Tag: consumer price index

Chained CPI: A Stealth Tax Increase

As we close in on congressional votes to increase the federal debt limit, negotiators are coming up with all kinds of ideas to hike taxes. (Suspiciously, they haven’t revealed very many spending cut ideas so far).

One idea being discussed is to raise revenue by reducing the indexing of parameters in the income tax code. Currently, tax brackets and other features of the tax code are indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It is widely recognized that the CPI overestimates inflation for various reasons, as discussed here.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has developed a more accurate (and lower) measure of inflation, called chained CPI. If the tax code was indexed to chained CPI instead of CPI, the government would receive an automatic tax increase relative to current law every year until the end of time.

Switching to chained CPI is a very bad idea for two reasons:

  • It would create a large tax increase over the long run. And it would be an invisible annual tax increase on families and voters because there would be no obvious changes in their tax forms.
  • It would be an anti-growth tax increase because it would push families into higher tax brackets more quickly over time, subjecting them to higher marginal tax rates. The chained CPI proposal is essentially a proposal to increase marginal tax rates slowly and steadily over time.

Some economists may argue that the chained CPI proposal is a good idea because the tax code would more accurately reflect inflation, and it would. However, the tax code already contains a bias that pushes families into higher tax brackets over time, which is called “real bracket creep.” Real growth in the economy steadily moves taxpayers into higher rate brackets since the tax code is indexed for inflation but not real growth. The discussion in the Congressional Budget Office’s new long-range budget outlook implies that this will be an important force in raising federal revenues as a share of GDP in coming decades.

So I’ve got a better idea than indexing the tax code to chained CPI: indexing the tax code to nominal GDP growth. That would adjust for the effects of both inflation and real economic growth on tax code parameters, and it would prevent stealth tax rate increases under our graduated income tax system.

Can We Rely on Inflation Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that in his recent press conference Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke used the words “inflation expectations” (or some variation) 21 times. His argument is that we need not worry about inflation because we will see it coming, and then the Fed will do something about it. Such an argument relies heavily on the ability of inflation expectations to predict inflation. Which of course raises the question, just how predictive are inflation expectations?

The graph below compares inflation, as measured by CPI, and inflation expectations, as measured by the University of Michigan consumer survey, the longest times series we have on inflation expectations.

Clearly the two move together. For instance, the correlation between current inflation and expectations is almost 1 (its 0.93), while the correlation between inflation and actual inflation a year later is slightly less at 0.81. The relationship declines as we move further into the future. So yes, consumer expectations appear a reasonable predictor of the direction of inflation. However, they don’t appear to be a great predictor of the magnitude or the frequency of changes. For instance, the standard deviation of actual inflation is about twice that of expected inflation. As one can easily see from the chart, expectations are quite sticky and rarely pick up the extremes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, expectations did move up, but then never reached the heights actually experienced, nor did consumers ever actually expect deflation during the recent financial crisis (if we are going to base policy on expectations, we should at least be consistent about it).

For about the last decade we also have market based measures of inflation, based upon inflation-indexed bonds. The TIPS measure tends to be less correlated with actual inflation, but does a better job of capturing the extremes. Although interesting enough, TIPS was already predicting that deflation would be short-lived before we even experienced any deflation.

The point is that while expectations are useful for qualitatively purposes, they do not have a strong record of recording the extremes. Given that most of us expect some positive level of inflation, the real debate is over how much. In this regard, either survey or market-based expectations are likely to be both a lagging indicator and an under-estimate of actual inflation.

Is There an Inflation-Unemployment Trade-off?

Much of what drives the policy choices of Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve is a belief in the ability to trade higher inflation for lower unemployment, known within the economics profession as the “Phillips curve.”   But does this trade-off actually exist? 

While its true that many have found a negative correlation between inflation and unemployment prior to 1960, looking at U.S. data, this relationship appears to have broken down in the mid-1960s, just about the time policy-makers thought they could exploit it (Lucas critique anyone?).

It is hard, looking at the graph, which displays the annual change in consumer prices over the previous year and unemployment, to see much of a relationship.  In fact, since 1960, the correlation between changes in CPI and unemployment has been positive.  We have generally seen rising unemployment along with rising inflation.  Of course, one might be concerned that the stagflation of the 1970s is driving this result. But looking at the data since 1980, there still remains a positive correlation between inflation and unemployment.  While I am not arguing that inflation causes unemployment (after all, correlation is not causation), it should be clear from the data that there is not some exploitable trade-off that policymakers get to choose.

The Richmond Fed also has a great history of the Phillips curve that is well worth the read.  Perhaps Fed President Jeff Lacker should bring copies to the next FOMC meeting.

How Imports Raise Real Incomes

The Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) for “All Items” rose by about 23 percent over the course of the last decade.*  That implies that—on average—a person whose salary was $50,000 in 2000 saw his real income rise (fall) if his nominal income was more (less) than $61,500 in 2009.  By the same measure, an hourly worker earning $20 per hour in 2000 had to be earning more than $24.60 per hour in 2009 to have experienced an increase in his real wage.

Of course the CPI-U for “All Items” reflects the prices of a broad basket of products and services, many of which are not consumed by everyone, every year.  Each worker as a consumer purchases a unique basket of goods and services over the course of a year, so technically, a personalized CPI comprising the prices of products and services actually consumed would provide a more accurate picture of changes to individual real incomes.

As the pictures below so clearly demonstrate, consumers who spend more of their incomes on products that are more likely to be imported get more buying power from the dollars they earn than do consumers who devote more of their budgets to products and services that are more difficult for foreigners to supply.

There is lots of competition from foreigner suppliers for the dollars we spend on televisions, photographic equipment, computer software, toys, clothing, furniture, automobiles, and furnishings, but virtually no such competition for our expenditures on movie tickets, auto repairs, dental services, trash collection, household electricity, medical services, and college tuition.  And prices have responded accordingly.

Of course most individual consumption baskets include products from both of the charts above.  The lesson here is that if we want to see prices kept in check, we should stop demonizing imports and stop throwing obstacles in their path.  And we should do what we can to encourage more competition—both foreign and domestic—because more and taller blue bars, and fewer and shorter red bars, help raise real incomes.

* The CPI changes for “All Items” and all of the products listed in the subsequent charts were calculated from Bureau of Labor Statistics data by averaging the official CPI-U figures for the years 2000 and 2001, and comparing that result to the average CPI-U figures for the years 2008 and 2009.  This was done to mitigate the effects of any anomalous price spikes or troughs in the first or last year of the decade.