Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Inflation Takes a Haircut

Jon Hilsenrath, normally a straight forward journalist who is the chief economics correspondent for The Wall Street Journal covering the Federal Reserve, made an argument on CNBC today essentially basing the real inflation rate on the price of his haircut. He was interviewed by Joe Kernen, who is enamored by his hair as well, in regard to today's testimony before Congress by Ben Bernanke.

According to Hilsenrath, the Commodity Research Bureau's (CRB) indexes "do not hit American households...we do a lot of other things with our money, like haircuts, which is one of the benchmarks I use, and [they] are not rising....The people who look at food and energy ignore those other things."

While the CRB puts commodity inflation well into the double digits, the CPI reports nearly no inflation (1%) excluding food and energy. Surely, between the two is the REAL inflation rate that is taking its toll on most Americans, particularly retirees.

Jon (and Joe), instead of preening your haircuts as anecdotal evidence of there being little inflation, you should walk in the shoes of a balding retiree. I just happened to have reconciled our 2010 expenses, and have accurate data going back eight years. Comparing that data our income was up only marginally as, even though social security kicked in during the period, investment income declined substantially due mostly to bonds and CDs maturing and having to be replaced by lower yielding investments (the Fed's attempt to force investors into riskier investments, the very issue that almost started a depression). Indeed, fuel and groceries were among the most significant inflationary items over the eight year period, up almost an identical 68% in our case. But what I found interesting there were also large increases in items that are not only essentially non-discretionary, but they are nearly monopolies as well, the consumer having only marginal choices, such as health care, insurance (car, home and health), water and sewage, communications (cable, telephones, Internet), and, most lately, real estate taxes. These take their toll on retirees.

But as I now generally buzz cut my remaining locks, haircut expenses were de minimis so there must be little inflation. Thanks for the fine journalism, Jon and Joe.