BLS was established in 1884, and some of our programs date back nearly that far. We have more than a century of statistics on prices, employment, wages, productivity, and more. But even in those early days, we realized that pages full of numbers can be a little dull. We frequently use pictures to tell the stories behind those numbers and help readers see the important points more quickly. Let’s look at over a century of BLS price statistics, in five charts.
The first chart, which looks hand drawn, was originally presented as part of the Department of Labor’s exhibit at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago in 1933, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.
The chart below depicts changes in the cost of living from 1913 to 1932, based on the BLS Consumer Price Index. Here we see market baskets (with legs) rising during World War I, then declining and holding steady during the roaring 1920s, and declining as the nation entered the Great Depression.
The next chart, again looking hand drawn – this time perhaps with a ruler – compares wholesale prices (what we now call the Producer Price Index) in the years leading up to the United States entering World War I and World War II. It comes from the first of two BLS bulletins on Wartime Prices. The increase in the wholesale price for all commodities was nearly twice as great in the earlier period, reflecting large differences in the price change for such commodities as fuel and chemicals.
Now, let’s move forward about 20 years. BLS published a chart book in 1963 focusing on price changes over the prior decade. The chart book presented both consumer and wholesale prices for the nation, along with consumer price trends in the 12 largest U.S. cities. The chart shown here, perhaps produced on an early computer, tracks the change in prices for all consumer items, and separately for various categories. Prices for durable commodities, such as appliances and furniture, declined in the early part of the period and later rebounded, resulting in virtually no price change over the decade. In contrast, the price of services, such as shelter, transportation, and medical care, rose steadily throughout the period.
With advances in computer software, BLS expanded the use of charts to allow readers to visualize data trends. Such charts became prominent in the BLS flagship publication, the Monthly Labor Review. In an article from 1987, data from the BLS International Price Program track price changes for selected imports.
BLS ushered in the age of interactive charts in recent years, making chart packages available with most news releases. In the chart below, readers can track a decade of consumer price changes for all items, and then click on selected categories to compare trends. Want to compare price changes for food at home with food away from home? It’s just a couple of clicks away.
Our charts today are a lot more sophisticated than the hand-drawn charts of the early twentieth century. They may not have amusing cartoon characters like the CPI market basket with legs, but they have interactive features that let you dig into more details about the data or choose the data you want to see. We also have several publications that focus on the visual display of data. Check out The Economics Daily and Spotlight on Statistics!
Whether I’m working from my home “office” or I travel into my “real” office, I notice a lot of construction activity. In my neighborhood, the number of work trucks seems to multiply every day, with homeowners getting new roofs, updated decks, expanded kitchens, and even large additions. Away from the neighborhood, I pass cranes high above me that are the makings of new residences, new office buildings, new schools, and more. Given all this construction, I thought I’d take a look at what BLS data have to say about construction prices.
I am going to focus on the Producer Price Index (PPI) for “intermediate demand.” You might already be familiar with the PPI, which was first published in 1902. The PPI measures the average change over time in the selling prices domestic producers receive for their output. The headline number reports on “final demand.” That is the average change in selling prices received by producers for products sold for personal consumption, capital investment, government, and export. But what about goods and services sold to businesses for further production, such as those used in construction projects? That’s where the “intermediate demand” index comes in.
Within the intermediate demand categories, the PPI provides price changes for both services and goods. Goods used for construction include “materials” and “components.” Materials are partially processed products that will be further processed into completed products. Softwood lumber and plywood are examples of materials.
Components are complete commodities purchased for assembly with other commodities. Sinks, windows, and doors are “components.” There are other inputs to construction as well, such as energy, transportation, and trade services, which fall into other PPI intermediate demand categories. But today the main focus is on materials and components we see every day at construction sites.
Your local roofing contractor and the mega-construction company building that new hospital are affected by the change in price for these intermediate demand goods. Those price changes probably are passed on to the final customer. So let’s look at what’s been happening to some of those intermediate demand prices.
