You don't need an economist to tell you inflation is on the rise. Who says?
Rich Yamarone, chief economist at Argus Research, for one. "All you have to do is go shopping and buy paper plates, buy bathroom tissues, buy milk and, in New York, take a taxicab," says Yamarone.
Or fill up your car's gas tank in California and other parts of the country, where gasoline costs more than $2 a gallon.
Nationwide, rising prices are no secret to consumers; they've been a fact of life for a while. They don't jump out from the official numbers, but the cost of energy, food, health care, education and housing are up ahead of the broader consumer price index, or CPI, an official government measure of inflation. The index rose 0.5% in March, its fourth consecutive monthly increase, and economists see no signs of inflation slowing this year.
So, consumers -- who sometimes also happen to be investors -- might be somewhat puzzled by the markets' recent fixation on inflation and the
decision to signal that deflation is no longer a threat to the economy, and that "although incoming inflation data have moved somewhat higher, long-term inflation expectations appear to have remained well contained."
While some CPI categories are well known for their volatility -- particularly gasoline and food costs -- steadier price indicators such as medicine, housing and education are also up sharply. In either case, the price increases -- though sometimes caused by external factors such as OPEC's decision to keep a lid on oil production and not necessarily symptomatic of a seriously overheating economy -- are largely real, and consumers are paying the price.
It's already shown up in the gas tank. Nationally, the average price of a gallon of gas climbed to $1.79 in April, according to the Department of Energy. That's up 17 cents, or 9.5%, from the same period in 2003. According to AAA, West coast drivers pay an average of $2.17, but prices are up to $1.73 a gallon in Texas, where gas is cheaper.
Meanwhile, market prices rose to $1.33 a gallon for contracts for June delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange last week, up almost 24% from the beginning of the year.
Retail or wholesale, energy is more expensive across the board. Prices are up for oil, natural gas and electricity. Gasoline supply worries contributed to the ongoing spike in crude oil prices, which are at their highest level in almost 14 years and briefly hit $40 a barrel last Friday. Natural gas futures prices are up 15.3% from the start of the year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes the CPI, unadjusted electricity prices rose 3.1% in January, 3.2% in February and 1.6% in March.
"While energy has gone through the roof in the first quarter ... you see almost all the categories rising at a faster rate than they did last year," said Kathryn Kobe, a senior economist at Economic Consulting Services in Washington, D.C.
Although the CPI touched a 43-year low in 2003 at 1.9% -- or 1.1% excluding food and energy -- that may be hard to believe at the supermarket checkout.
Food prices, particularly in the meat, poultry, fish and eggs category of the CPI for Urban Consumers, are up 9.1% for the six months ended March 31.
Beef prices hit a historic high in December, and while they've receded somewhat from that level, they are climbing again.
"It was the highest we've had in a while," said Bureau of Labor Statistics analyst Bill Cook, discussing the winter price spike. "And meat prices are considerably higher now than they were a year ago."
The Department of Agriculture said its March index of prices received by farmers hit an all-time high since it started tracking those prices in 1910.
Medical costs were up 5% for the six months ended in March, a particular hardship for the elderly and other people on fixed incomes, says Yamarone.
Younger people and their parents are also taking it on the chin with rising education costs. Tuition at four-year public colleges saw an average 14.1% hike, or $579, while four-year private college costs jumped 6%, or $1,114, over the 2003-2004 academic year, according to the College Board.
"Public schools, rather than private colleges, have shown a larger increase due to budget deficits that the states are suffering," said Pat Jackman, an economist at the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And housing costs are also up 2.4% for the six-month period tracked on the CPI-U.
Still, not every price category is up, and that's the reason a little inflation may be welcome. Prices for electronics and apparel remain low, due largely to economic pressure from cheaper imports, Kobe said. "That's been beneficial in saving consumers money," she said. So have historically low borrowing costs, which have helped boost disposable income during a period of modest income gains.
And economists, who sometimes make a living seeing silver linings, admit there's a bright side to the return of inflation.
"We haven't seen it in so long that the Fed probably assumes we can afford to have a little bit of grease in the machine -- it helps corporate profits by having manufacturers and especially retailers pass on higher prices to consumers," Yamarone said. "In a period of sluggish growth, that will boost corporate profits, and corporate profits are dedicated to new hiring and new business investment."