Economic Growth

Past and present inflation are more similar than you think

Photo of a petrol meter filling up

With prices rising, how does the current inflation rate compare with the past? Image: Unsplash/Krzysztof Hepner

Marijn A. Bolhuis
Economist, International Monetary Fund
Judd N. L. Cramer
Lecturer in Economics, Harvard University
Lawrence H. Summers
President Emeritus, Harvard Kennedy School of Government
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Economic Progress

  • Previous US inflationary cycles appear more volatile and responsive to Fed policy due to differences in how housing inflation was measured before and after 1983, new research has found.
  • Using corrected estimates, current core Consumer Price Index inflation is actually closer to levels experienced in 1979.
  • The authors argue that it is misplaced to glean the effects of monetary tightening from the published CPI disinflation achieved in the early 1980s, as rates are significantly slower when measured using today’s methods.
  • Finally, they suggest that monetary policy no longer works through housing as it did in the past.

Housing inflation in the US before 1983 was measured in a way that made the Consumer Price Index (CPI) mechanically responsive to Fed policy, leading to artificially high peaks and fast declines in CPI inflation. To better contextualise the current run-up in inflation to a 40-year high, this column presents new historical series for CPI headline and core inflation that are more consistent with current practices and expenditure shares for the post-war period. Using these series, the authors find that current inflation levels are much closer to past inflation peaks than the official series would suggest.

As concerns about inflation have grown in the US, the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) has come under close scrutiny. The CPI grew 8.6% in the twelve months ending in May, the highest annual growth since 1981. This may not be the peak as traders now expect this rate to grow over the next four months to around 9%. A worrying number, it would still remain far below the official March 1980 peak of 14.8%. To think through today’s tightening inflation dynamics and monetary policy, economists are re-examining Volcker-era inflation and previous periods of elevated inflation (Reis 2021, DeLong 2022, Ha et al. 2022). In a recent paper (Bolhuis et al. 2022b), we caution against quick comparisons by pointing to important differences in measurement. The way homeownership costs were measured in headline CPI before January 1983 makes past peak CPI inflation measures, especially during the Volcker-era, look artificially high. Estimating CPI before 1983 using today’s methods reveals that current inflation, especially core inflation, is considerably closer to previous peaks than it appears at first glance. Attending to methods also reveals that previous measurement of shelter inflation was mechanically responsive to Federal Reserve interest rate policy. Plans for decelerating inflation therefore cannot rely on comparisons to the pre-1983 period of the CPI.

Even though historical CPI inflation looks more similar to today’s following adjustment, we stress some important differences with the Volcker-era. Today’s problems are more manageable for a few reasons. Most importantly, in the late 1970s long-run inflation expectations reached levels close to double-digits (Hazell et al. 2020). Current expectations remain well-anchored (Krugman 2022), which suggests that the inflation problem might be more easily resolved if it is dealt with promptly. Additionally, the main issue that we highlight does not affect the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) Price Index (Wilcox 2022). The lower share of housing in the PCE should also allow for a swifter return to trend (Bolhuis et al. 2022a).

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Beyond GDP: read the full transcript here

Measuring inflation: The role of housing

Housing is both a consumption good and an investment. Between 1953 and 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) valued homeownership costs for the CPI without disentangling these two qualities. It produced a measure that broadly captures changes in the expenses of homeowners, taking house prices, mortgage interest rates, property taxes and insurance, and maintenance costs as inputs. Much more than rents, this estimate was responsive to changes in interest rates and fluctuations in home prices. This approach produced a volatile shelter series pre-1983, as shown in the top panel of Figure 1. This flawed measure received a full 26.1% of the weight of headline CPI in December 1982. These shelter costs were also directly affected by Fed policy, due to the federal funds rate’s effect on mortgage rates. During the tightening cycles in the 1967–1969, 1972–1974, and 1977–1981 periods, shelter inflation increased sharply, only to fall precipitously when the pace of tightening slowed down.

Figure 1 Shelter CPI inflation and the Federal Funds Rate, 1954 to present

A graph showing shelter CPI inflation and the Federal Funds Rate, 1954 to present
Shelter CPI inflation and the Federal Funds Rate, 1954 to present. Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A graph showing shelter CPI inflation and rent CPI inflation, 1954 to present
Shelter CPI inflation and rent CPI inflation, 1954 to present. Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 1983, after ten years of internal debate, the BLS exchanged homeownership costs for owners’ equivalent rent (OER). By estimating what a homeowner would receive for their home on the rental market, the BLS stripped away the investment aspect of housing to isolate owner-occupiers’ consumption of residential services. Since this 1983 shift, shelter CPI has been much less volatile and much more correlated with rent CPI (bottom panel of Figure 1). Using publicly available BLS data for the post-war period, we develop new estimates of CPI headline and core inflation that can be better compared across time.

