The New York Times

December 25, 2004

Birds and Dancing Ladies Skew the '12 Days' Index


WASHINGTON, Dec. 24 - Maids-a-milking, gold rings and turtledoves were a relative bargain this year, but anyone who shopped for French hens, geese and ladies dancing may have been in for a touch of sticker shock.

So said PNC Advisors, the wealth management firm that each year tallies the putative cost of assembling all the items from the song "12 Days of Christmas." This year, all those goods and services would have set a buyer back $66,334, about the cost of a fully loaded sport utility vehicle.

That is a record price for the 364 tokens of affection ranging from a partridge in a pear tree to a dozen drummers drumming. Still, the cost is up only slightly, 1.6 percent, over last year's total, and compared with the 1984 total, is 5.9 percent higher.

PNC Advisors, a unit of the PNC Financial Services Group, the Pittsburgh-based banking company, started tabulating the gift package two decades ago to see whether the costs of the presents in the English carol tracked the United States government's Consumer Price Index. The general conclusion the firm has drawn is that they usually do.

This year PNC Advisors found that the prices went up in the low single digits on a percentage basis for goods and remained steady for services.

The flat prices for services, according to the group's chief investment strategist, Jeff Kleintop, reflect an hourly compensation anchored by a static minimum wage and the outsourcing of unskilled labor.

Hence, the eight maids-a-milking, who earned $26.80 for the chore 20 years ago, put a buyer out only $41.20 today, at $5.15 an hour.

Skilled labor, like the nine ladies dancing, would make the biggest dent in a budget, at $4,400, up 4 percent from last year. The 10 lords-a-leaping went up 3 percent, to $4,039.08, and the 12 drummers drumming rose 3.6 percent, to $2,224.30.

Among the assorted fowl named in the song, there were various breed-based price differentials. Swans, doves, partridges and calling birds (today's canaries) cost about the same as last year, according to information from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

But the price of French hens, which are a slightly more exotic version of American hens, went up 200 percent, Mr. Kleintop said, largely because American breeders of French hens introduced a more expensive variety.

PNC Advisors' news release elaborated: "The price for French hens and geese saw significant increases, which may be due to fewer hatchlings during this breeding cycle creating an imbalance in the supply-demand chain. Turtledoves, on the other hand, may have had a more fruitful breeding cycle, creating an oversupply of birds and a 31 percent decline in price."

The release continued, "All told, the cost of the birds in the Christmas classic totaled $4,201, just 1.5 percent more than the $4,138 it would have cost a year ago."

Mr. Kleintop said the trumpeter swans could now and then really jolt the index, because breeding cycles vary and affect the price. In 1984, for instance, the seven swans-a-swimming called for in the song cost $1,000 each, but in subsequent years the price of the long-necked birds slumped. Since 2001, the price has risen, to $500 each. Every year, PNC offsets the swans' variable cost by calculating a core index that excludes such cost anomalies.

Taking that into consideration, the PNC index rose 3.1 percent, roughly in line with the 3.7 percent increase in the first 11 months registered by the Consumer Price Index, which measures a much broader range of goods and services.

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