that as an ad factor to the reported statistics.”

Price changes and inflation are important topics, and constructing alternate measures of inflation is a worthwhile activity. Researchers at MIT have tried to do this with their Billion Prices Project, which measures price trends across a much, much larger range of products and locations than CPI:

BPP

What the Billion Prices Project implies for Shadowstats is that the CPI is roughly correct, and there is no vast divergence between real-world price trends and the CPI number. Of course, maybe the 1980s and 1990s methodology would be different from the current numbers. It would be very interesting to compare the current CPI methodology with the older CPI methodologies and with the BPP data! But assessing this empirically would require someone to mine through the raw CPI data since the 1980s and recalculate the outputs with the real earlier methodology — a far longer, more difficult and sophisticated process than taking the CPI outputs and adding an arbitrary constant!

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The Shape of 40 Years of Inflation

I have written before that there is no single rate of inflation, and that different individuals experience their own rate dependent on their own individual spending preferences. This — among other reasons — is why I find the notion of single uniform rate of inflation — as central banks attempt to influence via their price stability mandates — problematic.

While many claim that inflation is at historic lows, those who spend a large share of their income on necessities might disagree. Inflation for those who spend a large proportion of their income on things like medical services, food, transport, clothing and energy never really went away. And that was also true during the mid 2000s — while headline inflation levels remained low, these numbers masked significant increases in necessities; certainly never to the extent of the 1970s, but not as slight as the CPI rate — pushed downward by deflation in things like consumer electronics imports from Asia — suggested.

This biflationary (or polyflationary?) reality is totally ignored by a single CPI figure. To get a true comprehension of the shape of prices, we must look at a much broader set of data:

Yet the low level of headline inflation has given central banks carte blanche to engage in quantitative easing, and various ultra-loose monetary policies like zero-interest rates — programs that tend to benefit the rich far more than anyone else. Certainly, lots of goods and services — especially things like foreign-made consumer goods and repossessed real estate — are deflating in price. But you can’t eat an iPad or a $1 burnt-out house in Detroit. Any serious discussion of monetary policy must not only consider the effects on creditors and debtors, but also the effects on those who spend a larger-than-average proportion of their income on necessities.

Another issue is that CPI leaves out both house prices as well as equity prices.

Below is CPI contrasted against equities and housing:

It is clear from this record that a central bank focused upon a price index that fails to include important factors like stock prices and house prices can easily let a housing or stocks bubble get out of hand. CPI can — as happened in both the 1990s as well as the early 2000s — remain low, while huge gains are accrued in housing and stocks. Meanwhile, central bankers can use low CPI rates as an excuse to keep interest rates low — keeping the easy money flowing into stocks and housing, and accruing even larger gains. However, because such markets are driven by leverage instead of underlying productivity, eventually the ability to accrue new debt is wiped out by debt costs,  hope turns to panic, and the bubble bursts.

Both of the above examples indicate that the contemporary headline price index measures of inflation are deeply inadequate. Attempts to measure the rate of inflation that ignore data like house or stock prices will lead to flawed conclusions (rendering any such notions of “price stability” as meaningless), which has tended to lead to failed policy decisions such as those which led to the bust of 2008.

Why is the Fed Not Printing Like Crazy?

I try to read all sides of the economics blogosphere, and try and grasp the ideas of even those who I would seem to radically disagree with.

One thing that the anti-Fed side of the economics blogosphere seems to not fully appreciate is the depth of disappointment with Ben Bernanke from the pro-Fed side. For every anti-Fed post bemoaning Bernanke’s money printing, there is a pro-Fed post bemoaning Bernanke for not printing enough. Bernanke, it seems, is tied to everybody’s whipping post.

And in fairness to the pro-Fed side, the data shows that the Fed is not printing anywhere near as much as its own self-imposed interpretation of its mandate demands. (Of course, I fundamentally disagree that price stability should be interpreted as consistent inflation, but that is an argument for another day).

Scott Sumner notes:

Recall that the Fed tries to keep inflation close to 2.0% and unemployment close to about 5.6% (the Fed’s current estimate of the natural rate.)  One implication of the dual mandate is that they should try to generate above 2% inflation during periods of high unemployment, and below 2% during periods of low unemployment.

In July 2008 unemployment rose above 5.6%, and it’s averaged nearly 9% over the past 46 months.  So the Fed’s mandate calls for slightly higher than 2% inflation during this 46 month slump.  Last month I reported that the headline CPI had risen 4.6% in the 45 months since July 2008.  Now we have the May data, and the headline CPI has gone up 4.3% in the 46 months since July 2008.  So the annual inflation rate over that nearly 4 year period has fallen from a bit over 1.2%, to 1.1%.

Raw data:

Note that downward slope in inflation into 2012?

That’s the Fed not doing QE3 when everyone (especially gold prices) expected them to, and when their own self-imposed interpretation of their mandate calls for them to inflate more. And nobody can say that the Fed is out of bullets; central banks are never out of bullets — there was a time when a central bank was limited to the number of zeroes it could fit on a banknote, but in the era of digital currency, even that limit has been removed.

Here’s the younger Bernanke’s views on the subject:

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end, the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take — namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency to promote monetary easing. But Roosevelt’s specific policy actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment— in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again. Many of his policies did not work as intended, but in the end FDR deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and to do what needed to be done. Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening?

To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.

And here’s Paul Krugman pulling a Bernanke on Bernanke:

Bernanke was and is a fine economist. More than that, before joining the Fed, he wrote extensively, in academic studies of both the Great Depression and modern Japan, about the exact problems he would confront at the end of 2008. He argued forcefully for an aggressive response, castigating the Bank of Japan, the Fed’s counterpart, for its passivity. Presumably, the Fed under his leadership would be different.

