There are plenty of economic indicators investors can use to estimate where they stand in the economic cycle.
Some are very data-based and very rational even if sometimes complex.
And some are … of a more creative nature shall we say. In this article, we will look at some of the most original, absurd, or out-of-the-box economic indicators which have been proposed.
1. The Somewhat Serious Ones
Some indicators are not very easy to fit neatly into a mathematic formula, but might still contain valuable information. With investing as much an art as a science, they might even be useful.
The Big Mac Index
It is the idea that as Mcdonald’s is present all over the world, the price of a basic burger should reflect the real cost of living in a country. This is not that far-fetched, as the company will always optimize to the max its supply chain and operation. It is also operating in a similar way everywhere and the basic Big Mac is also more or the same.
On the negative side, it might not be usable for countries like North Korea, but this is not really a star destination for investors anyway, is it?
The RV Index
RV’s or mobile homes tend to be luxury purchases, done when people have spare cash and are planning long holidays and road trips. So it quite makes sense that record RV sales could indicate the market top.
This was quite the case in 2020 and 2021, but maybe all the hotels closing and flights being cumbersome or even risky with Covid had a lot to do with it.
Marine Advertisement Intensity Index
In bad economic times, enlisting might seem like a good way to get a job, benefits, an education, or all of the above at once. This is also when the Marines have little trouble finding enough recruits. So they run ads focused on toughness, and aggressivity, to scare off the potentially unmotivated or unfit candidates.
In periods of growth, they have the opposite problem of not having enough candidates. So they push ads with a more friendly tone, focused on self-accomplishment, able to convince the ensures that they should give it a try.
While this makes sense, this index might be a little too manipulative and militaristic for many.
Skyscraper Boom Indicator
When new records for the “world’s tallest building” are reached, it might be an indication of too much money around and a market top.
Just before the onset of the Great Depression, three of the world’s tallest buildings were under construction: 40th Wall Street, the Chrysler building, and the Empire State building. Similarly, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai was finished in 2010. The Petronas Towers in 1998 matched the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
Skyscrapers are rarely an efficient investment and more of a “vanity” project by whoever pushed for it, big bank, government, large corporation, etc… So it makes sense that they launch them at the height of exuberance before the bursting of a bubble.
For that matter, a similar idea exists for individual companies, the “curse of new HQ”. For the same reason: a company flush with cash can waste it on new flashy, and spectacular headquarters. That money could have been better spent on R&D or growth or reducing debt.
2. The Really Wacky Ones
Economists are people too. And they can get bored and come up with some really outlandish ideas while still claiming to do their jobs. Here are some of the concepts that have been proposed and ring from bizarre to outright funny.
MUI – Men’s Underwear Index
In this theory, men’s underwear sales are supposed to reflect consumer confidence and the state of the economy. Apparently, no less than Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan believed in it.
The idea is that this is a purchase men postpone during hard times. The same idea has been proposed for the sale of lipsticks. So maybe not that absurd after all.
Definitely not something we will see the IMF track any time soon.
The Hot Waitress/Waiter Index
As a warning, this index might be more than a little sexist. The idea is that during good economic times, women can pursue jobs in their preferred careers. But during layoffs and recession, “hot” women might be forced to take jobs in service they would have normally avoided. The same should be true for men for that matter.
An alternative version of this claim is that restaurant owners hire prettier waitresses when they feel they need more patrons. I let you see for further detail the NY Magazine investigation on the matter.
Not sure how this could translate into an actual investing strategy… Can be fun to collect data on it though.
The Hemline Theory
Hemlines are the distance between the ground and the bottom of a dress. Short skirts are supposed to be for economic growth. A Wharton economist created this theory in the 1920s, showing us the long history of wacky indicators.
A priori, you could think that shorter dresses are cheaper because they have less fabric, so it is somewhat contradictory. The idea was more that times with plenty of “festive” spirit like the Roaring Twenties (1920s) encourage a more “frivolous” and modern behavior.
Together with MUI, this would indicate that after 12 years of bull markets, we should see men with great underwear … and girls with very short skirts … Wait, maybe there is actually something there?
This concept is that during prosperous periods, professionals can afford to get a little creative with their apparel. A fucshia tie, a pink shirt, etc…
But when half of the company has been fired or will be soon, the survivors are likely to do everything to appear as professional as possible, serious, and downright boring. Like wearing black or dark color ties. Ties are also supposed to be slimmer during a recession.
So if your investment banker comes with a Star Wars tie at a meeting, is it time to sell?
The Olympics Indicator
Between the opening and closing of the Olympic Games, 18 of 26 games have turned out positive.
It might be that investors are optimistic when enjoying the games. Because of that markets are most of the time up, even so slightly, if you pick a random period of time.
Another version of it believes that the football world cup winner tends to outperform, with the country’s market rising in tandem with the popular joy. Or maybe it is just the extra consumption of beer during the celebrations, who knows…
There is really no shortage of theories and fanciful ideas about how to gain unique insights into the economy. Even if we exclude the more superstitious fortune tellers and other astrologers.
The line between innovative thinking and ridiculous can be even somewhat blurry. Where would you fit the dresses’ hemlines and men’s underwear sales? But they can anyway make for fun small talk at parties.
When someone asks you what you think about the market: just ask them if they find the waitresses hot or to show you their underwear, and that only then, you will be able to give an answer.
Bonus points if the Olympics are coming soon.
☝️ While some of the more “serious” wacky indicators might actually be useful, they are far from reliable. We definitely do NOT recommend you take any investment decision using them.