In today’s Outside the Box, Gary D. Halbert (my old and very dear friend and former business partner of many years) reminds us about a few significant facts concerning the Consumer Price Index (CPI) that mainstream economists and the media tend to ignore. The central question is whether the CPI is really indicative of the actual inflation rate. Not likely, says Gary, since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which compiles the CPI, has engaged in methodological shenanigans over the past couple decades (as has been well documented by John Williams of ShadowStats, among others). The upshot of all their monkeying with the numbers is that the official rate of inflation may be two to four times lower than the actual rate (which is rather convenient if you’re a government bureaucrat trying to hold down interest costs and Social Security payments).
These changes are hotly debated in academic circles. There are many economists who agree with the changes and can show with their models that inflation is low. That is the currently accepted wisdom, or what passes for it. The problem is that inflation only shows up, as one person put it, in the things we actually buy. If your main costs are food, energy, education, and healthcare (ring any bells?), then inflation is a great deal higher than 2%. Other items are actually falling in price. It comes down to the mix of items in the calculations and whether you buy into the concepts of substitution (if beef gets too expensive we buy hamburger rather than steak) and “hedonics,” which says that prices of products drop over time as quality and manufacturing efficiency improve, so the calculation of inflation should take this into account.
Which means you can have official inflation at a low level (or even falling for certain items), while the amount you actually spend out of your very real pocket is rising! And thus the debate.
Having refreshed us on the basic techniques of CPI massage, Gary turns to food and energy, which the BLS includes in “headline CPI” but omits from “core CPI.” He points out that while headline CPI jumped an unexpected 0.7% in February, core CPI rose only 0.2%. That is, food and energy price increases accounted for more than 70% of the rise. “Not good for the economy,” he notes.
And of course, this is all bad news for unwary investors, since
Those who believe that inflation is only 2%, when it may be 5-8%, may be making investment decisions that are almost guaranteed to erode the purchasing power of their money over time. This is especially true with low-yielding investments such as CDs, Treasuries, etc.
Gary wraps up by taking a look at “chained CPI,” which he explains as follows:
[C]hained CPI assumes that when prices rise, consumers will resort to entirely different products, rather than just seeking a cheaper brand. For example, if beef prices rise, chained CPI would assume that consumers might opt for chicken to save money.
The chained CPI debate is raging as we speak: I got an email from the AARP this morning, urging me to tell my Senators to say no to chained CPI being used to calculate Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) – sounds like they may vote today (Friday) on a bill to do just that. But as Gary points out, we either calculate benefits using chained CPI – which, yes, is tough on those living on a fixed income – or we eliminate the cap on salary subject to Social Security taxation (that is, we raise taxes). As Gary says, “Either way, somebody’s got to pay, and it might end up being a little [of] both.”
Finally, a quick note: I am doing a webinar on Tuesday for Mauldin Circle members. The current state of the equity markets brings back memories of 2007. As the market continues to reach new highs, stock selection on both the long and short sides requires considerable expertise. That is why I decided that now is a good time to introduce you to one of the leading long-and-short investment managers, Jacob Gottlieb, CIO of Visium Asset Management. During our conversation on Tuesday, March 26 at 12:00 p.m. EDT (9:00 a.m. PDT), we will find out what’s on Jacob’s mind – his investment themes and where’s he seeing equity opportunities on both the long and short sides.
If you are not aware of Visium, they are a premier long/short multi-strategy manager with over $3.7 billion in assets. It’s a firm I have been watching for some time. Bloomberg cited Visium as one of “The 100 Top Performing Large Hedge Funds.” Take a look at this recent write-up on Visium: “The Quiet Ambition of Jacob Gottlieb.”
You will need to register for this exclusive webinar through The Mauldin Circle. If you are a Mauldin Circle member and a qualified purchaser or an investment advisor, a webinar invitation has been sent directly to you by email. A replay will also be available to qualified registrants. If you are unable to listen in to the live discussion, be sure to register so you can receive the replay information. If you are not a member of The Mauldin Circle and are a qualified purchaser, please join today. Upon qualification by my partners at Altegris, you will receive an email invitation . I apologize for limiting this discussion to qualified purchasers and investment advisors, but we must follow the rules and regulations. I look forward to having you at this exclusive Mauldin Circle event. (In this regard, I am president and a registered representative of Millenium Wave Securities, LLC, member FINRA.)
Have a great week. I know mine will be eventful – daughter Amanda is due to give birth to granddaughter Addison on Monday!
Your thinking about the world Addison will discover analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
Is The Government Lying To Us About Inflation? Yes!
FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
By Gary D. Halbert
March 19, 2013
Consumer Price Index Jumped in February
On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) jumped an unexpected 0.7% in February. This was above pre-report estimates and was the highest monthly reading since 2009. We should be very concerned, right? Let’s take a closer look.…