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CPI Issues
U.S. Department of Labor
Bureau of Labor Statistics
February 1980
Report 593




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CPI Issues
U.S. Department of Labor
Ray Marshall, Secretary
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Janet L. Norwood, Commissioner
February 1980
Report 593




CPI Issues
Janet L. Norwood

When prices rise, people pay increasing attention to how
the government measures inflation. Workers worry about
their real income. Retirees want to be sure that their
pensions will buy the same package of goods and services
upon which retirement plans were made. Those responsible
for economic policy want to measure their success in
restraining price rises. National budget makers, concerned
about growing dollar outlays, worry about the effect of
indexation on the country's budget.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI), the Nation's most
important price index, is used for all of these needs. Although the index serves the Nation's users both during
periods of relative price stability and in periods of rising
or declining prices, questions about the accuracy of the
measure always crescendo in periods like the present,
when prices tend to be unresponsive to measures taken
to turn them around. Therefore, it is essential that the
public understand what the index is intended to measure,
why it is put together the way it is, and, especially, in what
areas price measurement could be improved.
The Consumer Price Index is a good measure of the
changes in purchasing power of the average family represented in the index. But, the CPI is not perfect. And,
we know it is not appropriate for all measurement purposes. Because we recognize that index making is still a
developing art, we are always experimenting with new
approaches in order to improve the measurement of inflation.
Two criticisms of the index are now being widely discussed: (1) That the CPI overstates the cost of living because the index is based on a fixed market basket of goods
and services and, therefore, does not reflect changes consumers make in buying habits, and (2) that the index
overstates inflation because of the way it handles homeownership. Let us examine each criticism in turn.
The fixed market
The CPI is based
weights for the mix
the base period are

basket
on a fixed market basket. That is, the
of goods and services purchased during
held constant from year to year until

Janet L. Norwood is the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, U.S.
Department of Labor. This report was presented at the winter
meeting of the National Association of Government Labor Officials
in Washington, D.C., on January 21,1980.




a major revision occurs. We keep the market basket
constant deliberately because we want to keep fixed the
living standard represented by that market basket. Our
purpose, to the extent possible, is to isolate price changes
from other changes which may occur in living standards.
The economists in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of
course, know that consumers shift their purchases in
response to changes in relative prices. What we do not
know, however, is whether such changes in consumption
patterns result in a living standard that is higher or lower
than that in the base period. If the market basket were
changed whenever prices change-without knowing whether
the consumer is equally satisfied with the shift-we would
not know whether a change in the index was caused by
a change in prices or by a change in the market basket.
Because a market-basket change could amount to a change
in living standards, those whose income payments are adjusted by the CPI would not be assured that their living
standards would remain at the- same level. The purpose of
such CPI cost-of-living adjustment (indexation) has traditionally been to permit people to purchase in today's
prices the bundle of goods and services they purchased in
the base period, thereby leaving them at least as well off
as they were then.
The following example will illustrate my point. If, in
adjusting to higher prices, a family decides to forego its
weekly restaurant dinner the family is both changing its
market basket and lowering its satisfaction or standard
of living. If the objective of indexation is to ensure purchasing power necessary to preserve living standards, a
measure used to index income should not reflect this kind
of a market-basket change.
Homeownership
The present CPI homeownership component includes
the month-to-month change in prices of five expenditures
of owning a home. The weights for three of these expenditures-property taxes, insurance, and maintenance and
repairs-represent the average expenditures by all people
living in their own homes during the CPI base period.
Thus, the housing costs for those who purchased their
homes before the base period are represented in the index
only by property taxes, insurance, and maintenance and
repairs. Weights for two other expenditures-house prices
and contracted mortgage interest costs-are based on the

