How do I read or interpret an index?

An index is a tool that simplifies the measurement of movements in a numerical series. Most of the specific CPI indexes have a 1982-84 reference base. That is, BLS sets the average index level (representing the average price level)-for the 36-month period covering the years 1982, 1983, and 1984-equal to 100. BLS then measures changes in relation to that figure. An index of 110, for example, means there has been a 10-percent increase in price since the reference period; similarly, an index of 90 means a 10-percent decrease. Movements of the index from one date to another can be expressed as changes in index points (simply, the difference between index levels), but it is more useful to express the movements as percent changes. This is because index points are affected by the level of the index in relation to its reference period, while percent changes are not.

In the table that follows, Item A increased by half as many index points as Item B between Year I and Year II. Yet, because of different starting indexes, both items had the same percent change; that is, prices advanced at the same rate. By contrast, Items B and C show the same change in index points, but the percent change is greater for Item C because of its lower starting index value.

Year item A item B item C
Year I 112.500 225.000  110.000
Year II 121.500  243.000   128.000


Change in index points 9.000     18.000   18.000

Percent change                9.0/112.500 x 100 = 8.0   18.0/225.000 x 100 = 8.0                18.0/110.000 x 100 = 16.4