By Ryan Barnes
Release Date: Monthly, approximately mid-month
Release Time: 8:30am Eastern Standard Time
Coverage: Previous Month
Released By: Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
Latest Release: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.toc.htm


Background
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is the benchmark inflation guide for the U.S. economy. It uses a "basket of goods" approach that aims to compare a consistent base of products from year to year, focusing on products that are bought and used by consumers on a daily basis. The price of your milk, eggs, toothpaste and hair cut are all captured in the CPI.

There are two presented CPI figures, the CPI for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), and the CPI for all Urban Consumers (CPI-U). The most watched metric, Core CPI (with food and energy prices removed) is the CPI-U, which will usually be presented with a seasonal adjustment, as consumer patterns vary widely depending on the time of year. The current base year for the CPI is 1982, so changes will typically be provided on a percentage basis to reflect only changes to prior index levels. Numbers will also be shown as an annual run rate of growth, to give investors a sense of the near-term inflationary outlook.

The Chain-Weighted CPI is also released along with the Core CPI, and is gaining momentum as a metric worth following, as Chain-Weighted CPI captures the effects of consumer choice. Chain-weighted CPI numbers are considered by many to be more reflective of actual consumer patterns than fixed CPI figures, as the chain-weighted index accounts for the substitution and new product bias that exists in the fixed CPI. If a consumer buys one product over another because of a price hike in the first product, chain-weighted figures will capture this buying shift, while Core CPI will not. Core CPI will continue measuring the price of the good as it rises, regardless of whether fewer people are purchasing the product.

The CPI is an extremely detailed release, with breakouts for most major consumer groups (such as food and beverage, apparel, recreation, etc.) and geographical regions, which are supplied by the "CPI U.S. City Averages". (For background reading, see The Consumer Price Index Controversy and The Consumer Price Index: A Friend To Investors.)

What it Means for Investors
The CPI is probably the single most important economic indicator available, if for no other reason than because it's very final. Many other indicators derive most of their value from the predictive ability of the CPI, so when this release arrives, many questions will be answered in the markets. This report will often move both equity and fixed-income markets, both the day of the release and on an ongoing basis. It may even set a new course in the markets for upcoming months. Analysts will be more sure of their convictions about what the Fed will do at the next Federal Open Market Committee meeting after digesting the Consumer Price Index.



The CPI is used to make adjustments to many cash flow mechanisms (pensions, Medicare, cost of living adjustments to insurance policies, etc.). As a result, most investors will find that the CPI affects them personally in some way. Fixed-income investors should always be aware of the rate of inflation against which they judge their investments; it is imperative to keep current yields ahead of inflation, or real wealth will fall.

Strengths:
  • Gives most insight into future Fed rate moves
  • Highly watched and analyzed in the media
  • Good regional and industry breakdowns for investor research
Weaknesses:
  • Volatile month to month
  • Fixed CPI has certain biases (new product, substitution), which can distort results
  • Exclusion of food and energy is only good for so long - these costs should be considered when assessing inflation

The Closing Line
The CPI is one of the most important indicators in terms of moving the markets and setting monetary policy for the Fed. Consider looking at both the fixed and chain-weighted CPI.

Next: Economic Indicators: Durable Goods Report »



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