Practical Dad

PracticalDad Price Index - July 2016:  Confirming Deflation

It used to be that you could get a candy bar for a nickel.  Then a year later, you could get three candy bars for a dime.  A year after that, nobody had a dime.

         - explanatory comment about deflation by 'Dryfly' to the writer in the comment thread of Calculated Risk, circa 2008

The prices for the PracticalDad Price Index grocery basket have been collected from the three separate and unrelated grocers and the results continue to confirm deflation and the failure of the Quantitative Easing programs to spark moderated inflation.  The Total Index of the 47 item basket dropped again, this time to 99.51 from June's 99.90 (November 2010 = 100); the 37 Food-Only Sub-index (the 37 foodstuff items such as dairy, meats, etc) likewise dropped from June's 100.24 to this month's level of 99.01 (again, November 2010 = 100).  The upshot?  Although the aggregate cost of the full basket was actually less than at the project's outset in November, 2010, the aggregate cost of the 37 foodstuff items within the basket was still slightly higher.  As of this month's result however, that Sub-index is now likewise lower than at the project's outset in November, 2010.  So yes, hamburger will still cost more than almost six years ago, but there have been enough changes in other items to offset that and lower the aggregate cost.

You'd say that prices have actually decreased, which is seemingly a good thing.  It's supposedly what we want, with prices stable or even a little lower so that we can get more for our dollar.  But it really isn't all that it's cracked up to be and the opening comment from Dryfly - the nom de blog of an exceptionally astute individual - illustrates why.  Prices for items can go up and down for different reasons, but the largest reason for the prices of everyday items to rise and fall is the aggregate amount of money coursing through the economy.  When there is sufficient money flowing through, normally through family income, people are willing to spend and the price of a particular item is usually the point at which buyers and sellers agree that a sale should occur.  It used to be that you could get a candy bar for a nickel.  But if the underlying money supply begins to diminish, buyers become more cautious about how they spend their money and sellers have to work harder to persuade buyers to spend their money.  Then a year later, you could get three candy bars for a dime.  In a truly deflationary economy however, the money supply held by the public is so low that people simply have no money or refuse to spend what little they have and the sellers simply go out of business.  A year after that, nobody had a dime.  The unspoken phrase in this brief sentence is that there was nobody around to sell a candy bar, either.  This was the Great Depression of 1929 in a nutshell and it's not for nothing that Ben Bernanke was selected to replace Alan Greenspan as chair of the Federal Reserve since Bernanke's theses had been about the then-Fed's errors in responding to the Depression.  People lost their money and businesses lost control of prices as they engaged in bare-knuckle behavior in order to stay in business and more often than not, they went bankrupt.

So this new monthly Index level isn't as good of a thing as the Fed would like to see.  It continues to illustrate the effect of the family's loss of income; for the average family, not only is their income less, but they are now forced to contend with competing demands for their income as other costs are off-loaded by corporations and the government onto their narrow shoulders.  It also says something that despite the efforts of a central bank to inject trillions of dollars into the economy, so little has been accomplished for the family while so much has been accomplished for the uber-wealthy, the .01%.  The grocers are taking multiple approaches to both maintain sales and keep things affordable for the consumer:

  • They are keeping meat prices within reach by starting to contract with high volume meatpackers who sell their products in chubs.
  • They are now including what economists refer to as inferior goods, i.e. items that are cheaper substitutes that wouldn't be purchased when incomes were more flush.  When I began this project, the most affordable alternative on the store shelf was the generic store brand and the inferior good alternatives were available only at discount grocery stores where the majority of the population doesn't shop.  But the grocers are now starting to introduce these labels into their own stores so that the store-brand products become the mid-line alternatives.
  • They have always paid attention to the profitability of items on their shelves but now instead of dropping individual brands, they are dropping entire products from any producer so that the consumer no longer has that option within that store.  The logistics of the survey are that I visit the same three stores each month and price the 47 marketbasket items within each for a total of 141 items cumulatively.  Already, I have to account for the fact that two of the three stores no longer even stock one of the original items and that particular item is now dependent solely upon the remaining store for inclusion; if that store were to drop the item, I would end the survey.  This month, two separate grocers each discontinued carrying a single item and that leaves me with two more of the 141 now missing.  I have given thought to discontinuing the project if it reaches a point that so many of the original items are missing that the validity is threatened but it's not enough of a factor yet that it's in the cards.  Of course, if it does reach that point that too many of these common grocery items are missing from the store shelves, then it's moot because we're going to have far bigger fish to fry instead.
  • The grocers are decreasing their overall inventory and placing less on the shelves.  I'd noticed in the past year that shelf spacing was becoming erratic and in the past several months have purposefully paid attention to the appearance of the shelves.  What I've seen is that the grocers do seem to be increasing the empty space between products although I haven't gone in with a ruler to measure them.  In the case of one grocer, there's an appreciable difference in the shelf area for non-food personal care items such as shampoos and in another, in the cereal aisle.
  • The grocers have periodically changed their package sizing to meet the situation.  When the QE programs were in effect and commodity prices were rising, products underwent stealth inflation as prices remained the same yet the package sizing decreased so that the net effect was an increase in price for that item had the sizing remained the same.  What I've begun to see is the reverse, stealth deflation, as the package sizing is actually increasing with either no change in price or only a moderate increase that reflects an actual price drop in the item.  This has happened several times with store-brand coffee and most recently with the Suave Shampoo brand, which replaced the 22.5 ounce container with a 30 ounce bottle.  In the case of the shampoo, the price changes have not been high enough and when the pricing is recalculated to the original size bottle, the effect is a per ounce price cut.
  • The grocers are also finding ways to mass their purchasing power and force concessions from the producers.  The one grocer is owned by an international firm and I can see how they're exerting their buying power on the producers as they're simply cutting prices on more and more items.  There is also the likelihood that they're driving things down purposefully in order to overwhelm and outlast their smaller competitors; yet the reality is that the prices on similar items are being cut in the other grocers as well.
  • The takeaway is this.  These changes aren't occurring because the grocers and producers are being kind to stretched consumers.  They're happening because the grocers have to find a way to maintain sales in a population in which the money increasingly just isn't there.  And that is deflation.

    And now for the past six months of results.  Note:  There was an error in last month's table for the June results and I have corrected this in this table.  The correct figures were reported in last month's text but the numbers were listed incorrectly in the table.  This did not, however, alter the fact that the Total Index for June 2016 did breach the original index floor of 100 for that month.

     

    PracticalDad Price Index - July 2016
    Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
    7/16 99.51 99.01 (.5)
    6/16 99.90 100.24 .34
    5/16 100.66 101.60 .94
    4/16 101.64 101.40 (.24)
    3/16 102.86 102.85 (.01)
    2/16 103.86 104.27 .41

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