Reading: The CPI and PCE

The Consumer Price Index (CPI)

One widely used price index in the United States is the consumer price index (CPI), a price index whose movement reflects changes in the prices of goods and services typically purchased by consumers. When the media report the U.S. inflation rate, the number cited is usually a rate computed using the CPI. The CPI is also used to determine whether people’s incomes are keeping up with the costs of the things they buy. The CPI is often used to measure changes in the cost of living, though as we shall see, there are problems in using it for this purpose.

The market basket for the CPI contains thousands of goods and services. The composition of the basket is determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an agency of the Department of Labor, based on Census Bureau surveys of household buying behavior. Surveyors tally the prices of the goods and services in the basket each month in cities all over the United States to determine the current cost of the basket. The major categories of items in the CPI are food and beverages, housing, apparel, transportation, medical care, recreation, education and communication, and other goods and services.

The current cost of the basket of consumer goods and services is then compared to the base-period cost of that same basket. The base period for the CPI is 1982–1984; the base-period cost of the basket is its average cost over this period. Each month’s CPI thus reflects the ratio of the current cost of the basket divided by its base-period cost.

Equation showing that CPI=current cost of basket/1982–1984 cost of basket.

Equation 5.2.

Like many other price indexes, the CPI is computed with a fixed market basket. The composition of the basket generally remains unchanged from one period to the next. Because buying patterns change, however, the basket is revised accordingly. The data in Table 5.1 “Pricing a Market Basket,” for example, are based on 2005–2006 expenditure weights. The base period, though, was still 1982–1984.

The PCE Price Index

The Bureau of Economic Analysis also produces price index information for each of the components of GDP (that is, a separate price index for consumer prices, prices for different components of gross private domestic investment, and government spending). The personal consumption expenditures price index, or PCE price index, includes durable goods, nondurable goods, and services and is provided along with estimates for prices of each component of consumption spending. Because prices for food and energy can be volatile, the price measure that excludes food and energy is often used as a measure of underlying, or “core,” inflation. Note that the PCE price index differs substantially from the consumer price index, primarily because it is not a “fixed basket” index.For a comparison of price measures, including a comparison of the PCE price index and the Consumer Price Index, see Brain C. Moyer, “Comparing Price Measures—The CPI and PCE Price Index” (lecture, National Association for Business Economics, 2006 Washington Economic Policy Conference, March 13–14, 2006), available at The PCE price index has become a politically important measure of inflation since the Federal Reserve uses it as its primary measure of price levels in the United States.

Self Check: Price Indexes

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

You’ll have more success on the Self Check if you’ve completed the two Readings in this section.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.