small group of families, roughly 6 percent of the total, who
actually purchased a home in the base period. Thus, the CPI
does not assume that everyone buys a new house every
month; the house-price and mortgage-interest components
in the CPI represent the expenditures only of those who
actually purchased a house in the base period. In effect,
those who purchased their own home before the base
period are assumed to have no house price or mortgage
interest costs at all
Because the CPI represents the cost of the base period
market basket of goods and services in today's prices, the
prices used for houses and the mortgage interest rates are
current prices. The house-purchase and mortgage-interest
components of the index, therefore, rise or fall each month,
based on current prices of houses sold and of current mortgage interest rates. This approach is entirely consistent with
that used in other parts of the index, for refrigerators,
stoves, apples, and oranges, for example.
Arguments for and against the current treatment of
homeownership in the CPI come from people who look at
the purchase of a house in different ways. They can roughly
be divided into three groups:
1. Those who favor the current approach argue that
most American families live in their own homes,
not rented homes. They believe that the CPI should
measure in today's prices the cost of the purchase
of the same kind of house purchased in the base
period and that owned homes should be treated in
the index in exactly the same way as other items.
The index should represent the price today for the
proportion of expenditure on houses purchased in
the base period. They argue that if a house were sold
> today and another of the same quality purchased,
the consumer making the purchase would have to
pay the house price prevailing today and would be
forced to contract for a mortgage at the current interest rate. According to this view, that is exactly
what the CPI should and does show. The index,
they assert, correctly measures homeownership.
2. Another view of the CPI homeowner component is
taken by those who argue that the index, as a measure of the change in purchasing power for purposes
of escalating income or determining the rate of inflation, should not include the impact of rising
prices on the value of assets such as houses. Just as
the CPI excludes changes in the value of stocks and
bonds, it is argued that the change in the asset value
of the house (appreciation-or depreciation) and the
cost of equity in holding that asset should be distinguished from the change in the cost of the shelter
provided by the house. It is the cost of consuming the
shelter provided by the house-not the investment
aspects of homeownership-which should be reflected
in an index used to keep real income constant.
This is the position taken by the BLS staff during
the last revision of the CPI. Bureau staff papers



pointed out that there are two empirical methods
which could be used to measure the cost of the
flow of housing services. The BLS did a great deal
of research and experimentation on one of these
methods: Estimating what economists call a "cost
function" for the use of an owned home. Some felt
that this method, which includes all the major components of the CPI homeownership componentprices for property taxes, insurance, home maintenance and repairs, and interest rates, while at the
same time adjusting for the interest cost of equity
and subtracting appreciation-would improve the
index. It was thought that it would be acceptable to
users, especially if it used current prices for each of
these items, as is the case with all other parts of the
index. Although some users of the CPI endorsed the
Bureau's user-cost work, they asked that further
research be done, especially on the procedures for
estimating the equity interest term before use of this
method in the CPI.
The second approach to measuring the cost of
shelter, an approach which the Bureau has not yet
had the resources to test, would develop a new
rental-equivalence sample of prices to represent the
types of homes that are owned. Such a sample would
consist of homes of the same type and at the same
locations as homes that are owned. Rental prices
collected from this new sample could be used in the
index to represent the cost of shelter provided to
homeowners by their own houses. The design of a
rental-equivalence sample would, of course, be
quite different from the CPI rent component, which
was constructed to represent all rented units, not just
rental units that are typical of owned homes.
3. Another group currently criticizing the CPI homeownership component alleges that it overstates the
rate of inflation because it uses current house prices
and current mortgage interest rates. This group argues that the CPI should not measure the costs of
purchasing the base period houses in today's prices
and today's mortgage interest rates, but rather that
the CPI should measure what people are actually
paying for housing.
This "outlays" approach would use an average of
the interest rates paid over a period of years instead
of the current rates, would include property taxes,
home maintenance and repairs, and insurance, but
would exclude the cost of the house itself. Homeowners who had paid off their mortgages in the base
period would be assumed to have no cost at all because they made no payment for mortgage interest.
Under this system, mortgage interest rates would
reflect an average of the rates prevailing over a period
of time, 15 years, for example. Each month, a small
portion of interest rates, contracted for 15 years
ago at the rates prevailing at that time, would be
dropped from the index and a small portion at the

current mortgage interest rate would be added.
An index calculated in this manner would be lower
than the official CPI when current interest rates
rise and higher when current mortgage interest rates
decline. Because the current mortgage interest rate
would be used only for a small portion of homeowners, the index would continue to rise even when
current interest rates decline.

