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A consumer price index (CPI) is a measure estimating the average price of consumer goods and services purchased by households. A consumer price index measures a price change for a constant market basket of goods and services from one period to the next within the same area (city, region, or nation). It is a price index determined by measuring the price of a standard group of goods meant to represent the typical market basket of a typical urban consumer. Related, but different, terms are the United Kingdom'smarker CPI, RPI, and RPIX. It is one of several price indices calculated by most national statistical agencies. The percent change in the CPI is a measure estimating inflation. The CPI can be used to index (i.e., adjust for the effect of inflation on the real value of money: the medium of exchange) wages, salaries, pensions, and regulated or contracted prices. The CPI is, along with the population census and the National Income and Product Accounts, one of the most closely watched national economic statistics.


Two basic types of data are needed to construct the CPI: price data and weighting data. The price data are collected for a sample of goods and services from a sample of sales outlets in a sample of locations for a sample of times. The weighting data are estimates of the shares of the different types of expenditure as fractions of the total expenditure covered by the index. These weights are usually based upon expenditure data obtained for sampled decades from a sample of households. Although some of the sampling is done using a sampling frame and probabilistic sampling methods, much is done in a commonsense way (purposive sampling) that does not permit estimation of confidence intervals. Therefore, the sampling variance is normally ignored, since a single estimate is required in most of the purposes for which the index is used. Stocks greatly affect this cause.

The index is usually computed yearly, or quarterly in some countries, as a weighted average of sub-indices for different components of consumer expenditure, such as food, housing, clothing, each of which is in turn a weighted average of sub-sub-indices. At the most detailed level, the elementary aggregate level, (for example, men's shirts sold in department stores in San Francisco), detailed weighting information is unavailable, so elementary aggregate indices are computed using an unweighted arithmetic or geometric mean of the prices of the sampled product offers. (However, the growing use of scanner data is gradually making weighting information available even at the most detailed level.) These indices compare prices each month with prices in the price-reference month. The weights used to combine them into the higher-level aggregates, and then into the overall index, relate to the estimated expenditures during a preceding whole year of the consumers covered by the index on the products within its scope in the area covered. Thus the index is a fixed-weight index, but rarely a true Laspeyres index, since the weight-reference period of a year and the price-reference period, usually a more recent single month, do not coincide. It takes time to assemble and process the information used for weighting which, in addition to household expenditure surveys, may include trade and tax data.

Ideally, the weights would relate to the composition of expenditure during the time between the price-reference month and the current month. There is a large technical economics literature on index formulae which would approximate this and which can be shown to approximate what economic theorists call a true cost of living index. Such an index would show how consumer expenditure would have to move to compensate for price changes so as to allow consumers to maintain a constant standard of living. Approximations can only be computed retrospectively, whereas the index has to appear monthly and, preferably, quite soon. Nevertheless, in some countries, notably in the United States and Sweden, the philosophy of the index is that it is inspired by and approximates the notion of a true cost of living (constant utility) index, whereas in most of Europe it is regarded more pragmatically.

The coverage of the index may be limited. Consumers' expenditure abroad is usually excluded; visitors' expenditure within the country may be excluded in principle if not in practice; the rural population may or may not be included; certain groups such as the very rich or the very poor may be excluded. Saving and investment are always excluded, though the prices paid for financial services provided by financial intermediaries may be included along with insurance.

The index reference period, usually called the base year, often differs both from the weight-reference period and the price reference period. This is just a matter of rescaling the whole time-series to make the value for the index reference-period equal to 100. Annually revised weights are a desirable but expensive feature of an index, for the older the weights the greater is the divergence between the current expenditure pattern and that of the weight reference-period.

Example: The prices of 95,000 items from 22,000 stores, and 35,000 rental units are added together and averaged. They are weighted this way: Housing: 41.4%, Food and Beverage: 17.4%, Transport: 17.0%, Medical Care: 6.9%, Other: 6.9%, Apparel: 6.0%, Entertainment: 4.4%. Taxes (43%) are not included in CPI computation.

CPI= (Productrep X Pricecurrent)/(Productrep X Price11987*)


Weights and sub-indices

Weights can be expressed as fractions or ratios summing to one, as percentages summing to 100 or as per mille numbers summing to 1000.

In the European Union's Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices, for example, each country computes some 80 prescribed sub-indices, their weighted average constituting the national Harmonised Index. The weights for these sub-indices will consist of the sum of the weights of a number of component lower level indexes. The classification is according to use, developed in a national accounting context. This is not necessarily the kind of classification that is most appropriate for a Consumer Price Index. Grouping together of substitutes or of products whose prices tend to move in parallel might be more suitable.

For some of these lower level indexes detailed reweighing to make them be available, allowing computations where the individual price observations can all be weighted. This may be the case, for example, where all selling is in the hands of a single national organisation which makes its data available to the index compilers. For most lower level indexes, however, the weight will consist of the sum of the weights of a number of elementary aggregate indexes, each weight corresponding to its fraction of the total annual expenditure covered by the index. An 'elementary aggregate' is a lowest-level component of expenditure, one which has a weight but within which, weights of its sub-components are usually lacking. Thus, for example:Weighted averages of elementary aggregate indexes (e.g. for men’s shirts, raincoats, women’s dresses etc.) make up low level indexes (e.g. Outer garments),

Weighted averages of these in turn provide sub-indices at a higher, more aggregated level,(e.g. clothing) and weighted averages of the latter provide yet more aggregated sub-indices (e.g. Clothing and Footwear).

