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Falling Rents Signal Deflation

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Housing supply affects price measures.

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In recent months, headlines have been popping up noting that rents -- finally -- are beginning to follow home prices into the abyss.

Since the housing market began to crumble, would-be homeowners were forced to become renters, keeping demand for rental units relatively strong even as home prices fell. Now, however, as landlords convert condos into rentals, supply is beginning to move in tenants' favor.

And while this is welcome news for millions of renters around the country, its impact on consumer price measurements could materially impact mounting deflation expectations.

The reason can be found in the nuances of how the US Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. The CPI is the most widely quoted gauge of inflation, it being the easiest to explain to the consuming public. Tally up a basket of commonly purchased items, see how their prices compared to last month, then last year and voila! consumer prices at your fingertips.

In realty, of course, it's a bit more complicated: Just take a gander at this sophomoric equation from a recent CPI release:



Riiiiiiiiiight.

The most heavily weighted item in the CPI is something known as Owners' Equivalent Rent, or OER, which accounts for almost 24% of the total index. OER is the government bean counters' preferred method for measuring the cost of owner occupied housing, calculated by figuring out how much the median homeowner in the country would have to pay to rent his or her family's dwelling.

Many observers, Minyanville's Professor Mish Shedlock included, believe the CPI has been understating inflation for years by ignoring housing prices. Now, that rents are beginning to fall, however, inflation readings could become dire.

As Professor Kevin Depew noted last week, the December CPI registered the lowest inflation reading since 1980. And while most media outlets touted the effect of dramatically lower energy prices, OER is quietly reversing a long-standing trend and contributing to the decline.

Examining the data, available on the BLS' website, OER has been steadily trending upwards for years. Even though the housing market peaked in late 2005, OER rose in 2006, 2007 and even 2008. The rate of change, however, is slowing. Notably, in December 2008, OER rose just 0.08% from November, breaking from the rest of the year's trend.

And while 1 month does not a trend make, the data support stories from Manhattan to Los Angeles of landlords giving into thrifty tenants shopping for the best deal. With mounting job losses and weak economic conditions persisting, this will be an important trend to watch in coming months. Property liquidations by big banks like Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) will add to housing supply, further pressuring rents.

CPI data matter, despite their myriad of potential problems, because of their effect on inflation expectations - or in this case, deflation expectations.

Federal Reserve officials, including Chairman Ben Bernanke, are wary of these expectations because they represent future consumer behavior. In a speech last summer, as energy prices rose to all-time highs, Bernanke said "Some indicators of longer-term inflation expectations have risen in recent months, which is a significant concern for the Federal Reserve."

Fearful of higher prices in the future, consumers increase buying now, spurring demand and pushing prices up even further. The same is true the other way. If the public thinks prices will keep falling, they will delay purchases, waiting for a better deal down the road. This weakens aggregate demand, accelerating price declines.

So as rents, the largest component of the CPI, continue to fall, pricing measurements are likely to signal deflation, even as conventional wisdom calls for hyperinflation. And as a deflationist attitude gains currency, social mood continues to darken, and consumerism is shunned, lower prices will ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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