The foregoing review of differing views of the homeownership component demonstrates the complexity of the
conceptual and empirical issues involved in selecting the
formulation to be used in the CPI. Among the alternatives,
there are important differences in pricing mechanisms and
large differences in the weight of homeownership relative
to other components of the index. For example, the
official CPI homeownership component now has a relative
importance of almost 23 percent. Use of the flow-ofservices concept that was proposed by the BLS staff would
reduce that weight by one-half under the user-cost alternative (to about 11 percent) and to about 14 percent under
the rental-equivalence approach. The outlays approach
currently being suggested would reduce the weight still
further to a relative importance in the index somewhere
between 9 and 10 percent. Such significant variations in
the relative importance of shelter costs could have a large
effect on the All-Items CPI, especially in a period like the
present when house prices and mortgage interest rates are
rising at a fast pace. This consideration, plus the lack of
agreement among major users of the index, led former
Commissioner Shiskin to decide, during the recent revision
of the CPI, to retain-the historical treatment of the homeownership component while continuing staff work in this
field.
BLS is publishing five experimental measures using
variants of these different approaches to homeownership.
(See tables 1 and 2.) Tables 3 and 4 show the elements
included and prices used in the official CPI and in the experimental homeownership measures. Charts 1 and 2,
which show 12-month percent changes in the homeownership component, demonstrate how wide the measurement differences can be. Charts 3 and 4 use the experimental homeownership approaches in all-items measures
and show that in the 12 months ended in December 1979,
the range among the experimental measures was 2 percentage points. For measure X-2 (user cost using current
interest cost), the 13.2-percent change was about the same
as in the official CPI. The percent changes in the other
experimental measures were lower than in the official CPI.
When one looks at these 12-month percent changes ended
in each of the months of 1979, one sees a larger spread
for measure X-2 (8.4 percent in January to 13.2 percent
in December) than for the official CPI (9.3 to 13.3 percent). (See page 12 for a complete explanation of the
homeownership measures.)



Further research
Bureau of Labor Statistics research on the measurement of homeownership began in 1970, long before the
current discussion of the issue. As can be seen from the
foregoing discussion, there is still considerable disagreement
over the best method to measure homeownership. Because
the issue is so important, the Bureau is continuing its work
on homeownership measurement and will continue to
publish research findings and experimental measures.
We are also exploring the issues involved in development of
a rental-equivalence measure so that BLS can, if resources
are made available, carry out the field collection required
for a full rental-equivalence index and calculate an experimental measure using a valid rental-equivalence component.
Further work also needs to be done on methods for
developing what economists call a "constant utility" market
basket. Such an approach would allow changes in the
market basket while still permitting calculation of an
index which holds constant the base period living standard.
This year, the Bureau began a new Continuing Consumer
Expenditure Survey program. Under this program, the
Bureau of the Census is collecting information on consumer
expenditures on a recurring basis for the Bureau of Labor
Statistics. These data will serve as the basis for revising the
weights in future revisions of the CPI. The fielding of
a continuing survey is an important step forward because
it will provide an empirical foundation for examining
changes in consumer expenditures and will become a basis
for determining when a revision of the index is required.
Indexes for special purposes
Users of the CPI should be aware of the many subindexes which are produced as a part of the CPI system.
These are published prominently in the monthly CPI news
release, are used for analytical and other purposes, and, in
some cases, are used for indexation. Among these subindexes, for example, is an index for "All items minus mortgage interest costs" and another for "All items less energy."
In addition to these and other subindexes, BLS will now begin regular publication of the experimental housing
measures I have described. We hope that by publishing
these measures, we will encourage full public discussion
of this complex but important subject.
BLS also can produce other indexes if they are required.
Special indexes may be needed when the government
pursues social goals which-at least in the short run-may
raise prices. Should it be considered socially desirable to
reduce energy consumption by raising gasoline prices,
consumers would pay more for gasoline and the index
measuring the rate of inflation would and should go up.
It might be useful to policymakers, in such a case, to
create a special index which could exclude such increases
or which could treat other policy-directed price changes,
such as changes in interest rates, in a special way. Some also
have suggested the desirability of a special index--for use
in pension escalation-that would represent the expenditure
experience of persons receiving retirement benefits.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a service agency.
Given the resources and time necessary, the Bureau can
produce special consumer price indexes for particular

needs. We should not, however, permit these other needs
to weaken the ability of the present CPI to fulfill the objective for which it was intended.

