The 41 Most Unusual Economic Indicators

With the government shutdown showing no sign of abating, it looks like we could be left without some of our favourite economic indicators for some time.
For example, economists and market watchers won’t get their hands on the Bureau of Labour Statistics’ jobs report — the oft-hyped monthly indicator — until Congress can produce a budget.

The good news is there are other economic indicators to supplement our view of the economy.

Though some, like Tylenol usage and the Mosquito Bite Indicator, are stranger than others.

Eric Platt helped compile the research for this report.

The First Date Indicator

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.

Buttered Popcorn Index

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.

Drudge Headline Correlations

The Concept: The greater the Drudge Report focuses on business stories, the more likely the stock market is to have hit a bottom.

The Proof: Bespoke Investment Group recently tracked the number of financial headlines on the Drudge Report front page and compared them to the S&P 500. Turns out bottoms in the S&P 500 correlated to the number of business headlines on Drudge.

Child Abuse

The Concept: Sadly, lower levels of consumer confidence have been associated with increased levels of child abuse, specifically spanking.

The Proof: During the Great Recession, 'As CSI increased, indicating worse consumer confidence, the percentage of children spanked at high frequency increased -- rising roughly between 0.5 and 1.5 percentage points for every 5-point rise in CSI,' found economists Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, William Schneider, and Jane Waldfogel. 'When confidence was at its worst (CSI of 85) at the height of the recession, high frequency spanking was predicted to increase to 8.32% of the sample, a rate approximately 6 times what it was when confidence was better (CSI of 55).'

The Olympics Indicator

The Concept: Markets should rally during the Summer Games as the games distract investors from gloomy headlines.

The Proof: Bespoke Investment Group tracked the Dow Jones back to 1900 and found positive returns in 18 of the last 26 games. Bespoke based each year's time frame as that between the opening and closing ceremonies.

The Penis Length Correlation

The Concept: Countries where the average male organ is, well average, have stronger economies than those with the largest and smallest.

The Proof: Tatu Westling of the University of Helsinki conducted the study and found the correlation. How does he explain it? Salivary testosterone levels have been shown to be positively associated with risk-taking behaviour. Assuming these links hold it would suggest that male organ acts as a proxy for risk-taking. Therefore, countries that engage in too much or too little risk taking underperform countries that take moderate risk.

Alligator Population Index

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 $US20,000, 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.

Guns-to-Caviar Index

The Concept: The Guns-to-Caviar index measures the ratio of money spent on military jets to that on private jets, or the relative amount of anxiety and elation among the global elite.

The Proof: Richard Aboulafia, the creator of the index, says, 'Defence budgets rise with threats and perception of threats, and cash filters down, with planes typically delivered two years after they are ordered.'

The Plastic Surgery Indicator

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,

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover Indicator

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: Last year, Kate Upton was on the cover, and the S&P 500 beat its historical average. This year, she's on the cover again.

The Super Bowl Indicator

The Concept: If a team from the old National Football League (NFC division) wins the Super Bowl, the S&P 500 will gain for that year. However, if a team that can trace its roots to the old American Football League (AFC division) wins, the market will decline.

The Proof: Believe it or not, analysts tell us it is widely accepted that this rule has been accurate around 80 per cent of the time since 1970.

Mosquito Bite Indicator

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 R-Word Index

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.

Divorce Rates

The Concept: There are financial advantages to being married, and going through a divorce can be expensive.

The Proof: A recent study demonstrated that a couple is less likely to get a divorce during a recession, and money is often the driving factor behind such a decision.

Japanese Haircut Indicator

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.

Happy Meal Indicator

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.

Coupon Redemption Index

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.

Skyscraper Boom Indicator

Hemline Index

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.

Men's Underwear Index

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.

Curse Of The New HQ

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, but there is a long history of new homes preceding collapse or difficulty, including The New York Times, AOL Time Warner and MySpace.

The Garbage Indicator

The Concept: Pretty simple, GDP should correlate to the amount of garbage produced. The reason: if you create things you also have to throw other goods out.

The Proof: Of all categories that ship by rail, none correlate tighter to GDP than waste. A 2010 Bloomberg piece by economists Michael McDonough and Carl Riccadonna put the correlation as high as 82 per cent.

Year Of The Dragon Indicator

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.

Aspirin and Tylenol Usage

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.

Lipstick Index

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.

Big Mac Index

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.

Now how about the worst indicators

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