Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers Highlights Overlooked Factor in Economic Sentiment: The Cost of Money

Featured & Cover Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers Highlights Overlooked Factor in Economic Sentiment The Cost of Money

The widely followed measure used by the government to gauge the cost of living tracks various expenses each month, but a significant factor is overlooked: the cost of borrowing money itself. This omission could lead to an understatement of the financial strain experienced by many Americans when interest rates rise, impacting expenses such as purchasing a home, securing a car loan, or managing credit card balances.

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers presents this argument in a recently published working paper titled “The Cost of Money is Part of the Cost of Living.” He suggests that this oversight might help explain why despite positive economic indicators, a substantial portion of the population remains dissatisfied. Summers points out the discrepancy using the example of the “misery index,” which traditionally combines unemployment and inflation rates. Despite reaching its lowest point since the 1980s, Summers contends that this index fails to capture the true sentiment of consumers.

Summers notes that although there has been some improvement in public perceptions of the economy, a pessimistic outlook persists. Despite robust economic growth, significant job gains, and wages outpacing inflation for a considerable period, a January Gallup poll revealed that 45% of Americans perceive the economy as poor, with 63% believing it’s deteriorating.

Summers humorously remarks, “The economy is booming and everyone knows it — except for the American people.” This contradiction between positive government data and negative public sentiment is likely to become increasingly scrutinized in the lead-up to the November election.

Summers emphasizes the importance of considering the cost of credit, which has surged due to the Federal Reserve’s efforts to raise interest rates to levels not seen in two decades. He argues that the expense of borrowing money should be viewed as part of the overall cost of living. Previously, the consumer price index (CPI) incorporated financing expenses until 1983, measuring housing costs by tracking monthly mortgage payments. However, the current CPI assesses housing costs differently, primarily by examining rental prices. While there were valid reasons for this change, Summers believes it fails to fully capture the financial impact on individuals. He suggests that incorporating interest rates into the calculation is essential for understanding people’s subjective well-being.

Summers suggests that if the pre-1983 CPI formula were still in use, it would have shown even higher inflation rates in 2022, around 15% instead of 9.1%, and inflation would not have decreased as rapidly in 2023.

As a prominent figure in economic discussions, Summers, who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, has consistently voiced his opinions. He was among the first to warn about the risk of runaway inflation in 2021 and predicted that a sustained period of high unemployment would be necessary to stabilize prices the following year.

The Federal Reserve has hinted at potential interest rate cuts later this year, which Summers believes could contribute to an improved economic outlook. He observed a positive correlation between decreased mortgage rates in December and January and a notable surge in economic sentiment.

“Insofar as interest rates come down, that’s likely to contribute to improved sentiment,” Summers concluded.

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