Have you read?

Our dataset contains 32 components that cover around 90% of the overall CPI since 1946. We construct three measures of inflation, presented in Figure 2. First, we replicate the official headline and core CPI inflation rate. We then adjust CPI inflation pre-1983 by estimating OER using the CPI rent series. Finally, to assess the importance of differences in the volatility of CPI components for overall inflation, we create a second version of the estimated CPI series that uses 2022 weights over the entire period and adjusts the pre-1983 data with estimated OER.

Figure 2 Official and estimated headline CPI

The official and estimated headline CPI from 1950 to present day
The official and estimated headline CPI from 1950 to present day. Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics
The official and estimated headline CPI from 1950 to present day with quantity weights fixed at 2022 levels
The official and estimated headline CPI from 1950 to present day with quantity weights fixed at 2022 levels. Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Comparing inflationary cycles

Our estimates suggest that the current inflation rate is closer to the peak of other cycles than the official CPI data suggest. In Table 1, we use our estimates to compare today’s inflation dynamics to the three inflationary cycles in which the annual growth rate of official headline CPI peaked above the current reading of 8.6%. The peak of the Volcker-era inflation (March 1980), currently understood to have been at 14.8%, is only 11.6% when adjusted for the switch from home ownership costs to OER. The growth in core CPI in the same month falls from 12.5% to 6.7% when measured using the OER method. These large differences reflect both the substantial weight of OER in the index, especially in core CPI, and the lower peaks of estimated OER relative to home ownership costs.

Table 1 Past inflation cycles and today

A table comparing past inflation cycles to today's inflation cycle
What inflation cycles have looked like in the past, compared to today. Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Our estimates also indicate that past inflation cycles look more volatile than today’s due to the greater weight of transitory goods components in past measurements. In the early 1950s, for example, food and apparel accounted for almost 50% of the headline CPI index. After the growth rate of these components shot above 10% due to Korean war-induced shortages, headline inflation fell from 9% to 2% within a year. Today, however, food and apparel only receive 17% of the weight of headline CPI. The index bears witness to this shift from transitory goods components to less volatile services, with ‘sticky’ industries gaining weight in the CPI across the board (Bryan and Meyer 2010). The current approach renders housing inflation particularly sticky (Bolhuis et al. 2022a). Such changes in measurement methods complicate comparisons between CPI rates.

We note again that the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation since 2000 is the PCE price index, which has measured rent inflation consistently and does not suffer from the housing issue that we examine. Despite its shortcomings, the BLS recently reported that over 2 million workers were covered by collective bargaining agreements which tied their wages to the CPI. The CPI index also affects the incomes of almost 80 million people because of statutory action: 47.8 million Social Security beneficiaries, about 4.1 million military and Federal Civil Service retirees and survivors, and about 22.4 million food stamp recipients. The CPI is also used as an input for myriad other contracts in the US that will touch nearly every American household. In this way, a slower than desired decline in the CPI could become self-reinforcing in the CPI and PCE as inflation takes more time to exit the system. In addition, we note that the public and journalists tend to look first to the CPI for the current state of inflation. We leave the role of measured CPI and PCE inflation in forming long-term inflation expectations for future exploration, but caution against ignoring the CPI completely.

Takeaways for today’s inflation debate

Previous inflationary cycles look more volatile and responsive to Fed policy due to differences in how housing inflation was measured before and after 1983. We highlight three implications. First, our observations indicate that the current inflation regime is considerably closer to that of the late 1970s than it appears if inflation rates are compared straightforwardly. Our corrected estimates suggest that core CPI inflation is now at levels experienced in 1979. Second, we conclude that it is misplaced to glean the effects of monetary tightening from the published CPI disinflation Paul Volcker achieved in the early 1980s. Volcker’s rate of core CPI disinflation is significantly slower when measured using today’s methods. At the speed achieved in the 1980s, using this corrected estimate, it would take today’s headline CPI about three years to return to 2%. Finally, many commenters have said that monetary policy works through housing – that was clearly the case in the past. Once rates stabilized shelter inflation plunged mechanically. Today, given the lag structure of shelter inflation discussed elsewhere (Bolhuis et al. 2022a), residential services are likely to be a significant hindrance to declines in headline and especially core inflation. This could be a headache for the Fed even after housing prices stop rising at double-digit rates.

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