Overall, the price of materials and components for construction registered a 1-month increase of 0.6 percent in July 2021 and a 20-percent increase from a year earlier. Here’s a chart showing a little longer history, separately for materials and components. The prices of both changed little during 2019 but surged upward later. Between the two, materials prices grew earlier, and by a larger amount, but fell back a bit in July 2021.
Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.
The PPI measures price changes for many products. I chose a few, based on some local construction projects I’ve seen lately. For example, the neighbor down the street is putting a two-story addition onto the back of her house. A project like that probably requires a lot of wood products—and that might make it expensive. In the last 19 months, the prices received by producers of plywood more than doubled.
Along the nearby highway, there’s a large warehouse under construction, perhaps related to the increase in online shopping and home delivery. The owner may have seen price increases for many of the construction materials, including an 83-percent increase in the price of iron and steel in the past 19 months. The second chart shows that large price increases in wood and metal products dwarfed those observed for most other materials and components for construction.
It’s time for a new roof at my house—and I see companies producing the asphalt products used on roofs charged 12 percent higher prices in July 2021 than 19 months earlier. From my window, I can see one neighbor is replacing an aging heating and air conditioning unit, while another is installing a new patio. Their contractors are experiencing a variety of price changes. In the past 19 months, producer prices rose 11 percent for heating equipment and 7 percent for concrete products. Finally, with a lot of people spending the last year or more working and schooling from home, it may be time to spruce up that interior. Some of the materials your contractor may need include cabinets, windows, doors, and other “millwork,” whose prices over the last 19 months are up 25 percent; paint products, up 10 percent; lighting fixtures, up 6 percent; and sinks and other plumbing fixtures, up 4 percent.
Unusually large and fast price increases sometimes turn out to be temporary. Fuel prices often are volatile like this. Recently, consruction materials prices might have been as well. In July 2021, producer prices for softwood lumber fell 29 percent.
Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.
BLS measures changes in producer prices for items like these each month. The PPI moves differently for final demand and intermediate demand because the mix of goods and services consumed by these users differs. Likewise, even within the construction sector, the mix of inputs used for production varies. For example, construction of single-family homes might require more lumber, while construction of warehouses might require more steel.
We just looked at the producer price indexes that examine “intermediate demand” for detailed materials and components used in construction overall. Additional breakdowns of price changes for products used in construction and other industries are available from a different set of producer price indexes, known as the “inputs to industry” indexes. These two sets of indexes rely on somewhat different data and methods to track different producers’ use of inputs, so their estimates of overall producer price changes sometimes differ slightly. Together they offer a fuller picture. The inputs-to-industry indexes offer a more detailed breakdown of price changes for inputs consumed by specific construction industries.
Consider the overall producer prices paid for goods (excluding food and energy) used as inputs to different types of construction. The third chart shows that these prices rose most for construction of new single-family homes. This might partly reflect more intensive use of softwood lumber in construction of new single family homes than in some other types of construction.
Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.
The price changes examined here just scratch the surface of the detail available from the PPI each month. As you think about your next homeowner project or pass by another large construction site, you now know where you can find that latest information on selling prices for intermediate demand. These data let you know how much contractors’ input prices change for the materials they need for the projects in your homes and neighborhoods.
Percent change since December 2018 in producer prices for materials and components for construction
Percent changes in producer prices for selected materials and components for construction
Material or component
December 2019 to December 2020
January 2021 to July 2021
Iron and steel
Fabricated structural metal products
Asphalt felts and coatings
Paints and allied products
Major household appliances
Plumbing fixtures and fittings
Percent change since December 2018 in producer prices for goods (excluding food and energy) used as inputs to selected types of construction
In the few months that I’ve had the pleasure of occupying the Commissioner’s seat at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s been clear that I’m surrounded by a smart, dedicated, and innovative staff who collect and publish high-quality information while working to improve our products and services to meet the needs of customers today and tomorrow. And soon after I arrived, we added to that high-quality staff by welcoming a cadre of Civic Digital Fellows to join us for the summer.
In its third year, the Civic Digital Fellowship program was designed by college students for college students who wanted to put their data science skills to use helping federal agencies solve problems, introduce innovations, and modernize functions. This year, the program brought 55 fellows to DC and placed them in 6 agencies – Census Bureau, Citizenship and Immigration Service, General Services Administration, Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and BLS. From their website:
BLS hosted 9 Civic Digital Fellows for summer 2019. Here are some of their activities.
Classification of data is a big job at BLS. Almost all of our statistics are grouped by some classification system, such as industry, occupation, product code, or type of workplace injury. Often the source data for this information is unstructured text, which must then be translated into codes. This can be a tedious, manual task, but not for Civic Digital Fellows. Andres worked on a machine learning project that took employer files and classified detailed product names (such as cereal, meat, and milk from a grocery store) into categories used in the Producer Price Index. Vinesh took employer payroll listings with very specific job titles and identified occupational classifications used in the Occupational Employment Statistics program. And Michell used machine learning to translate purchases recorded by households in the Consumer Expenditure Diary Survey into codes for specific goods and services.
We are always looking to improve the experience of customers who use BLS information, and the Civic Digital Fellows provided a leg up on some of those activities. Daniel used R and Python to create a dashboard that pulled together customer experience information, including phone calls and emails, internet page views, social media comments, and responses to satisfaction surveys. Olivia used natural language processing to develop a text generation application to automatically write text for BLS news releases. Her system expands on previous efforts by identifying and describing trends in data over time.
BLS staff spend a lot of time reviewing data before the information ends up being published. While such review is more automated than in the past, the Civic Digital Fellows showed us some techniques that can revolutionize the process. Avena used Random Forest techniques to help determine which individual prices collected for the Consumer Price Index may need additional review.
Finally, BLS is always on the lookout for additional sources of data, to provide new products and services, improve quality, or reduce burden on respondents (employers and households). Christina experimented with unit value data to determine the effect on export price movements in the International Price Program. Somya and Rebecca worked on separate projects that both used external data sources to improve and expand autocoding within the Occupational Requirements Survey. Somya looked at data from a private vendor to help classify jobs, while Rebecca looked at data from a government source to help classify work tasks.
Our cadre of fellows has completed their work at BLS, with some entering grad school and the working world. But they left a lasting legacy. They’ve gotten some publicity for their efforts. Following their well-attended “demo day” in the lobby at BLS headquarters, some of their presentations and computer programs are available to the world on GitHub.
I think what most impressed me about this impressive bunch of fellows was the way they grasped the issues facing BLS and focused their work on making improvements. I will paraphrase one fellow who said “I don’t want to just do machine learning. I want to apply my skills to solve a problem.” Another heaped praise on BLS supervisors for “letting her run” with a project with few constraints. We are following up on all of the summer projects and have plans for further research and implementation.
We ended the summer by providing the fellows with some information about federal job opportunities. I have no doubt that these bright young minds will have many opportunities, but I also saw an interest in putting their skills to work on real issues facing government agencies like BLS. I look forward to seeing them shine, whether at BLS or wherever they end up. I know they will be successful.
And, we are already making plans to host another group of Civic Digital Fellows next summer.
Natural gas prices mirrored a rollercoaster during the last few months — lots of ups and downs. Let’s explore why. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes many indexes that measure changes in prices for natural gas. Producer Price Indexes and Import Price Indexes tell us about these and other price movements faced by U.S. businesses. Natural gas is critical to the U.S. economy, and changes in natural gas prices can have a large impact on our daily lives. You may use natural gas for cooking or heating your home, but did you know these facts about natural gas?
Natural gas has surpassed coal as the largest source of electricity generation in the United States.
The United States has become the world’s largest natural gas producer and consumer.
Natural gas consumption in the United States reached historic highs in 2018.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production reached record levels in 2018, driven by improved drilling techniques (such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”), more wells, and increased crude oil production. Natural gas can be produced either through direct extraction or as a byproduct of crude oil drilling. With more production, we might expect prices to fall because more natural gas is available on the market. Natural gas prices increased sharply in the fourth quarter of 2018, however.
Let’s look at that rollercoaster of natural gas prices. In the early part of 2018, normal seasonal fluctuations and increased production pushed natural gas prices down. However, higher U.S. demand limited the decline in prices. Prices leveled off somewhat during the spring and summer months. Over the final 3 months of 2018, U.S. import prices for natural gas increased by 138.8 percent, the largest quarterly increase since the index began in 1982. Likewise, producer prices for natural gas increased by 90.2 percent over the same period.
Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.
There were many reasons prices rose sharply in the last 3 months of 2018. The industrial and electric power sectors are the biggest users of natural gas. The record-high natural gas consumption in the United States in 2018 was driven by record-high demand from the electric power sector. Despite record production in 2018, natural gas storage stocks hit a 16-year low by the end of the year. More domestic consumption and increased exports cut into the natural gas inventory. That pushed prices up starting in October, but there were other reasons prices rose.
An explosion of a major Canadian natural gas pipeline disrupted supply in mid-October. This explosion sharply limited U.S. imports of natural gas from Western Canada and reduced natural gas supply in the Northwest United States. Natural gas distributors asked customers to restrain usage, but import prices still rose. In November, imports from the pipeline grew to about half the amount before the explosion. Even though the natural gas supply from the pipeline moved toward full capacity in December, the demand for natural gas kept upward pressure on prices.
California also experienced natural gas pipeline capacity and storage issues later in the year. Those issues pushed prices up for the entire West Coast region during the fourth quarter of 2018.
Domestically, the increased demand for natural gas over the year resulted in the fourth lowest volume added into working stocks during the refill season since 2005. The refill season, typically April through October, is when natural gas supply typically outpaces demand, allowing working stocks to grow for the upcoming winter season. By November’s end, working gas stocks in the lower 48 states were below 3 trillion cubic feet for the first time since 2002 because of the depletion over the year. This lower supply, coupled with reduced imports, pushed domestic prices up as demand grew from electricity generation and heating needs from severe cold weather in most regions of the country.
Prices then fell in January 2019. Import prices for natural gas decreased by 44.2 percent in January, and producer prices fell 32.2 percent. Imported natural gas from Western Canada returned to more normal levels in the first half of January. As a result, natural gas supply caught up to demand, pushing prices lower. In addition, warmer-than-average temperatures during the beginning of January limited demand for natural gas, also placing downward pressure on prices.
The Producer Price Index (PPI) – sounds familiar, but what is it exactly? Didn’t it used to be called the Wholesale Price Index? It is related to the Consumer Price Index, but how? How does the PPI impact me?
Lots of questions! In this short primer we will provide brief answers and links for more information. Note, if you are an economist, this blog is NOT for you. It’s an introduction for everyone else!
Before we go any further – what is an index? (You said this was a primer!)
An index is like a ruler. It is a way of measuring the change of just about anything. Producer price indexes measure the average change in prices for goods, services, or construction products sold as they leave the producer.
Here is an example of how an index works:
Suppose we created an index to track the price of a gallon of gasoline.
When we start tracking, gasoline costs $2.00 a gallon.
The starting index value is 100.0.
When gasoline rises to $2.50, our index goes to 125.0, which reflects a 25-percent increase in the price of gasoline.
If gasoline then drops to $2.25, the index goes to 112.5. The $0.25 decline in price reflects a 10-percent decrease in the price of gasoline from when the price was $2.50.
If you are a gasoline dealer, you might find a gasoline index useful. Instead of driving around every day to write down the prices of each competitor’s gasoline and averaging them together, the index can provide the data for you. (Question #5 in the PPI Frequently Asked Questions explains how to interpret an index.)
