Photo: Adrian Clark via Flickr
With the second revision to GDP just days away, economists are looking for any macro data that supports their view that growth continues to moderate.And some may just turn to the morgue. We’ll explain later.
There are many odd indicators that are arguably more reliable than some of the data that we get from the government.
Many investors use them to guide their views on the economy. And sometimes, they are spot on.
The Concept: Because of high funeral costs, family members never claim the bodies of the deceased so the state will pay for costs.
The Proof: In 2009, at the height of the financial crisis when non-farm payrolls were falling by more than half a million a month, Detroit logged a massive increase in the number of unclaimed bodies at its morgue. State payouts for burials nearly doubled over a two month period compared to just a year earlier.
The Concept: People seek out others for first dates when the economy turns down and sentiment falls (they're lonely!).
The Proof: Match.com notices strong patterns on its site that correspond to economic downturns. The company said the fourth quarter of 2008 was its busiest period in seven years (its second busiest weekend ever came when the Dow dropped to five-year lows in November 2008). Match said traffic also spiked after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Concept: Mosquito bites increase as more homes sit empty and ill maintained. With higher grass and disheveled properties, back yards and swimming pools become breeding grounds for the pest.
The Proof: In 2009, the number of pools that had to treated by the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department jumped 60% from 2007, as foreclosed properties sat unattended. However, this metric may have become less useful as banks delayed foreclosing on homes in an effort to preserve the housing market.
The Concept: Won't be able to make it out to that bar after work? Apparently you aren't alone. Consumers often try to save money by drinking at home, sending pub sales and jobs into a tizzy.
The Proof: In Europe, 73% of jobs tied to the beer industry are outside breweries. These include jobs at bars and restaurants. From 2008 through 2010, employment in the beer industry fell 12% versus 2% for Europe as a whole. Surely austerity measures feel much harder without that drink.
The Concept: People stop getting cosmetic surgery as the economy begins to waver. The reasons: 1. If job cuts are coming, people want to save for futures needs, 2. Even if job cuts are not coming, employees don't want to take off work to stay in the best grace of their bosses.
The Proof: Plastic surgery revenue in the U.S. declined 9 per cent in 2008 as the economy headed into contraction, with the American Society of Plastic Surgeons expressly citing the bad economy. That said,
The Concept: The nationality of the woman chosen for Sports Illustrated's annual swim shoot issue dictates how American markets will perform over the year. If an American is chosen, the concept goes, the S&P 500 will outperform historical returns.
The Proof: Russian born Irina Shayk appeared on the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover, and markets have had difficulty remaining in the green since the year's open.
The Concept: Consumers move to canned goods to save on food expenses during hard times.
The Proof: During 2009, the value of baked beans soared 23% in the U.K. as consumers fell back on the staple instead of going out for dinner.
The Concept: This index compares currency exchange rates in different countries based on the cost of a Big Mac. The index uses purchasing power parity to explain whether a currency is over or under valued at its current price.
The Proof: The Economist publishes this index annually and it shows a strong correlation between the dollar price of a Big Mac and GDP per person. The Economist says that simply comparing prices is irrelevant, as labour costs vary greatly by country.
The Concept: Two indicators here. The first, men will buy ties to appear that they're working harder during difficult economic times. The second, ties get slimmer during bad times and brighter when the economy starts to recover.
The Proof: In the U.K., with news that layoffs could be coming in 2007, sales of ties spiked as men tried to show employers that they came to do work. Width of the ties narrowed due to austerity measures during past wars, but current production abilities have seemingly put that indicator on hold. But anyone who has spent time in lower Manhattan will tell you that skinny ties are back.
The Concept: During flush times women are more likely to get their hair cut, dyed, and simply groomed more frequently. During recessions they're more likely to take off extra inches to save on trips to the salon.
The Proof: Few analysts have likened to the idea, but Japan's Nikkei magazine drew on data that revealed women cut their hair shorter as the economy fell in 1997.
The Concept: Perhaps the gloomiest of economic indicators is the bicycle fatality indicator, which increase during hard times.
The Proof: In the U.K., the Department for Transport said fatalities jumped 12 per cent year-on-year as austerity measures took effect in 2011. Cycling deaths also surged 58 per cent during the Great Depression, before retreating.
The Concept: To escape the doldrums of reality, consumers flock to cinemas to see Jason Bourne and Harry Potter, regardless of the movie's quality.
The Proof: The box office posted one of its biggest years during the 2009 recession, before plateauing as markets eased. If there's a double-dip, expect popcorn sales to be up again.
The Concept: The quicker salesmen are to discount cars on their lots, the weaker the economy.
The Proof: No actual data exists on closing times. But discounts increased astronomically in 2008 when Ford, GM and Chrysler were left with excess inventories.
The Concept: When the economy slips, consumers turn to coupons in their Sunday circulars to try to cut costs on things like toothpaste, laundry detergent and groceries.
The Proof: In 2009, coupon redemption soared to 3.3 billion uses as consumers looked to save more at the market. During the second quarter this year, coupon use has increased 4%, coupon processing firm Inmar says.
The Concept: In an effort to protect profit margins, restaurants downsize free offerings to kids like crayons and toys.
