The inflation that we were emphatically told would be transitory and unmoored continues to persist and entrench. As the troubles gather momentum Washington is doing its best to ignore the problem or actively make it worse.
The latest batch of data shows that the Consumer Price Index rose 5.4% in September, the 5th consecutive month that year over year inflation came in at more than 5%. The figure rises to 6.5% if we project the inflation levels of the first 9 months of 2021 to the entire calendar year. The last time we had to contend with numbers like these, Jimmy Carter was telling us all to put on our sweaters.
Recent developments should be sounding the alarms. Whereas, earlier in the year inflation was largely driven by supercharged price increases in narrow sectors, such as used cars and hotel rooms, it’s now occurring in a much wider spectrum of goods and services.
In September, the cost of used autos fell month over month (but are still up 24% year over year), but that didn’t help the overall CPI, which saw increases just about everywhere else. Over the past 12 months: beef prices are up 17.6%, seafood prices up 10.6%, home appliances up 10.5%, furniture and bedding up 11.2%, and new cars up 8.7%.
Even more alarming is that oil is up over $80 per barrel for the first time in almost 10 years and many analysts see $100 in the near future. That has translated to more than a $1 increase in per gallon gasoline prices, a 50% increase in a year. Home heating oil prices are already up 42% year over year and are expected to spike up again when winter demand peaks. For many low-income residents of the North and Upper Midwest, these types of increases could be very hard to bear, particularly if we have a cold winter.
As I have said many times before, the biggest flaw in the way we measure inflation (and there are many of them) is how the government deals with housing. While the Case Shiller Home Price Index is up more than 20% year over year, and national rents are up more than 12% over the same time frame, the CPI has largely ignored these increases in housing costs. Instead, the government relies on the dubious and amorphous concept of “Owners Equivalent Rent” which asks homeowners to guess how much they would have to pay to rent a house of similar quality to the one they to the one they own. Conveniently, that meaningless figure, which constitutes almost 30% of the total CPI, is only up 3% year over year. If actual rent increases were used instead, the CPI would be almost three full percentage points higher.