Interactive Tool

Date of Announcement
September 16, 2003
Dates of Future Announcements
October 16, 2003
The seasonally adjusted rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) during the
month of August 2003 was 0.3 percent (an increase of four-tenths of one percent). The
rate of increase in the consumer price index over the past twelve months was 2.2
In August, the core consumer price index, which excludes energy and food prices,
increased 0.1 percent. Over the last twelve months, the core index increased 1.3 percent.
Information for Teachers
All paragraphs in italics will not appear in the student version of the inflation case
study. This case is the first inflation case study of the fall. More advanced concepts and
questions will be added throughout the fall semester.
There are interactive questions at the end of the case study. Correct answers will
pop-up as students answer the questions. Notes of explanation follow in the teachers’
version of the case.
The original press release can be found at
Goals of Case Study
The goals of the Inflation Case Studies are to provide teachers and students:
access to easily understood, timely interpretations of monthly announcements of
rate of change in prices in the U.S. economy;
descriptions of major issues surrounding the data announcements;
brief analyses of historical perspectives;
questions and activities to use to reinforce and develop understanding of
relevant concepts; and
a list of publications and resources that may benefit classroom teachers and
students interested in exploring inflation.
Definitions of Inflation
Inflation is a sustained increase in the overall level of prices. The most widely
reported measurement of inflation is the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI measures
the cost of a fixed basket of goods relative to the cost of that same basket of goods in a
base (or previous) year. Changes in the price of this basket of goods approximate
changes in the overall level of prices paid by consumers.
Brief Explanation of the CPI
"The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of the average change in prices over
time of goods and services purchased by households. The CPI is based on prices of food,
clothing, shelter, and fuels, transportation, fares, charges for doctors' and dentists'
services, drugs, and other goods and services that people buy for day-to-day living.”
“Prices are collected in 87 urban areas across the country from about 50,000
housing units and approximately 23,000 retail establishments - department stores,
supermarkets, hospitals, filling stations, and other types of stores and service
establishments. All taxes directly associated with the purchase and use of items are
included in the index. Prices of fuels and a few other items are obtained every month in
all 87 locations.
“Prices of most other commodities and services are collected every month in the
three largest geographic areas and every other month in other areas. Prices of most
goods and services are obtained by personal visits or telephone calls of the Bureau's
trained representatives. For more information on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, visit
Data Trends
In August, the Consumer Price Index increased by 0.3 percent. The CPI increased
by 0.2 percent in June and again by the same amount in July. In August, increases in the
prices of energy and transportation were largely responsible for the increased rate of
inflation. Food prices also increased during the month.
The core rate of inflation (an increase of 0.1 percent in the core CPI in August)
represents the consumer price index without the influences of changes in the prices of
food and energy, which can fluctuate widely from month to month. The August level
compares to a 0.2 percent increase in the core rate of inflation for July and a steady
index in June.
Figure 1 below shows recent inflation data reported for each month. Inflation
increased in 1999 and 2000 when compared to1998, slowed throughout much of 2001,
and then increased slightly in 2002 and 2003. What is really quite obvious from Figure
1 is that the changes in inflation from month to month are much more dramatic from
1999 on, when compared to 1998. The increased volatility is primarily due to
fluctuations in the prices of oil and food. The core rate of inflation (excluding food and
energy) gives a much better idea of longer-term trends and that is why it is often
featured in news reports. See figure 2.
Figure 1
Figure 2
Compared to the rates of inflation in the 1970s and much of the 1980s, the current
rate of inflation is quite low. See figure 3 below. Few observers would describe the
most recent rates as high and they are not, when compared to those of the past thirty
years. Other observers would describe the current experience as no or zero inflation.
Inflation is not a current problem or a major concern.
Figure 3
The Consumer Price Index
The seasonally adjusted consumer price index in August was 184.5. The price index
was equal to 100 during the period from 1982 to 1984. The interpretation is that prices
in market basket of goods purchased by the typical consumer increased from the 19821984 period to August 2003 by 84.5 percent.
Changes in the CPI are usually reported in newspapers and television news as
percentage changes in the CPI on a monthly basis. For example, the CPI in August was
184.5, compared to 183.9 in July. The increase in prices from July to August was
(184.5-183.9) / 183.9 = 0.0033 or a monthly inflation rate of .0.33 percent. It is reported
to the nearest one-tenth of a percent, in this case, 0.3 percent.
