Recently, I pulled into a parking lot in downtown Toronto. Not long ago, it cost ten dollars, flat rate, on Saturday nights. Now it’s fifteen. Speaking of cars, the insurance company jacked up my premium 32 per cent over two years. And our annual health insurance premium went up six per cent. Meanwhile, the company that supplies gas to our home applied to raise rates by forty per cent.
But check out the latest monthly inflation data. The official number is 2.1 per cent, white-hot compared with January, when I flew to Ottawa to interview the Governor of the Bank of Canada. Stephen Poloz was concerned that inflation was too low when it was officially sitting between 1 per cent and 2 per cent (it hit 1.1 per cent in February). When it’s droopy like that, or goes negative, it’s viewed as potentially disastrous. Consumers, we’re told, put off purchases because they expect things to get cheaper, creating a self-fulfilling situation that leads to a badly recessed or even depressed economy. If inflation is too strong, wages can’t keep up and purchasing power erodes. So central bankers like it not too high, not too low, in the range of 2 per cent (between one and three), which in Poloz’s words, gives policy makers room to manoeuvre: i.e. they can raise or lower the policy rate to try to achieve price stability.
The problem is it’s hard to accept the official figures. So-called core inflation strips out volatile food and energy prices. Economists get mocked for being the only people who don’t need to eat or fill up their gas tanks. I have no doubt the statisticians in Ottawa or Bank of Canada staffers do their jobs diligently. After all, the former group surveys the prices of 600 goods and services, assigning weightings of importance within the basket. Who am I to argue with more than 950,000 price checks each year?
As the Bank of Canada has told us, there are deflationary pressures, particularly in the retail sector thanks to American chains. BNN’s Amber Kanwar shocked me one day when she told me the dress she was wearing cost her $7 at H&M. And yes, the car I bought in 2011 cost virtually the same as the comparable car purchased in 2000.
But what about all the other stuff we buy that we didn’t in the past? Families are equipped with multiple computing devices – laptops, tablets and smartphones, not to mention the plans that go with them. Middle-class people go to spas for massages and buy $4.95 caramel macchiatos. Thirty years ago, who did that? In cities, restaurants are full. In the past, dining out was for special occasions.
The basket of what’s “required” has changed greatly over time. Statscan adjusts for that, but the basket sure seems bigger. While inflation has averaged 3.11 per cent since 1914, it seems like we buy more and more, perhaps diluting the meaning of the inflation number. Besides, it feels like there’s more inflation. Isn’t perception sometimes as important as reality?
It all may be too complex to capture in one monthly figure. Meanwhile, central bankers and economists have their monocles focused on inflation. Certainly up until 2008 the U.S. Federal Reserve was probably paying too much attention to “price stability” and not enough to financial stability. And the level of central bank policy rates is tied heavily to official inflation rates and inflation expectations.
So here we sit with emergency low rates even though we no longer have an emergency. These ultra-low rates continue to drive up real estate prices and the cost of housing, which, at about 26 per cent, is the most heavily weighted item in the inflation basket.
With wages barely budging for years, ever wonder why household debt is high?
Central bankers and economists are smart and the best of them know what goes on in the real world as well as what their models say. They know the inflation number is just one number. The question may be how much weight to attach to it.