Table 1. Alternative HOMEOWNERSHIP COMPONENTS used in official CPI-U
and in experimental measures: Percent change over 12 months
Experimental measures
of homeownership

12 months
ended

Official
Consumer
Price Index
for All
Urban Consumers
(CPI-U)

Flow-of-services measures

X-1
Rental
equivalent
using CPI
rent

Outlays measures

X-2
User cost
using
current
interest
costs

X-3
User cost
using
average
interest
costs

X-4
Outlays
using
current
interest
costs

X-5
Outlays
using
average
interest
costs

December:
1968 . . . . . . . .
1969 . . . . . . . .
1970 . . . . . . . .
1971 . . . . . . . .
1972
1973
1974 . . . . . . . .
1975
1976
1977 . . .
1978

7.6
10.2
10.2
2.7
4.1
7.7
13.3
7.9
3.8
9.2
12.4

2.8
3.8
4.5
3.8
3.5
4.9
5.4
5.2
5.5
6.5
7.3

11.1
6.9
4.3
-12.1
2.4
22.9
16.8
2.7
-1.0
2.5
5.7

8.0
3.5
1.7
-8.9
3.3
18.8
12.9
3.3
2.0
0.4
1.1

11.0
13.2
12.6
0.3
4.8
10.8
14.9
7.1
2.7
10.4
12.0

6.0
8.3
10.1
7.7
6.2
4.4
9.1
9.0
7.6
9.0
5.3

January 1979 . . . .
February 1979 . . .
March 1979 . . . . .
April 1979 . . . . . .
May 1979 . . . . . . .
June 1 9 7 9 . . . . . . .
July 1979
August 1979 . . . . .
September 1979 . .
October 1979 . . . .
November 1979 . .
December 1979 . .

12.4
13.5
13.7
14.2
14.6
14.9
15.2
16.0
16.1
16.8
18.3
19.8

7.2
7.1
6.7
6.5
6.8
6.8
7.1
7.5
7.6
8.4
8.1
7.9

8.0
10.8
11.7
12.3
13.9
14.2
16.7
20.1
18.3
22.2
24.5
28.2

5.7
7.4
10.4
9.9
11.3
10.6
11.7
9.8
13.2
13.7
15.1
22.4

12.4
13.7
14.0
14.4
14.9
15.0
15.3
15.9
16.4
17.2
19.0
22.6

5.7
5.7
5.9
6.1
6.4
6.4
6.8
7.0
7.5
7.8
7.9
11.2

Relative importance of homeownership component, December 1977 (allitems index=100) .

22.8

14.5

11.4

10.0

10.0

8.7







Table 2. Official ALL-ITEMS CPI-U and EXPERIMENTAL MEASURES using
alternative homeownership components: Percent change over 12 months
Experimental measures using alternative
homeownership components

12 months
ended

Official
Consumer
Price Index
for All
Urban Consumers
(CPI-U)

