How Is Inflation Measured? Understanding The Consumer Price Index


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How is Inflation Measured? Understanding the Consumer Price Index

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When prices rise in various sectors of the economy, you will hear analysts talking about inflation. Inflation is the depreciation of a currency over time.that is, as goods and services become more expensive, the purchasing power of your money decreases.

People often notice inflation first, realizing that something they regularly buy is more expensive than usual—maybe your check at the grocery store or gas station is higher than expected. But not all prices rise at the same rate, and some users may find they don’t spend more than they did a year ago.


The question arises: how is inflation measured? While this seems like a simple matter, calculating inflation is complex. The economy is vast and complex; not everyone is interested in the same goods and services.

To understand how inflation is measured, we must have a good understanding of the consumer price index.

Main conclusions

  • Inflation refers to a general increase in the prices of goods and services in an economy.
  • Changes in a price index such as the CPI measure inflation.
  • Other price indices such as PCE and core inflation help to overcome some of the problems associated with using CPI alone.

What is inflation?

Inflation is a reflection of the general change in prices in the economy. inflation refers to general price increaseand deflation is a general decline in prices.


Do not confuse these terms with stagflation, which refers to a specific scenario in which both inflation and unemployment are high. Stagflation is difficult for the Fed, as raising interest rates to fight inflation could lead to a further rise in unemployment.

Analysts calculate inflation by watching the price of a basket of goods and services. This basket usually contains a large number of items that most Americans buy in their daily lives, such as gasoline, groceries, and medical supplies. Data collectors record the prices of these commodities on a monthly basis to determine whether they have generally fallen or risen.

As a rule, inflation reports are published every month. Inflation rates can change from month to month, especially if you focus on a particular product or service. As such, these reports also show 12-month changes to give a more complete picture of overall price trends.

Measures of inflation

Although the US consumer price index (CPI) is the most well-known indicator inflation, some other measures try to lock in price changes. Each of these measures can be beneficial to different consumers and businesses.


Consumer price index

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is responsible for the CPI. The CPI records the change in prices that consumers pay for goods and services over time.

The CPI value that most consumers hear on the news reflects the entire basket of goods and services. However, indexes are also available by geographic region and by specific product and service verticals.

The CPI weights each item in its basket according to how much the average American spends on that item. In other words, goods and services that make up a smaller percentage of Americans’ spending have a smaller impact on the CPI. The BLS uses the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) program to reassess the importance of each item in the basket of goods and services.

Items enter the CPI sample through a process called initiation. The CPI data collector goes to the store and selects an item from a pre-selected category. For example, they can choose two sizes of cereal box. It is necessary to collect data on how many people buy each size to determine the likelihood of their purchase. The data collector will then randomly select one of the sizes and track its price each month.


Goods naturally move out of the CPI basket every four years. The BLS records prices for approximately 80,000 items each month, divided into eight groups, including:

  • Food and drink
  • Frame
  • Cloth
  • Transport
  • Health care
  • Rest
  • Education and communication
  • Other goods and services

Price Index for Personal Consumption Expenditure

Another popular measure of inflation is the Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index (PCE). While not as widely known as the CPI, the core PCE price index (meaning it excludes food and energy) is important because the Federal Reserve uses it when setting monetary policy. The Bureau of Economic Analysis is developing this measure.

Like the CPI, the PCE price index includes a basket of goods and services, but the relative weights of the different categories vary widely in some cases. Here are some of the critical differences.

In the 2022 CPI reports, housing has a “relative importance” (percentage of money consumers allocate to that category) of approximately 34%. In comparison, PCE weighed housing over the same period at about 16%. Similarly, in 2015, the BEA reported that it ranked the importance of medical expenses at 22%, while the CPI gave a relative importance of 8.4%.

According to the Brookings Institution, one reason for the difference in the weight of medical expenses is that the PCE price index includes all commodities. For healthcare, the PCE records costs such as premiums and deductibles, in addition to those covered by employer-sponsored health insurance and Medicare. The CPI, on the other hand, reflects only direct costs to consumers.

The result of these different weights is that they affect their indices differently. For example, changes in health care spending will have a significant impact on the PCE, while changes in housing prices will have a larger impact on the CPI.

Many articles argue about which index is better – CPI or PCE. PCE has a reputation for being less volatile than CPI. But others prefer the CPI because they believe it better captures the impact of inflation on consumer spending.

Core inflation

Core inflation can be based on any number of indices, such as CPI or PCE. It then skips certain elements each month, such as gas and food prices; these positions can be volatile and only occasionally reflect general price trends.

As expected, removing the most volatile items from the inflation measure provides a more consistent picture of inflation. However, in some cases, core inflation can still be uneven.

To understand why, we can compare the core CPI with the Cleveland Fed’s truncated average CPI. While the core CPI excludes the same goods each time it is measured, the trimmed average CPI excludes goods and services that are most volatile in a given month.

One can speculate why the truncated average CPI approach leads to more predictable results. For example, one-time events such as natural disasters can cause a sudden and unexpected price hike for normally stable goods. Adjusting for these events on a monthly basis means that the truncated average CPI will be more indicative of overall price trends.

Why are there so many ways to measure inflation?

When we hear news about inflation numbers, we usually hear CPI data from the BLS. But, as you should be clear by now, the CPI is not perfect. In reality, no measure of inflation is completely accurate, and focusing solely on the CPI does not give us the whole picture.

At the same time, different people are more concerned about price changes in different sectors of the economy. For example, railroad companies will worry less about the price of a gallon of milk and more about the cost of diesel.

Likewise, consumers living in Chicago will be more concerned about inflation in their city than inflation in Los Angeles. These nuances mean that multiple indices are needed to create a complete picture of inflation.

CPI limits

The CPI is limited in what it can tell us and in its accuracy. When looking at the CPI, remember that it does not tell you the actual prices of goods across the country. You won’t be able to look at the report and determine where eggs are cheaper in Montana or Oklahoma, only where the price of eggs has risen faster.

The CPI is also not applicable to all population groups. CPI-U, for example, records the prices of goods sold by the urban population. older people buy different things than teenagerstherefore, an increase in the overall rate of inflation may not reflect an increase in the price of the goods you buy.

The CPI should not be used to determine the cost of living in a country. The BLS calls the CPI a “provisional measure of the cost of living” because it does not reflect costs incurred due to various social and environmental factors (including taxes).

There will always be sampling errors and non-sampling errors associated with data collection. Consider looking at multiple indexes to understand general US price trends.

Final words

Inflation is a general increase in the prices of goods and services in an economy. Analysts measure inflation by looking at price fluctuations within an index. The best-known price index is the CPI, which the BLS publishes as a monthly report. There are other measures of inflation such as the PCE price index and core inflation. These measures help to solve problems with the CPI. For example, they sometimes remove very volatile items or weight items that tend to wobble differently.

Measuring inflation is a difficult task, i.e. measure of inflation may be skewed or may not represent certain regions or industries. Having multiple indicators of inflation helps paint a complete picture and take into account the nuances of a complex national economy.

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