However, inflation rates are normally discussed as annual rates of change in price
levels. To convert the monthly change into an annual rate, you could simply multiply
the monthly rate by 12. This approximates an annual inflation rate of (0.3)(12) = 3.6
percent. A slightly more accurate measurement of the annual inflation rate is to
compound the monthly rate, or raise the monthly rate of increase, plus one, to the 12th
Price Level
Monthly Inflation Rate
184.5-183.9 = 0.0033 or 0.3 %
Annual Inflation Rate
1.003312 = 1.0398 or 4%
An Exercise for Understanding the Definition of Inflation
The following question and answer appeared in a recent publication of a major
financial firm.
“Have you experienced inflation recently? How was the inflation caused?
“Suggested answer: Recent increases in gas prices; prices of fruits and
vegetables varying with seasons; bathing suits costing more in the spring
and summer, movie ticket prices being less or more depending on the
Can you evaluate the question and answer?
A better analysis focuses on the definition of inflation. Inflation is a sustained
increase in the overall level of prices. In a market economy, prices vary in
different seasons and in different areas. There are always some prices increasing
and others decreasing as demand and supply conditions change in the markets.
Inflation is an increase in average or overall price levels. It is not increases in
specific markets or differences in prices in seasons or areas as described in the
above question and answer.
An interesting exercise is to ask students to take a sample of prices at several
stores and calculate a price index. Do the same one month later and calculate a
new index and a monthly and annual rate of inflation. A hypothetical interactive
exercise is at the end of this case study.
Costs of Inflation
Understanding the costs of inflation is not an easy task. There are a variety of myths
about inflation. There are debates among economists about some of the more serious
problems caused by inflation. A number of exercises in National Council on Economic
Education publications, student workbooks, and textbooks should help students think
about the consequences of inflation.
1. High rates of inflation mean that people and business have to take steps to protect
their financial assets from inflation. The resources and time used to do so could be used
to produce goods and services of value. Those goods and services given up are a true
cost of inflation.
2. High rates of inflation discourage businesses planning and investment as inflation
increases the difficulty of forecasting of prices and costs. As prices rise, people need
more dollars to carry out their transactions. When more money is demanded, interest
rates increase. Higher interest rates can cause investment spending to fall, as the cost of
investing increases. The unpredictability associated with fluctuating interest rates makes
customers less likely to sign long-term contracts as well.
3. The adage “inflation hurts lenders and helps borrowers” only applies if inflation is
not expected. For example, interest rates normally increase in response to anticipated
inflation. As a result, the lenders receive higher interest payments, part of which is
compensation for the decrease in the value of the money lent. Borrowers have to pay
higher interest rates and lose any advantage they may have from repaying loans with
money that is not worth as much as it was prior to the inflation.
4. Inflation does reduce the purchasing power of money.
5. Inflation does redistribute income. On average, individuals' incomes do increase
as inflation increases. However, some peoples’ wages go up faster than inflation. Other
wages are slower to adjust. People on fixed incomes such as pensions or whose salaries
are slow to adjust are negatively affected by unexpected inflation.
A Market Basket of Goods and Services
The Consumer Price Index measures prices of goods and services in a market basket
of goods and services that is intended to be representative of a typical consumer's
purchases. The percentages that are currently used to describe the categories of goods
and services in that market basket are as follows.
Food and beverages
Medical care
41 %
17 %
16 %
Other goods and services
Interactive questions for students
1. What is inflation?
2. Calculate a consumer price index in 2002 for the following market basket of goods
(using 2002 as a base year).
3 boxes of cheerios $4.00 each
2 pounds of bananas $1.00 per pound
2 gallons of milk
$3.00 per gallon
4 boxes of cheerios $5.00 each
1 pounds of bananas $2.00 per pound
2 gallons of milk
$3.00 per gallon
3. Calculate a consumer price index in 2003 for the market basket of goods (using 2002
as a base year).
4. What was the rate of inflation from 2002 to 2003?
Answers to go with interactive questions (pop-up answers).
A continual increase in the average price level.
25 percent.
Notes to teacher.
1. The important points are that most prices or average prices rise and that the
increase continues and is not just a one-time increase.
