Inside the Rent Inflation Measure That Economics Nerds Love to Hate

There’s a three-letter abbreviation that economists have started pronouncing with the energy of a four-letter word: “O.E.R.”

It stands for owner’s equivalent rent, and it has been used to measure American housing inflation since the 1980s. As its name suggests, it uses a combination of surveys and market data to estimate how much it would cost homeowners to rent the house they live in.

But three years into America’s price pop, it has become almost cliché for economists to hate on the housing measure. Detractors blast if for being so slow-moving that it does not reflect up-to-date conditions in the economy. Critics argue that it uses convoluted statistical methods that make little sense. The most intense haters insist that it is giving a false impression about where inflation stands.

“It’s just not adding anything to our understanding of inflation,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics and a frequent adviser to the Biden administration. Full disclosure: The New York Times called Mr. Zandi for this article because he has been one of the many economists grousing about O.E.R. on social media. He said he was “not a fan.”

What has this one nerdy inflation component done to earn so much vitriol?

It is preventing an economic happy ending, more or less. Housing inflation measures have been surprisingly sticky over the past year, and they are now a major barrier keeping price increases overall from returning to normal. That has knock-on effects: Because of inflation’s staying power, the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates at a more than two-decade high to try to wrestle prices under control by slowing the economy.

But while there’s no denying that O.E.R. has become a main character in America’s inflationary tale, not everyone thinks it is the bad guy. Some economists think it is a valid and reasonable way to measure an important part of the consumer experience. Ahead of a fresh Consumer Price Index report set for release on Wednesday morning, there are a few key facts to understand about how housing inflation is calculated, what it means and what it might do next.

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