Monday, January 16, 2012

Costs Flying Sky high While Others Nearly Plummet

One way of measuring inflation is to gauge how prices for an assortment of goods and services have varied over time. Another approach involves looking at changes in how much things cost relative to what the average worker earns (the flaw with this latter method, of course, is that those who don't have jobs may find that many, if not most, of the things they might want or need to buy are unaffordable).

In searching for airline tickets over the last six months for an upcoming family vacation to Italy I have seen the broad impact of fuel costs on ticket prices since a trip two years ago. Obviously, ticket prices move on hundreds of factors but the most influential input is the cost of jet fuel. In the last decade jet fuel cost per gallon is up 3.5x from 0.87 cents a gallon to 3.01 on average globally last month. Up to 70% of an entire airlines operating budget is fuel costs.

Click image for source and up to date index information.

Be that as it may, if one assumes that data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is even remotely close to the mark, it would appear that the purchasing power of the average worker has improved over the past 10 years, which is contrary to popular wisdom (see dotted line in the chart below).
There could be any number of reasons why perceptions differ from the reported data. Among other things, the composition of the basket of goods that the BLS uses to construct its index might not be realistic, especially in today's fast-changing economy. Or maybe the pricing information they rely on doesn't jibe with consumers' experience on the ground. Then again, a cynic might note that authorities have an incentive to underestimate inflation and overestimate wage growth for pollitical gain.
Regardless, I thought it interesting to highlight those categories that have become the least and most affordable for the average worker over the past decade. Not surprisingly, gasoline and other energy-related products are a lot more expensive in relative (and absolute) terms than they used to be, which goes some way towards explaining  the heightened demand for fuel efficient cars and why people are driving fewer miles than they used to. In contrast, it's easy to see why sales of flat screen TVs and other modern gadgets have jumped -- the products are much more affordable than they used to be.