Monday, March 20, 2006

Why worry about inflation? Because it's creepy.

Consumer prices barely budged last month. For the twelve months ending in February, the CPI crept up a mere 3.6%.

Somehow, inflation in real life doesn't seem that tame. Wondering why, I consulted the list of price changes recorded by The Wall Street Journal in its year-end reviews. Here's a sampling of price changes from 2000 to 2005:
Big Mac DOWN 4%
Pair of jeans UP 4%

Midsize auto UP 9%

Funeral UP 16%

Movie ticket UP 22%

Unleaded gasoline UP 49%

Year in college (Penn State) UP 54%

Single-family home UP 55%

Day in hospital UP 87%

Clearing clogged sink (Roto Rooter) UP 138%
For some of the above, obviously, inflation has done more than creep.

To be fair, a Big Mac isn't the only item that costs less than it did five years ago. Prices of laptops and TVs have come down, too. But the proliferation of technical gadgets has probably cancelled out any net advantage for many families. Ringtones, iPods, iTunes downloads and assorted other teenage necessities were luxuries or unobtainable five or ten years ago.

Even 3.6% inflation can get nasty in the long run. The other day on the radio, a financial planner was urging 40-year-olds with no savings to start investing enough to give them a $1-million retirement fund by age 65. That won't be easy, and it may not be adequate.

If inflation creeps at an average rate of only 3.6%, their million will have no more buying power than $415,000 or so has today.

No comments: