Saturday, April 21, 2012

Returns or Inflation?

Between July 2008 and today, the Indian Rupee has lost 40 % of its value.
Talk about rising prices, and discussion in the media inevitably revolves around the Inflation Rate. The Finance Minister talks about the Inflation Rate, so does the RBI Governor, the experts on TV channels and journos from the print & electronic media – all you get to hear from them is the Inflation Rate. Further, more often than not, they refer to the WPI (Wholesale Price Index), while what matters to the people is the CPI (Consumer Price Index). A meaningful analysis of how rising prices are hitting the venerated (just for namesake!) 'aam aadmi' is therefore, conspicuous by its absence. To understand why I say so, you first need to know what the problem with the Inflation Rate is.
This is what they show you - falling inflation (click to enlarge)
The Inflation Rate shows the difference between price of a commodity (or price index) over a period of one year. It compares the current price of a commodity with its price at the same point of time a  year ago. So if the price of loaf of bread was Rs.20 exactly one year back, and it is Rs. 22 today, we say inflation rate is 10 %. (Rs.2 over Rs.20).
But the inflation rate completely ignores prices more than one year away. If your perspective is long term, as it should be, the current inflation rate will tell you nothing about how prices have risen over a longer period of time. If prices double in a year, and remain where they are for another year, you will get an inflation rate of zero, though over a two year period, prices would have gone up by almost 50 % per annum. Therefore, while inflation rate has its uses, it is also important to look at the actual price index itself, to get a proper perspective on prices. Unfortunately, the media, and their  so-called experts are rarely interested in such finer details.
This is what the truth is - ever rising prices (click to enlarge)
Take a look at the news items, such as this or this or this Rarely will you find a mention of the actual price index. So I thought it would be worthwhile to see what was has happened to prices actually, rather than the inflation rate since July 2008. I used the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and not the Wholesale Price Index (WPI), since that is what matters the most to the people. What I found out was what I told you in the first sentence of this article – the Rupee has lost 40 % of its value in the last three & half years. The CPI (IW) which was at 143 on  31st July, 2008 stood at 199 on 29th February, 2012, almost 40 % higher. What does this mean? In simple terms, what ever Rs.100 could buy in July 2008 costs Rs.140 today. 

Now, if you were to adjust any of the current prices to this, you will get the real picture of price increase / decrease during the period. Adjust Sensex or the Nifty to this, and the indices which apparently have given a return of 24 % during this period actually end up with a loss of 11% ! Even property price rise has been very modest (19 % in 3 & 1/2 years) while Gold has performed the best.

As on
Real Returns

(* Inflation adjusted level) (@ MCX Spot price per 10 gms) (# NHB's Residex for Mumbai) (All Returns are absolute, not annualised)

To assess the price performance of anything over the long term, you need to deflate it with the price level. That is when you will get the real picture.   
Note: In 2011, the Government issued a new series using 2010 as the base. As per the new series, the inflation rate is 9.45% and 10.30% for Urban India in February and March 2012 respectively, even higher than what the above figures indicate. For want of adequate history, I have used the old series of CPI in my calculations above. 


  1. Good write-up. Funny how as investors, we calculate returns based on compounded returns, but when costs (inflation) are calculated, it is based on simple returns. Very well said.

    Doesn't that say the rupee needs to depreciate (held up mainly because of FII inflows). Otherwise FII's are making money (as the rupee isn't falling as much as inflation demands) while Indian investors are losing because of inflation.

    1. Absolutely. The Rupee needs to depreciate substantially from hereon. It would be a blunder if RBI drains its reserves and tries to support the Rupee.