By Neville Bennett It started with the Economist's Big Mac Index. People got a pretty good idea about comparative international prices by comparing the price of Big Macs in big cities. Another step for me was a recent article in which I mentioned that my favourite indices of international economic activity were in conflict: the Baltic Dry index (shipping) supported the "green Weeds" hypothesis, but the IATA passenger and cargo data showed deep depression. My blog got such an enthusiastic response that I thought I would launch a competition with chocolate fish awards for good indicators. For example, if there is good business activity the tall cranes are busy. I recall my son saying, many years ago: "Did you know that 10% of the tall cranes are in Shanghai?" I did not, and was surprised. A Tall Crane Index would indicate investment and where it was. It would be brilliant. Similarly, where are there most cargo containers? Any ideas? Oil-bulls might like to know more on the market for off-shore drilling platforms.
When I was young the hemline index was effective. When women's hemlines rose in the 1960's so did stock prices. Stocks and hemlines were sky-high when the mini-skirt dominates. Then the oil-shock of the 1970's dragged down shares and hemlines. (Ah! The swinging "˜60's in London.... That was the time to be alive! The pill, Mary Quant, Twiggy, The Beatles, and England won the World Cup.) At one time I had a fix on concrete, it was terrific, I predicted a housing boom in New Zealand, and my article was ahead of the pack. Even the real estate people had really only noticed the coast and places like Nelson and Queenstown. I forget where I got the concrete data. Can anyone help? (Ed. note: Check out our concrete chart at the bottom of the post) I am told dry cleaners are suffering as people are very slow to pick up their stuff. Customers are delaying payment in this industry (and many others, perchance), and I suppose that will be true for cobblers, stuff on lay-by etc. Got a lead on dry cleaning? Dry cleaning could be tricky. It would need 2 parts; clothing and hotels. Clothing is seasonal I suppose, lots of work in the party season before Christmas, quiet in January. But the hotels are very busy in December-March, and again in skiing season. A decline in the dry-cleaning index is a typical recession-depression behavior. You will notice it in transport: lots more people on buses, trains and on bikes. I suppose we can wait until regional authorities tell us, but they are too slow to be an indicator for journalism. They will provide good data for historians (a very praiseworthy activity) but we need it now, but how can we get it quickly? Recessions are good for fast food but Statistics NZ has that covered. I wonder if the switch to fast food would continue if we went into depression? Perhaps not. It could be regarded as discretionary, and decline a little. But if things get really tough, I reckon fish and chips would revive as source of cheap calories. Meanwhile, there are other signs of the times. When people want relief they cannot go to the circus like they might have done in Rome or Byzantium, but they can go to Simon and Garfunkel or other shows. Apparently they are in droves. In the US cinema has revived, ticket sales are up 9% this year. But the cinema is cheaper in the States; average admission US$7.20. Another sign of the times is the revival of vegetable gardening. Some Sunday paper stories suggest it is cheaper to grow your own. Not in my experience. You get ripped off for seeds, and anyone starting out would spend plenty on tools and equipment. I do grow a lot of food because I want organic stuff, and the convenience of having herbs, spring onions etc at hand. I grow Jerusalem Artichokes and rare potatoes because I cannot buy them. Still, is there a vegetable gardening index? I gather that dating increases in recessions. I imagine women want more security. Hence lip-stick sales shoot up, so does eye-make up, and Match.com in the US has noticed a huge increase in dating activity. A Mills and Boon index would also show positive trends at present, I think. I would not like the job as a Porsche salesman at present. I suppose sales of new luxury cars, Rolex etc are a touch flat. Second hand sports cars might be different. You could get them cheap in London or Dubai Airport, and take them to Shanghai. So there's the challenge. We welcome your suggestions in the comments below. ____________ * Neville Bennett was a long-time Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Canterbury, where he taught since 1971. His focus is economic history and markets.