Flow-of-services measures

X-1
Rental
equivalent
using CPI
rent

X-2
User cost
using
current
interest
costs

X-3
User cost
using
average
interest
costs

Outlays measures
X-4
Outlays
using
current
interest
costs

X-5
Outlays
using
average
interest
costs

December:
1968
1969
1970
1971
1972
1973
1974
1975
1976
1977
1978

4.7
6.1
5.5
3.4
3.4
8.8
12.2
7.0
4.8
6.8
9.0

3.9
5.2
4.5
3.5
3.3
8.5
11.1
6.6,
5.1
6.3
8.0

4.9
5.6
4.5
1.6
3.2
10.5
12.6
6.3
4.3
5.8
7.8

4.6
5.2
4.2
2.2
3.3
10.0
12.1
6.4
4.7
5.7
7.4

4.7
6.0
5.2
3.2
3.4
9.2
12.3
6.8
4.8
6.6
8.5

4.2
5.7
49
3.8
3.5
8.7
11.8
6.9
5.2
6.5
7.8

January 1979 . . . .
February 1979 . . .
March 1979
April 1979
May 1979 . .
June 1979. . . . . . .
July 1979
August 1979 . . . .
September 1979 . .
October 1979 . . .
November 1979 . .
December 1979 . .

9.3
9.9
10.2
10.4
10.8
10.9
11.3
11.8
12.1
12.2
12.6
13.3

8.3
8.6
8.8
8.9
9.2
9.3
9.7
10.1
10.4
10.5
10.5
10.8

8.4
9.1
9.4
9.6
10.1
10.2
10.9
11.5
11.7
12.2
12.5
13.2

8.2
8.7
9.2
9.4
9.7
9.8
10.3
10.4
11.1
11.1
11.3
12.3

8.9
9.4
9.6
9.8
10.1
10.2
10.7
11.0
11.4
11.5
11.8
12.5

8.2
8.6
8.9
9.1
9.3
9.4
9.9
10.2
10.6
10.5
10.6
11.3

Table 3. Weights arid prices used in official CPI-U and experimental homeownership measures, December 1979
(Percent)
Relative importance of homeownership and homeownership elements
Total
home
ownership

Measure

Official CPI-U

.......

X-1. Rental equivalent
using CPI rent

22.8

Mortgage interest cost
Property
taxes

Property
insurance

2.1

0.6

Maintenance
and
repairs

3.7

Home
purchase

Equity
costs

Appreciation

Residential
rent

BaseRevalued
period
basehomeperiod
owners'
debt
contracts

6.5

10.0

.

14.5

X-2. User cost using
current interest
costs . . . . . . . . . . . . .

11.4

2.4

0.7

1.8

9.8

—8.3

X-3.User cost using
average interest
costs . . . . . . . . . . . . .

10.0

2.5

0.7

1.8

10.0

—8.4

X-4.0utlays using
current interest
costs . . . . . . . . . . . . .

10.0

2.5

0.7

1.8

8.7

2.6

0.7

1.8

X-5. Outlays using
average interest
costs .




Actual
baseperiod
payments

14.5

5.0

3.6

5.2

3.6

Table 4. Homeownership elements and prices used in official CPI-U and experimental measures
Elements included in weights
Represents costs
for all
homeowners

Measure

No

Official CPI-U
X-1. Rental equivalence using
CPI rent
X-2. User cost using current
interest costs

Mortgage interest cost
Property
taxes

X

Property
insurance

X

Maintenance and
repairs

X

Home
purchase

Equity
costs

Appreciation

Residential rent

Revalued
Base-period
homeown- base-period
debt
ers' contracts

X

X

X

Yes

Yes

X

X

X

X

X

Yes

X

X

X

X

X-4. Outlays using current
interest costs

No

X

X

X

X-5. Outlays using average
interest costs

No

X

X

X

X

X

X-3. User cost using average
i nterest costs

.

Prices used

5-year
average
appreciation rates

Current
mortgage
interest
costs

15-year
average
mortgage
interest
cost

X

Official CPI-U
X-1. Rental equivalence
using CPI rent
X-2. User cost using current
interest costs

X

X-3. User cost using average
interest costs

X

X-4. Outlays using current
interest costs
X-5. Outlays using average
interest costs




Actual
base-period
payments

X

X

X

X

X

X

X

Chart 1. Alternative homeownership components: Official CPI-U and experimental measures,
percent change over 12 months, 1972-79

Percent
30
Homeownership CPI-U

- 5

iii:;iiiiiiiillliiilil;llliiii

1972

1974

1976

NOTE: See page 12 for a description of the homeownership measures.




