To solve this conundrum, the best place to start is to understand that rents are different from almost any other price. When the price of oil or grain goes up, everybody pays more for that good, at the same time. But when listed rents for available apartments rise, only new renters pay those prices. At any given time, the majority of tenants surveyed by the government are paying rent at a price locked in earlier.
So when listed rents rise or fall, those changes can take months before they’re reflected in the national data. How long, exactly? “My gut feeling is that it takes six to eight months to work through the system,” Michael Simonsen, the founder of the housing research firm Altos, told me. That means we can predict two things for the next six months: first, that official measures of rent inflation are going to keep setting 21st-century records for several more months, and second, that rent CPI is likely to peak sometime this winter or early next year.
This creates a strange but important challenge for monetary policy. The Federal Reserve is supposed to be responding to real-time data in order to determine whether to keep raising interest rates to rein in demand. But a big part of rising core inflation in the next few months will be rental inflation, which is probably past its peak. The more the Fed raises rates, the more it discourages residential construction—which not only reduces overall growth but also takes new homes off the market. In the long run, scaled-back construction means fewer houses—which means higher rents for everybody.
To sum up: This is all quite confusing! The annual inflation rate for new rental listings has almost certainly peaked. But the official CPI rent-inflation rate is almost certainly going to keep going up for another quarter or more. This means that, several months from now, if you turn on the news or go online, somebody somewhere will be yelling that rental inflation is out of control. But this exclamation might be equivalent to that of a 17th-century citizen going crazy about something that happened six months earlier—the news simply took that long to cross land and sea.
This sounds like a research methods problem: how to get more up-to-date data into the current measures? A few quick ideas:
- Survey rent listings to see what landlords are asking for.
- Survey new renters to better track more recent rent prices.
- Survey landlords as to the prices of the recent units they rented.
Given how much rides on important economic measures such as the inflation rate, more up-to-date data would be helpful.