The Proof: In the middle of the 2009 recession, Red Robin halved the number of crayons kids got to colour. Too bad if you're a colouring fiend, you'll have some difficulty getting that sun yellow.
The Concept: In a hope to save money, parents with newborns, babies, and toddlers try to cut back on costs by changing their child's diaper fewer times throughout the day.
The Proof: According to data from Symphony IRI, diaper rash cream volume increased 2.8% while sales of disposable diapers tumbled 9%.
The Concept: Building booms will precede and then coincide with recessions, particularly when construction of a new tallest building is underway. Also, the taller the building, the longer the crisis.
The Proof: Barclays tracks the boom in its Barclays Skyscraper Index, and the results are surprising. During the Great Depression, three of the world's tallest buildings were under construction: 40 Wall Street, the Chrysler building and the Empire State building.
The Concept: Always busy with other clients, getting a contractor to return a call can be a big hassle during a home renovation project. So, the quicker a contractor returns your calls, the worse the economy is doing.
The Proof: There isn't much hard data on this one. But it seems to make sense. Then again, if the economy is bad enough, then you might not be able to afford that home makeover you want to commission.
The Concept: Discovered by economist George Taylor in the 1920s, the Hemline Index predicts the market based on the length of women's skirts and dresses. The shorter hemline, the better the economy is looking.
The Proof: Just a myth, according to retail buyers. But some economists still point to the dreary lengths that came out following the financial crisis in 2008. And others worry that the maxi skirts out this summer are telling of another downturn.
The Concept: A sharp decline in the usage of cardboard means a recession is on the horizon, while increases indicate expansion.
The Proof: Much of the world's non-durable goods are shipped in cardboard containers, making this indicator rather straightforward. When cardboard box sales increase, it means companies are shipping a greater number of goods to sell, and therefore employing more people. The largest producer of cardboard boxes in Europe, Smurfit Kappa, saw top line results fall by $269.9 million in 2008 from a year earlier, as operating profits declined 50 per cent.
The Concept: With fewer Americans spending on discretionary items, sales of high end hand bags made of alligator or crocodile, which can retail upwards of $20,000, fall.
The Proof: In 2009, alligator farms in Louisiana faced solvency issues as the market all but dried up. Alligators kept producing, but their skins were not needed or purchased by luxury designers.
The Concept: Men will forgo purchasing new underwear to save money during hard times.
The Proof: True. Even Alan Greenspan is on the bandwagon. Research firm Mintel estimated men's underwear sales fell 2.3% in 2009, the first time since 2003.
The Concept: When a company's CEO announces plans to build or move to a new world headquarters, sell your stock because it's about to drop.
The Proof: There are a number of corporate examples that both support and dispel this curse/indicator. There is a long history of new homes preceding collapse or difficulty, including The New York Times, AOL Time Warner and MySpace. On the other side, Apple just announced plans to build a new HQ, and followed that with a blowout quarter.
The Concept: Waiting for the right time to invest? If you follow the Chinese Zodiac you may want to wait for the lucky dragon, which will coincide with strong market returns.
The Proof: It's true. Market returns during the year of the dragon are second only to the rabbit at 7.7 per cent. And there's some reason behind it: many people time buying a house, marrying, and having children to the dragon.
The Concept: Sales of aspirin and other headache medications are expected to increase as the economy heads toward rough times, as more people feel the stress.
The Proof: There's no historical data, but in 2008 Advil sales perked up 2 per cent on an 8 per cent surge during the fourth quarter, at the height of economic uncertainty.
The Concept: Official recessions coincide with a surge in the number of times the word recession appears in print -- well before the two quarter delay it takes for a country to call it.
The Proof: The Economist tracks the word's use in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times and has done a great job of highlighting the start date of recessions, including those in 1990, 2001 and 2007.
The Concept: Simple supply and demand: during boom times when women can find better jobs, there are fewer hookers and hourly prices rise.
The Proof: Latvian sex workers have unfortunately been stuck in a rut. As the economy soured, rates fell as low as $60 for a night's work in 2009. This Baltic index is way more intuitive than that other Baltic index.
The Concept: Hundreds of millions of Google searches are conducted each day. So, the search giant thought, why not aggregate it all and see if it tells us something.
The Proof: Bingo. The nearly two dozen areas tracked, including unemployment, oscillate with the market.
The Concept: The intensity of Marine Corps advertisements evolve with hiring trends. During tough times, civilians who can't get work are more likely to enlist. But if too many people sign up, the Marines toughen up their videos to scare off potential recruits.
The Proof: Remember those stately Marine commercials a young recruit rock climbing sans gear? Well, those are out. With Marine recruitment up and the size of the corps declining, new commercials are out that aren't particularly inviting.
The Concept: Created by Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder, the index shows that women turn to lipstick instead of more expensive indulgences like handbags and shoes during hard times.
The Proof: According to Investopedia, lipstick sales doubled after the recession following September 11.
The Concept: The hotter the waitress, the closer the economy is to the brink. During boom times, physically attractive people can leverage their looks to get better paying jobs. Perhaps, modelling or hosting corporate events.
The Proof: New York magazine thinks there's substance to this concept.
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