The Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) Inflation Watch spreadsheet contains the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Both current and expected near-term general inflation continue to be quite low. The CPI-U—the popular measure of inflation, sometimes called headline inflation—rose 0.2 percent in August 2015 vs. August 2014, before seasonal adjustment. However, core inflation—the overall index minus the effects of price changes for food and energy—rose 1.8 percent for the 12 months ending August 2015. Since January the 12-month change in the CPI has been close to zero, and most forecasters think headline CPI for the full year 2015 will end up between 0.2 percent and 0.4 percent. Moreover, wage inflation is quite modest (see below). There is still slack in both the U.S. and especially the larger global economies, making sharp near-term overall future price increases unlikely (except from exogenous shocks, such as the price of oil). From a macroeconomic policy viewpoint, rising inflation doesn’t appear now, and in the near future isn’t likely to be, a problem to combat.
Price trends for items that more directly affect property/casualty (P/C) insurance claims do not necessarily follow broad-based price indexes. Prices for items such as intensive healthcare affect claims under third-party coverages such as workers compensation and bodily injury liability, as well as first-party coverages like PIP and med pay and, obviously, medical expense insurance. For many years these price increases have far outpaced both headline inflation and the overall price index for medical care, but this trend has moderated recently. In August 2015, on a year-over-year basis, prices for inpatient hospital care rose by 3.1 percent. Seasonally adjusted prices for outpatient hospital services rose by 3.0 percent in August 2015 over August 2014. This is the lowest year-over-year change since before January 1988 (that’s as far back as BLS data go). In contrast to hospital price changes, price changes for prescription drugs have been rising at a higher rate. In August 2015 prices for prescription drugs rose by 4.7 percent over August 2014.
Price increases relating to auto insurance property claims have been quite moderate recently. Expenditures for new cars rose by 1.6 percent in the second quarter of 2015 over the same quarter in 2014. Prices for motor vehicle parts and equipment, which affect not only comprehensive and collision claims, but property damage liability as well, fell by 0.7 percent in August 2015 vs. August 2014. These prices fell in most months since December 2012 and, despite some monthly increases, are about even with May 2011. Prices for motor vehicle repair rose by 2.5 percent for the 12 months ended August 2015 and prices for motor vehicle body work rose by 0.6 percent year-over-year (not seasonally adjusted). The BLS survey of consumer prices for motor vehicle insurance in August 2015 rose by 5.4 percent year-over-year. Of course, many factors other than prices for auto repair—such as the continuing drop in insurers’ investment income, and continuing above-CPI growth in the prices for intensive medical care, as noted above—likely are affecting these increases.
Finally, average weekly earnings of all employees in private employment rose 2.5 percent in August 2015 on a year-over-year basis—0.7 percentage points above the rise in the core CPI. This is the 13th month in a row that wages rose slightly faster than the core CPI. Moreover, wages in the services sector (as distinct from the goods-producing sector) rose faster than overall wages, and services constitute roughly 80 percent of the U.S. economy. Wage growth affects workers comp and, indirectly, liability and PIP claims. Wage growth above inflation means consumers have increased buying power, which—if used—could stimulate the economy to grow faster than it did in prior years. However, other data—unfilled job openings, the seven million people who are working part-time but want full-time employment, the 650,000 people who say they are “discouraged” from even looking for a job, etc.—tell a somewhat different story of considerable slack remaining in the labor market despite the low (and falling) headline unemployment rate. The labor market slack is generally believed to restrain higher inflation, at least in the coming months.
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