The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

December 17, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas come with a heftier price tag

David Helscher

---- — For the last-minute holiday shopper I have a suggestion. A financial firm tracks the annual cost of the items included in the carol the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Rather than procrastinate you will probably need to start right away to secure all of these items for your special someone and it is going to cost you more this year than last. Never let it be said that I didn’t have suggestions!

This Christmas Index produced a price increase of 10.6 percent from last year for each item, totaling $20,393.17. If you strictly adhered to the song, repeating all of the verses, the cost would set up back $114,651.18 for 364 gifts, up 6.9 percent from 2012. The items tend to fall into two general categories: commodities; pear tree, partridge, French hens, geese, gold, or, labor; maids-a-milking, lords-a-leaping and pipers piping.

For the most part, the commodity items were very well contained, showing little actual increase over 2012. As of the end of November, the Dow Jones UBS Commodity Index was down 13 percent over the past year. Five gold rings showed no increase despite gold experiencing a market decline of 27 percent. The outlier was four calling birds, up 15 percent and swans were excluded as they have proven especially volatile, not surprising given their temperament. My taste runs more to beef and pork or consumable items. Market livestock prices were down over 1 percent in the past year for live cattle and lean hogs.

Labor conditions in the U.S. have recently improved with November’s unemployment rate falling to 7 percent. The economy has been adding more jobs in the past two months according to nonfarm payroll reports from the Labor Department. The past two months have shown increases of over 200,000 jobs a month. The Christmas Index reflects the labor components making the biggest increase, with Nine Ladies Dancing up 20 percent, reflecting increased demand for specialized skills. I find the 10 percent increase in 10 Lords-a-Leaping suspect, given the government austerity programs in Europe and double digit unemployment in much of the Euro Zone.

Still, in the U.S. the labor participation rate reversed course and increased in November, reflecting, in part, the end of the government shutdown. The average workweek increase by .1 to 34.5 hours and hourly earnings were up 2.0 percent annualized through November. Person income increased but spending also increased. Consumers are spending, although Black Friday retail sales numbers were down Cyber Monday showed a 20 percent increase over 2012. Christmas consumers must have been bidding up the wages of pipers and drummers online. The cost of items included in the Christmas Index purchased online declined by 1.7 percent over the past year, but were still more expensive than buying in person. This must be the cost of shipping birds, a tree and transportation of various pipers, dancers and leapers.

The annual increase in the Christmas Index has exceeded general inflation. The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditure index, reflects annual inflation of about 1 percent. The subdued inflation rate provides the Fed with room to allow interest rates to rise or begin tapering bond purchases without igniting inflationary pressures. The continued slack in the labor markets and underutilized capacity affords them some time. Even the trade balance is supportive of tame inflation, with strong exports relative to imports, unless you count those from the North Pole.

The Christmas Index is to give you some ideas for those final items or for the person on your list that already has everything. My list does not include birds, gold or drummers, unless you count beating the snow shovel on the walk! It tends to run more along the lines of woolen socks and sweaters. May your holiday season be safe and warm.

David Helscher is a senior vice president and trust officer with Clinton National Bank.