Why It's Still The Case That Americans Should Stop Whining And Complaining About Rising Food Prices

by: Mark J. Perry

Last September, I wrote a post titled "Americans love to complain about rising food prices; here are three reasons they should stop whining." In an article today in The Federalist, Sean Davis responds to my post in an article titled "American Families Are Right To Be Worried About Inflation." Davis levels a number of criticisms at my post, and also criticizes more recent posts about inflation by Ramesh Ponnuru and Jimmy Pethokoukis. Here are some of Davis's criticisms:

A lot has happened since Perry told us ten months ago to stop whining. Did events prove him right or wrong? Was his inexplicably bizarre method of averaging four years' worth of inflation data actually an effective way of predicting future price growth? Let's take a look.

My "inexplicably bizarre method of averaging four years' worth of inflation data" was actually explained in my post: Given the somewhat volatile history of food prices on a monthly basis, we can look at the average food inflation rate over a longer period of time to smooth out some of the volatility. I showed a chart of the 48-month moving average of monthly food inflation rates to provide a smoothed measure of food inflation back to the 1960s.

Here's a different way to look at historical food inflation using an alternative method of smoothing out the extreme volatility in monthly food prices. The chart below shows food inflation on an annual basis, using the average values of monthly "CPI: Food" in each year from 1990 to 2013, and the June value of "CPI: Food" for 2014.

Over the last 25 years, annual food inflation has averaged 2.68%, and has been as high as 5.8% in 1990 and 5.5% in 2008. Over the last year, food inflation has been only 2.23%, or almost 0.50% below the 25-year average. So again, I say to Americans - "stop your whining" about food prices and food inflation, it's really not that bad. It could be worse, and it was worse - in 7 out of the previous 10 years, inflation was higher than it is right now this year!

I'd also point out that I certainly wasn't using past food inflation to predict future food inflation, I was merely pointing out that actual, historical food inflation as of last summer certainly wasn't very high at all, by historical standards:

Food prices over the most recent 12 month period through July [2013] have risen by only 1.44%, following 12-month increases of 1.38% in June, and 1.37% in May. Over the last 12 months starting last August, the annual food inflation rate has ranged between 1.37% and 2%, and averaged 1.6%.

With those relatively moderate rates of food inflation a year ago, I think I was quite justified telling consumers to stop their whining. What food inflation? There was none!

Well, what's happened since last September? According to Davis:

It turns out food prices have soared since Perry so confidently told us to shut up about them. The chart below shows the rapid disparity between food price growth and wage growth since Perry issued his "stop whining" directive. No joke: compared to less than a year ago, egg prices are up 13%. Beef is up 10%. Pork is up more than 9%. Fresh fruits are up over 7%. Overall, the prices of food at home are up 2.3%, while average hourly wages are up only 1.4%. In other words, food prices are growing 64% faster than wages.

Food Prices Since Sept. 2013

Now it's Davis who is using an "inexplicably bizarre method" of picking six food categories to supposedly demonstrate that "food prices have soared" from September 2013 to May 2014 (June data only became available today). Here's the problem with that "inexplicably bizarre method" - the overall CPI for All Food Items increased by only 2% from September 2013 to May 2014 (with beverages it was only 1.9%, and for food at home by 2.3% as Davis reported)! Therefore, Davis's chart makes food inflation look artificially high by picking six food categories that all increased multiple times the 2% increase in the CPI: Food (and 2.3% for food at home).

There's another issue with the Davis analysis - average hourly wages according to this measure increased from $20.21 in September 2013 to $20.58 in May 2014, which is a 1.6% increase. And that leads to another problem - the overall CPI increased by 1.4% between September last year and May this year, which was less than this 1.6% increase in average hourly earnings (and the same for Davis's measure). In other words, average nominal wages by one measure increased slightly greater during that period than did overall consumer prices, meaning that real wages increased. For the measure Davis uses, real wages were flat.Federalist Food Price Time Series 07072014

Davis then compares increases in his bizarrely-selected sample of six food groups to the increase in average hourly earnings over a longer period going back to June 2009 (see chart above), and concludes that "food inflation (of my six bizarrely selected food groups) blows away wage growth." But we've got the same problem here as before. Average food prices increased only 11.26% between June 2009 and May 2014, nowhere near the increases of 20% to 35% in the six-item food sample. Also, average hourly earnings increased by 10.61% over that period, slightly higher than the overall increase in consumer prices of 10.38%, which means real earnings increased slightly since June 2009.