Instead, while the Fed went to great lengths to rescue the financial system, it has done far less to rescue workers. The U.S. economy remains deeply depressed, with long-term unemployment in particular still disastrously high, a point Bernanke himself has recently emphasized. Yet the Fed isn’t taking strong action to rectify the situation.

It really makes no sense — except in terms of politics. I really believe that we have reached a point where the Fed is afraid to do its job, for fear of being accused of helping Obama.

I am fairly certain the answer to why Bernanke isn’t increasing inflation when his former self and former colleagues say he should be is actually nothing to do with domestic politics, and everything to do with international politics.

Most of the pro-Fed blogosphere seems to live in denial of the fact that America is massively in debt to external creditors — all of whom are frustrated at getting near-zero yields (they can’t just flip bonds to the Fed balance sheet like the hedge funds) — and their views matter, very simply because the reality of China and other creditors ceasing to buy debt would be untenable.

Why else would the Treasury have thrown a carrot by upgrading the Chinese government to primary dealer status (the first such deal in history), cutting Wall Street’s bond flippers out of the deal?

As John Huntsman (in his days as ambassador to China) reported in a cable back to Washington, China is keen to stop buying low-yield treasuries and start buying other assets, but the US is desperately pushing China back toward treasuries:

The Shanghai-based Shanghai Media Group (SMG) publication, China Business News:

“The United States provoked a trade war again by imposing high anti-dumping duties on Chinese-made gift boxes and packaging ribbon. China has become the biggest victim of the U.S.’s abusive implementation of trade remedy measures.

The United States no longer sits still; it frequently uses evil tricks to force China to buy U.S. bonds.

A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Bernanke is not printing nearly as much as Krugman wishes. In my view only a brutal 2008-style collapse can bring on the kind of printing — QE3, NGDP targeting and beyond — that the pro-Fed blogosphere wishes to see, because it is only under those circumstances that China and other creditors will happily support it.

To a heavily-indebted nation, creditors have big leverage on monetary policy.

Inflationeering

As BusinessWeek asked way back in 2005 before the bubble burst:

Wondering why inflation figures are so tame when real estate prices are soaring? There is a simple explanation: the Consumer Price Index factors in rising rents, not rising home prices.

Are we really getting a true reading on inflation when home price appreciation isn’t added into the mix? I think not.

I find the idea that house price appreciation and depreciation is not factored into inflation figures stunning. For most people it’s their single biggest lifetime expenditure, and for many today mortgage payments are their single biggest monthly expenditure. And rental prices (which are substituted for house prices) are a bad proxy. While house prices have fallen far from their mid-00s peak, rents have continued to increase:

Statisticians in Britain are looking to plug the hole. From the BBC:

A new measure of inflation is being proposed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It wants to create a version of the Consumer Prices Index that includes housing costs, to be called CPIH.

The ONS wants to counteract criticisms that the main weakness of the CPI is that it does not reflect many costs of being a house owner, which make up 10% of people’s average spending.

While a welcome development (and probably even more welcome on the other side of the Atlantic) it doesn’t make up for the fact that the explosive price increases during the boom years were never included. And it isn’t just real estate — equities was another market that massively inflated without being counted in official inflation statistics. It would have been simple at the time to calculate the effective inflation rate with these components included. A wiser economist than Greenspan might have at least paid attention to such information and tightened monetary policy to prevent the incipient bubbles from overheating.

Of course, with inflation statistics calculated in the way they are (price changes to an overall basket of retail goods) there will always be a fight over what to include and what not to include.

A better approach is to include everything. Murray Rothbard defined inflation simply as any increase to the money supply; if the money is printed, it is inflation. This is a very interesting idea, because it can reflect things like bubble reinflation that are often obscured in official data. The Fed has tripled the monetary base since 2008, but this increase in the monetary base has been offset against the various effects of the 2008 crash, which triggered huge price falls in housing and equities which were only stanched when the money printing started.

Critics of the Austrian approach might say that it does not take into account how money is used, but simply how much money there is. An alternative approach which takes into account all economic activity is nominal GDP targeting, whereby monetary policy either tightens or loosens to achieve a nominal GDP target. If the nominal target is 1%, and GDP is growing at 7%, monetary policy will tighten toward 1% nominal growth. If GDP is growing at a negative rate (say -2%), then the Fed will print and buy assets ’til nominal GDP is growing at 1%. While most of the proponents of this approach today tend to be disgruntled Keynesians like Charles Evans who advocate a consistent growth rate of around 5% (which right now would of course necessitate the Fed to print big and buy a lot of assets, probably starting with equities and REITs), a lower nominal GDP target — of say, 1% or 2% — would certainly be a better approach to the Fed’s supposed price stability mandate than the frankly absurd and disturbing status quo of using CPI, which will always be bent and distorted by what is included or not included. And for the last 40 years monetary policy would have been much, much tighter even if the Fed had been pursuing the widely-cited 5% nominal GDP target.

I don’t think CPI can be fixed. It is just too easy to mismeasure inflation that way. Do statisticians really have the expertise to determine which inflations to count and which to ignore? No; I don’t think they do. Statisticians will try, and by including things like house prices it is certainly an improvement. But if we want to be realistic, we must use a measure that reflects the entire economy.

Understanding Biflation

If I were to rewrite the economics textbooks the first idea that I would throw into the dustbin is the idea of a standardised rate of inflation. Why? Because in every economy, different money, coming from different individuals and different strata of society chase different products, causing every price over time to inflate or deflate at a unique level, and every consumer and producer — depending on their wants and needs — to experience a separate and unique rate of inflation of deflation.

When an economist like Paul Krugman suggests that the Fed needs to print more money to raise inflation because inflation has fallen to “historic lows” — he is referring to the totalised rate of inflation for urban consumers, or CPI-U:

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