1978

1980

Chart 2. Alternative homeownership components: Official CPI-U and experimental measures,
percent change over 12 months, 1979

NOTE: See page 12 for a description of the homeownership measures.




Chart 3. Official All-Items CPI-U
and experimental measures:
Alternative homeownership
components, percent change
over 12 months, 1972-79

wmmmm^Kmmmmm
ipanMHHHMl
• • M
1972




1974

1976

1978

1980

NOTE: See page 12 for a description of
the homeownership measures.

Chart 4. Official All-Items CPI-U
and experimental measures:
Alternative homeownership
components, percent change
over 12 months, 1979

•

All-Items CPI-U

-

X1

o X2
-

X3

• X4
I n B I B H I X5

Dec.




Mar,

June

Sept.

Dec.
NOTE: See page 12 for a description of
the homeownership measures.

Explanations of Homeownership
Measures

Official CPI-U Includes five components. (1) The
weights for property taxes, property insurance, and home
maintenance and repairs represent expenditures of all
homeowners in the base period. The weights for house
prices and contracted mortgage interest cost represent only
those homeowners who actually purchased a home in the ;
base period. Included are the total price paid for the
home and the total amount of interest expected to be
paid over half the stated life of the mortgage. (2) Current
monthly prices are used for each of these components.
Experimental Measure X-l: (1) The weight for this
rental equivalence measure is the estimate of the rental
value of all owner-occupied homes in the base period
compiled from a specific question asked on the 1972-73
Consumer Expenditure Survey. This covers the entire
stock of owned homes. (2) Prices used are the current rents
collected for the residential rent component of the CPI.
The CPI rent component is designed to represent changes
in residential rents for all types of housing units, not just
changes in rents for units that are typically owner occupied.
The CPI rent component is, therefore, not appropriate for
this measure.
Experimental Measure X-2: (1) The weight, for this
user cost method includes expenditures .for mortgage interest, property taxes, property insurance, maintenance and
repairs, the estimated base-period cost of homeowners'
equity in their houses, and the offset to shelter- costs resulting from the estimated appreciation of house values in
the base period. This measure covers the entire stock of
owned houses. To derive the weights for mortgage interest
costs and equity costs, the total value of the housing stock
in the base period was apportioned into its debt and equity
components. The debt component equals the amount
owed and the equity component is the amount owned,
i.e., payments on principal plus appreciation from the time
of purchase to the base period. Each component was subsequently multiplied by the average mortgage interest rate




in the base period to determine its cost. (2) Prices used are
current ones except for the appreciation term, which uses
a 5-year moving average of- the changes in appreciation
rates.
Experimental Measure X-3: { 1) The weights are the same
as in Experimental Measure X-2, except that mortgage interest costs are calculated as the total interest amount
paid out by homeowners in the base period. As in X-l and
in X-2, this measure covers the entire homeowner population. (2) The prices for all components except mortgage
interest costs and appreciation are current monthly prices.
As in X-2, appreciation is represented by a 5-year moving
average of the changes in house prices. However, X-3
uses past and current mortgage interest costs in a 15-year
weighted moving average, which reflects the base period
age distribution of mortgage loans.
Experimental Measure X-4: The weights for this outlays approach include expenditures actually made in the
base period for property taxes, property insurance, and
maintenance and repairs. The weight for the mortgage
interest term is calculated in the same manner as in X-2.
However, no appreciation or equity terms are included.
Not all homeowners are represented in this measure because
those who made no mortgage debt payment in the base
period are excluded. (2) The prices used for each of these
items are current ones.
Experimental Measure X-5: (1) The weights for this
outlays approach include, as in X-4, expenditures actually
made in the base period for property taxes, property insurance, and maintenance and repairs. The weight for the
mortgage interest cost term is the same as for the
X-3. No appreciation or equity elements are used. As in
X-4, not all homeowners are represented in this measure
because those who made no mortgage debt payment in
the base period are excluded. (2) Current prices are used
in X-5 except for mortgage interest, which uses the 15-year
moving average also used in the X-3.

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