Some of the elementary aggregate indexes, and some of the sub-indexes can be defined simply in terms of the types of goods and/or services they cover, as in the case of such products as newspapers in some countries and postal services, which have nationally uniform prices. But where price movements do differ or might differ between regions or between outlet types, separate regional and/or outlet-type elementary aggregates are ideally required for each detailed category of goods and services, each with its own weight. An example might be an elementary aggregate for sliced bread sold in supermarkets in the Northern region.

Most elementary aggregate indexes are necessarily 'unweighted' averages for the sample of products within the sampled outlets. However in cases where it is possible to select the sample of outlets from which prices are collected so as to reflect the shares of sales to consumers of the different outlet types covered, self-weighted elementary aggregate indexes may be computed. Similarly, if the market shares of the different types of product represented by product types are known, even only approximately, the number of observed products to be priced for each of them can be made proportional to those shares.

Estimating weights

The outlet and regional dimensions noted above mean that the estimation of weights involves a lot more than just the breakdown of expenditure by types of goods and services, and the number of separately weighted indexes composing the overall index depends upon two factors:
  1. The degree of detail to which available data permit breakdown of total consumption expenditure in the weight reference-period by type of expenditure, region and outlet type.
  2. Whether there is reason to believe that price movements vary between these most detailed categories.

How the weights are calculated, and in how much detail, depends upon the availability of information and upon the scope of the index. In the UK the RPI does not relate to the whole of consumption, for the reference population is all private households with the exception of a) pensioner households that derive at least three-quarters of their total income from state pensions and benefits and b) “high income households” whose total household income lies within the top four per cent of all households. The result is that it is difficult to use data sources relating to total consumption by all population groups.

For products whose price movements can differ between regions and between different types of outlet:
  • The ideal, rarely realisable in practice, would consist of estimates of expenditure for each detailed consumption category, for each type of outlet, for each region.
  • At the opposite extreme, with no regional data on expenditure totals but only on population (e.g. 24% in the Northern region) and only national estimates for the shares of different outlet types for broad categories of consumption (e.g. 70% of food sold in supermarkets) the weight for sliced bread sold in supermarkets in the Northern region has to be estimated as the share of sliced bread in total consumption × 0.24 × 0.7.

The situation in most countries comes somewhere between these two extremes. The point is to make the best use of whatever data are available.

The nature of the data used for weighting

No firm rules can be suggested on this issue for the simple reason that the available statistical sources differ between countries. However, all countries conduct periodical Household Expenditure surveys and all produce breakdowns of Consumption Expenditure in their National Accounts. The expenditure classifications used there may however be different. In particular:
  • Household Expenditure surveys do not cover the expenditures of foreign visitors, though these may be within the scope of a Consumer Price Index.
  • National Accounts include imputed rents for owner-occupied dwellings which may not be within the scope of a Consumer Price Index.

Even with the necessary adjustments, the National Account estimates and Household Expenditure Surveys usually diverge.

The statistical sources required for regional and outlet-type breakdowns are usually weaker. Only a large-sample Household Expenditure survey can provide a regional breakdown. Regional population data are sometimes used for this purpose, but need adjustment to allow for regional differences in living standards and consumption patterns. Statistics of retail sales and market research reports can provide information for estimating outlet-type breakdowns, but the classifications they use rarely correspond to COICOP categories.

The increasingly widespread use of bar codes, scanners in shops has meant that detailed cash register printed receipts are provided by shops for an increasing share of retail purchases. This development makes possible improved Household Expenditure surveys, as Statistics Iceland has demonstrated. Survey respondents keeping a diary of their purchases need to record only the total of purchases when itemised receipts were given to them and keep these receipts in a special pocket in the diary. These receipts provide not only a detailed breakdown of purchases but also the name of the outlet. Thus response burden is markedly reduced, accuracy is increased, product description is more specific and point of purchase data are obtained, facilitating the estimation of outlet-type weights.

There are only two general principles for the estimation of weights: use all the available information and accept that rough estimates are better than no estimates.


Ideally, in computing an index, the weights would represent current annual expenditure patterns. In practice they necessarily reflect past expenditure patterns, using the most recent data available or, if they are not of high quality, some average of the data for more than one previous year. Some countries have used a three-year average in recognition of the fact that household survey estimates are of poor quality. In some cases some of the data sources used may not be available annually, in which case some of the weights for lower level aggregates within higher level aggregates are based on older data than the higher level weights.

Infrequent reweighing saves costs for the national statistical office but delays the introduction into the index of new types of expenditure. For example, subscriptions for Internet Service entered index compilation with a considerable time lag in some countries, and account could be taken of digital camera prices between re-weightings only by including some digital cameras in the same elementary aggregate as film cameras.


Between 1971 and 1977, the United States CPI increased 47%.

In 2009 the Consumer Price Index fell for the first time since 1955.

See also


  1. Bloomberg Business News, Social Security Administration
  2. Harper's Magazine

External links

Specific countries

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