Here's another problem for Davis's food price analysis. The measures he uses are food price indexes constructed by the BLS, and not actual retail food prices. For whatever reason (maybe because of attempts to adjust for quality?), the BLS price indexes Davis uses for food items like eggs don't match actual retail price that consumers actually pay at grocery stores, as also reported by the BLS here.

For example, Davis reports correctly that the BLS index measure for eggs increased by 13% between September 2013 and May 2014. But according to actual retail price data from the BLS, a dozen eggs increased in price by only 5.2% during that period, from $1.897 per dozen to $1.996, which is less than half of increase reported by Davis using the egg index series. Now that June retail price data are available, the increase in eggs since last September through last month is only 2.7%, from $1.897 to $1.948 per dozen. That increase in the retail price of eggs from September 2013 to June 2014 is displayed in the table below. Also displayed in the table below are percentage increases in the retail prices of 31 different food items over the last nine months since my September post. Those 31 items represent most of the BLS items available from its "Average Price Data" database here.

Notice that over the last nine months, the retail prices of 20 food items have decreased, while 11 have increased. The biggest food price increases since last September have been for the various cuts of beef (see a detailed list here), which have all registered double-digit percentage price increases. Pork products like ham (3.4%) and bacon (7.5%) have also increased, as have milk (5.8%), eggs (2.7%) and cheese (2.3%).

On the other hand, other meats have declined in price since last September - turkey by almost 12% from $1.819 to $1.606 per pound and chicken breasts b 2.9%, from $3.608 to $3.504 per pound. From the table, we can see that the retail prices of many other food items have fallen, many pretty considerably, since last September such as strawberries (-13.8%), coffee (-8.3%), potatoes (-8.2%), cookies (-8.2%), bologna (-7.5%), peanut butter (-7.3%), etc. Importantly, many of the food items that showed significant price declines (chicken, turkey, coffee, potatoes, sugar, etc.) weren't included in the food items used by Davis.

Bottom Line: Also over the September 2013 to June 2014 period, average hourly wages increased by 1.83% (from $20.21 to $20.58), which was slightly higher than the 1.69% overall increases in all consumer prices during that period (including food). The CPI for Food increased 2.06%, although only by 1.95% when beverages are included. But it's not food prices alone that determine our cost of living, it's the cost of all consumer goods and services, as measured by the CPI-All Items. And by that measure of all consumers prices, average hourly earnings have been increasing greater than overall consumer prices, meaning that real wages have increased slightly.

To conclude by paraphrasing Davis, the prices of things people buy have really not been growing faster than most average workers' ability to buy them. For example, over the most recent 12-month period, the increase in average hourly earnings (2.3%) has outpaced the increase in the CPI (1.9%), meaning that real wages have gone up. It's time for pundits to stop pretending that rapidly rising prices are such a big deal, because they're really not. And it's still the case that Americans should stop whining about rising food prices, because they're not. Especially if you're eating strawberries, turkey, chicken, coffee, grapefruit, ice cream and peanut butter.

Food Item Change in Retail Price, Sept. 2013 to June 2014
Strawberries -13.8%
Butter (through April) -13.0%
Turkey -11.7%
Coffee -8.3%
Potatoes -8.2%
Cookies, Chocolate Chip -7.6%
Bologna -7.5%
Peanut Butter -7.3%
Grapefruit -4.7%
Potato Chips -3.9%
Sugar -3.6%
Chicken Breast -2.9%
Oranges -2.6%
Spaghetti -2.5%
Ice Cream -2.2%
Broccoli -1.6%
Bread, White -1.3%
Margarine -1.0%
Apples -0.9%
Orange Juice -0.3%
Rice 0.1%
Bananas 1.0%
Flour 1.9%
Cheese 2.3%
Eggs 2.7%
Ham 3.4%
Milk 5.8%
Tomatoes 7.0%
Bacon 7.5%
Ground Beef 10.8%
Lettuce 14.4%
CPI - All Items 1.7%
CPI - Food 2.1%
Average Hourly Wages 1.8%

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