The Pandemic and Hidden Inflation

If the price of your meal is the same, but the service is slow and the menu is limited you have experienced hidden inflation.

Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (We discuss the construction of the CPI in Chapter 9, Section 9.4 of Macroeconomics and Chapter 19, Section 19.4 of Economics.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will use instead the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.

A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone.  The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify that part of price increases that are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. So, for instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent.

During 2021, a number of observers pointed to a hidden type of inflation occurring, particularly in some service industries. For example, because many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table.  Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price but receiving less. 

Alan Cole, who was formerly a senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, noted on his blog that “goods and services are getting worse faster than the official statistics acknowledge, suggesting that our inflation problem has actually been bigger than the official statistics suggest.” As examples, he noted that “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays,” “shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.”  And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”

A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts.

The BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for these types of deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin notes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?”

As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate.  This bias may have been more than offset since the beginning of the pandemic by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.

Sources: Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” wsj.com, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” nytimes.com, October 14, 2021.

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