2. For the base year, the price index is calculated by first taking the 2002 quantities
times the 2002 prices. As it is the base year, that number is divided by itself and
multiplied by 100.
3. The price index is calculated by first taking the 2002 quantities times the 2002 prices
(as in question 2). The 2003 prices are then multiplied by the 2002 quantities. Then
the latter (the amount spent if only the prices change) is divided by the 2002 prices
times 2002 quantities and multiplied by 100. ($25/$20) x 100 = 125. The most
common mistake will be to calculate the second year with the 2003 prices and 2003
4. The 2002 index is subtracted from the 2003 index and the difference is divided by the
2002 index. (125-100)/100 = .25 or 25 percent. An easier way, given that the first
year is the base year of 100 is simply to compare the two directly. An index of 125
means that prices have gone up by 25 percent since the base year.
Using consumer price indexes to compare incomes.
1. If the CPI has increased from 100 over the period of 1982-1984 to approximately
180 now, what has happened to price levels? How much have they changed?
2. If over that same time period, a family’s income has increased from $20,000 to
$40,000, what has happened to its real income level? Has it increased? Decreased?
3. Use the price indexes and incomes in questions 1 and 2 to calculate the real level of
income in terms of 1982-1984 dollars.
The following answers should pop-up.
1. Prices have increased by 80 percent.
2. The family’s income increased by 100 percent. Since prices have increased by 80
percent, real income has increased.
3. Real income now equals $22,222.
Notes to teachers.
1. Divide 180 by 100. The result is 1.8. Current prices are 1.8 times 1982-84 prices,
thus an 80 percent increase.
2. Income is twice what it was. That is an increase of 100%. Since nominal income
(that is stated in current dollars) has increased more than prices, real income has
3. To calculate real income in 1982-84 dollars, divide the current nominal income by
1.8 (180/100). The result is ($40,000/1.8) is $22,222. Real income has increased.
Key Concepts
Consumer price index (CPI)
Monetary policy
Full-employment real GDP
Relevant National Economic Standards
The relevant national economic standards are numbers 18, 19, and 20.
10. Institutions evolve in market economies to help individuals and
groups accomplish their goals. Banks, labor unions, corporations, legal
systems, and not-for-profit organizations are examples of important
institutions. A different kind of institution, clearly defined and enforced
property rights, is essential to a market economy. Students will be able
to use this knowledge to describe the roles of various economic
11. Money makes it easier to trade, borrow, save, invest, and compare
the value of goods and services. Students will be able to use this
knowledge to explain how their lives would be more difficult in a world
with no money, or in a world where money sharply lost its value.
18. A nation's overall levels of income, employment, and prices are
determined by the interaction of spending and production decisions made
by all households, firms, government agencies, and others in the
economy. Students will be able to use this knowledge to interpret media
reports about current economic conditions and explain how these
conditions can influence decisions made by consumers, producers, and
government policy makers.
19. Unemployment imposes costs on individuals and nations. Unexpected
inflation imposes costs on many people and benefits some others because
it arbitrarily redistributes purchasing power. Inflation can reduce the
rate of growth of national living standards because individuals and
organizations use resources to protect themselves against the uncertainty
of future prices. Students will be able to use this knowledge to make
informed decisions by anticipating the consequences of inflation and
20. Federal government budgetary policy and the Federal Reserve
System's monetary policy influence the overall levels of employment,
output, and prices. Students will be able to use this knowledge to
anticipate the impact of federal government and Federal Reserve System
macroeconomic policy decisions on themselves and others.
Sources Of Additional Activities
Advanced Placement Economics: Macroeconomics. (National Council on
Economic Education)
Measuring Economic Performance. Lesson 4. Measuring and
Understanding Inflation
Focus on Economics: High School Economics (National Council on Economic
Lesson 18. Economics Ups and Downs
Economics USA: A Resource Guide for Teachers
Lesson 9: Inflation: How Did the Spiral Begin?
High School Economics Courses: Teaching Strategies
Lesson 16: The Trial of Ms. Ann Flation
Handbook of Economic Lessons (California Council on Economic Education)
Lesson 20. Plotting the Ups and Downs of the U.S. Economy
All are available in Virtual Economics, An Interactive Center for Economic
Education (National Council on Economic Education) or directly
through the National Council on Economic Education.
Authors: Stephen Buckles
Erin Kiehna
Vanderbilt University