The idea that there's no inflation might not make much sense to plenty of ordinary people.
And yet, a report issued Friday by the Labor Department indicated that, when considered as a whole, the U.S. economy isn't seeing especially higher prices. In the past 12 months, the Consumer Price Index for all items rose 0.8%, below the year-over-year rate of 1.3% recorded in the November report and far under the 10-year average. The "core" rate, which leaves out food and energy price changes, was up 1.6% in the last 12 months. Not bad.
Of course, it all depends on how you look at it. While it's the job of professional economists to study these things, regular folks normally aren't building spreadsheets. They're concerned with eating and driving, with all the daily thinking about the world's costs in a different way. That includes spending a lot of time noticing the items that are getting pricier, especially the necessary ones like food.
And if you believe you're paying more for what you eat, you, in fact, are correct. For 2014, the index for food rose 3.4%, up from a 1.1% increase the prior year. That outpaces the food index's average annual climb of 2.7% over the last 10 years. The index for food we eat at home was up 3.7% last year, well ahead of the 0.4% increase in 2013. Regarding food eaten at restaurants and other establishments, that index rose 3% last year after a 2.1% gain in 2013.
The following numbers might be closer to what typical consumers are noticing on grocery store receipts. Note that the CPI report also offers much greater detail than this, such as pointing out that the tomato index rose 16.5%, but here are some details on various major food group index changes:
--Meats, poultry, fish, and eggs: Up 9.2% in 2014, the largest change from one December to another since 2003. In comparison, the 2013 change was 2.9%.
--Beef and veal: Up 18.7%.
--Dairy and related products: Up 5.3%.
--Fruits and vegetables: Up 3.2%. Both fell in 2013.
--Nonalcoholic drinks: Up 0.7%.
--Cereals and bakery products: Up 0.5%, the same change as the previous year.
These changes are measured with indices that date back years, starting at 100. For instance, the total food index was 245.976 in December 2014, compared with 237.869 in December 2013 -- that increase in the index is the 3.4% change. So while the percentages aren't necessarily direct translations of dollar-price changes you're recording, they're good indications of the gains nationally.
With commodities and their pricing, it's always a story of supply levels and the demand in the market. The nation's food industry has faced a number of challenges, but recent issues have included a cattle herd that's been much smaller than normal, lifting beef prices, and poor weather in the West that hindered certain crops. Relatively stable cereal and bread pricing, meanwhile, has been able to stay that way because of high wheat production, the USDA recently said.
As for why the overall CPI's rise is on the low side -- only one time in the last 50 years has a December-to-December change been less, and that was 2008 -- energy is a big factor here. That index fell 10.6% last year, with the index for gasoline dropping 21%. However, the electricity and natural gas measures were both higher.