Inflation Asides

A note from a reader:

In 1977 I accidentally ran into a high school friend of mine who had taken an advanced degree in mathematics and statistical analysis. He was working for [Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur] Burn’s Fed. He informed me that he was working on a new methodology of calculating the inflation rate. When I asked what it was based on he demurred saying it was “Classified Secret.” I was truly stunned. He did imply that, when done, the new methodology would greatly reduce the reported value. Sure enough, during the Volcker Fed, the new methodology was introduced and has been modified since then to greatly reduce the reported numbers. It made the Volcker effort at controlling inflation seem much more effective than it actually was.

However, if one takes 1965 as the starting year for the present acceleration of inflation it can be shown that, on average, the cost of living has gone up about 1400%. And, the total money supply has also grown – up to 2008 – about the same. So, a person willing to do the research can always by-pass short-term obfuscation and see the truth through widely available published costs of living.

Furthermore, there is qualitative inflation on top of the quantitative. Now, the Fed constantly claims that a rise in costs is offset by a rise in quality and so cancels out. This has been true in the field of micro-electronics. However, in key areas of food and housing this is not so. In particular many food costs have been hidden by a reduction in amount and quality of the item. Just look at the reduction in the size of a can of tuna fish since 1965. The best tuna has gone down from 8.5 to 5.0 oz while rising over 1600% in price while the quality has suffered so that producers use every trick in the book to make lesser cuts of the fish look like albacore. So the actual rise in price is much, much more than the nominal rise.

Another thoughtful note from a reader:

Thanks for your good work. I just read your piece “Sick Minds” on Safe Haven and it occurs to me that a price index should only measure price changes of a fixed basket of goods. A consumer price index should be based on how the median household spends its income at time A and how those prices change going forward. That includes taxes! Another price index should be generated for the median household of seniors.

The current gov’t approved methods are for a subsistence price index (SPI).

Clearly the government can’t be trusted to provide meaningful statistics and this should be farmed out to universities. Government meddling into how the statistics are generated should be outlawed. The universities should face peer review on whatever series they are charged with generating. Get rid of the BLS and the other government statistics generators and fund the universities for this work.

My reply:

Thanks, I agree with what you write with one reservation: whether the academics could be trusted. Celebrity economists – the Fedheads, Nobels, CNBC heroes – would be the go-to “experts” who would fashion the peer structure. These supercilious windbags already live off government money that funds their economic departments, academic chairs funded by Interests (the Alan Greenspan Chair in Economics at New York University, funded by hedge-fund manager John Paulson, who made his fortune off the mortgage collapse), their web of memberships on corporate boards, their insatiable appetite for continual exposure on CNBC, the money they receive to write studies for vested interests (e.g., the Stiglitz, Orzag(s) thumbs-up for Fannie Mae; Mishkin’s celebration of Iceland’s banking system) – I hope that someday this scandal is seen for what it is, at which point the academics could be trusted to establish such a peer review.

If we reached that point, we might also be able to trust the BLS, but I’m with you in trashing it. I think Sir John Cowperthwaithe, Britain’s financial secretary to Hong Kong in the 1950s, was on to something. He did not allow his government to collect statistics for fear the statistics themselves would define policy. In the U.S., this is seen in our infatuation with “growth” no matter the human and material wreckage choking in the gutter, a sure sign of our government’s and of the economic establishment’s senility.

About Frederick Sheehan 53 Articles

Frederick Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009). He is the co-author of Greenspan's Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.

Mr. Sheehan was Director of Asset Allocation Services at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. In this capacity, he set investment policy and asset allocation for institutional pension plans. For more than a decade, Mr. Sheehan wrote the monthly "Market Outlook" and quarterly "Market Review" for clients.

He is a frequent contributor to Marc Faber's "Gloom, Boom & Doom Report." He also has written articles for "Whiskey & Gunpowder" and the Prudent Bear website, among others. He currently serves as an advisor to an investment firm and a non-profit foundation.

A Chartered Financial Analyst, Mr. Sheehan is a graduate of Columbia Business School.

Visit: Frederick Sheehan's Website

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