One of the key measures of US inflation just took an Olympic-sized leap

Inflation is inflight.
Inflation is inflight.
Image: Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler
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As we wrote in our piece earlier this month on what metrics investors should be using to track US inflation, the median price change of the consumer-price index (CPI), a standard way to calculate inflation, is one of the better predictors of near- and longer-term price rises. That was around the time investors sent stocks in a tailspin over fears of faster-rising inflation.

Well, that particular metric just took a big leap into the unknown.

While headline CPI rose 2.1% on an annualized basis, against expectations of 1.9%, and core CPI by 1.8%, median CPI went up from 3% in December to 4.2% last month.

While a big portion of the core CPI increase is attributable to increases in apparel prices, the biggest factor in the median CPI increase is housing cost—either rent or an owner’s equivalent rent (the amount a homeowner would pay to rent or would earn from renting his or her home).

To calculate the median CPI, the Cleveland Fed looks at the prices of the goods and services published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But instead of calculating a weighted average of all of the prices, as the BLS does, the Cleveland Fed looks at the median price change—or the price change that’s right in the middle of the long list of all of the price changes. What this does is pick up more general movement of price. According to the Cleveland Fed, the median CPI is around 50% more accurate at predicting inflation trends than the CPI and around 25% more accurate than the core CPI.

The Cleveland Fed’s inflation “nowcast” has also taken a jump with the new CPI data. “Nowcasts” are estimates or forecasts of the present, by modeling a small number of available data series at different frequencies, including daily oil prices, weekly gasoline prices, and monthly CPI and PCE inflation readings. These forecasts can help to give a sense of where inflation is now and where it is likely to be in the future. The Cleveland Fed claims that its nowcasts have been better predictors of consensus inflation than those from surveys of professional forecasters.

What the graph below says is that, according to the Cleveland Fed’s model, if CPI could be measured today it would be 3.4%, up from 2.4% yesterday.

With these higher accuracy predictors of inflation indicating higher metrics, we reassert our view that inflation remains one of the most important factors for investors to watch in 2018.