PPI is called a “family” of indexes. There are more than 10,000 indexes for individual products we release each month in over 500 industries. That is one big family!
OK, so PPI has lots of data – but what kind of data?
PPI produces three main types of price indexes: industry indexes, commodity indexes, and final demand-intermediate demand (FD-ID) indexes.
An industry refers to groups of companies that are related based on their primary business activities, such as the auto industry. The PPI measures the changes in prices received for the industry’s output sold outside the industry.
PPI publishes about 535 industry price indexes and another 500 indexes for groupings of industries.
By using the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) index codes, data users can compare PPI industry-based information with other economic programs, including productivity, production, employment, wages, and earnings.
The commodity classification of the PPI organizes products by type of product, regardless of the industry of production. For example, the commodity index for steel wire uses pricing information from the industries for iron and steel mills and for steel wire drawing.
PPI publishes more than 3,700 commodity price indexes for goods and about 800 for services.
This classification system is unique to the PPI and does not match any other standard coding structure.
The FD-ID classification of the PPI organizes groupings of commodities by the type of buyer. For example, the PPI for final demand measures price change in all goods, services, and construction products sold as personal consumption, capital investment, export, or to government. As a second example, the PPI for services for intermediate demand measures price change for services sold to business as inputs to production.
PPI publishes more than 300 FD-ID indexes.
This FD-ID classification system is unique to the PPI and does not match any other standard coding structure.
Now let’s go back to the beginning
1902: Wholesale Price Index program begins, which makes it one of the oldest continuous set of federal statistics. The Wholesale Price Index captures the prices producers receive for their output. In contrast, the Consumer Price Index captures the prices consumers pay for their purchases.
1978: BLS renames the program as the Producer Price Index to more accurately reflect that prices are collected from producers, rather than wholesalers.
PPI also shifts emphasis from a commodity index framework to a stage of processing index framework. This minimized the multiple counting that can occur when the price for a specific commodity and the inputs to produce that commodity are included in the same total index. For example, think of gasoline and crude petroleum both included in an all-commodities index.
The “headline” number for PPI is called the PPI for Final Demand. It measures price changes for goods, services, and construction sold for personal consumption, capital investment, government purchases, and exports. We also produce a series of PPIs for Intermediate Demand, which measure price change for business purchases, excluding capital investment.
Let me give you an example: Within the PPI category for loan services, we have separate indexes for consumer loans and business loans. The commodity index for consumer loans is included in the final demand index and the commodity index for business loans is mostly in an intermediate demand index.
Inflation is the higher costs of goods and services. Low inflation may be good for the economy as it increases consumer spending while boosting corporate profits and stocks.
A change in producer prices may be a leading indicator of consumers paying more or less. Higher producer prices may mean consumers will pay more when they buy, whereas lower producer prices may mean consumers will pay less to retailers. For example, if the PPI gasoline index increases, you may see an increase soon at the pump!
Policymakers, such as the Federal Reserve, Congress, and federal agencies regularly watch the PPI when making fiscal and monetary policies, such as setting interest rates for consumers and businesses.
Business people use the PPI in deciding price strategies, as they measure price changes in inputs for their goods and services. For example, a company considering a price increase can use PPI data to compare the growth rate of their own prices with those in their industry.
Business people adjust purchase and sales contracts worth trillions of dollars by using the PPI family of indexes. These contracts typically specify dollar amounts to be paid at some point in the future. For example, a long-term contract for bread may be escalated for changes in wheat prices by applying the percent change in the PPI for wheat to the contracted price for bread.
PPI is a voluntary survey completed by thousands of businesses nationwide every month. BLS carefully constructs survey samples to keep the number of contacts to a minimum, making every business, large and small, critical to the accuracy of the data. We thank you, our faithful respondents! Without you, BLS could not produce gold-standard PPI data.