Economists make their calls based on deep data mining and plenty of speculation. But sometimes it might seem like they're just throwing darts at a board, with "boom" and "bust" alternating on the squares.
Heck, some truly weird things seem to predict the economy's direction as well as the experts. If you're worried about a recession, you may want to keep an eye on these very odd economic indicators.
1. The Marine ad index
The Marine Corps is physically demanding, and fewer people tend to enlist during stable economic times. The Marines have to advertise more, and the ads focus on the positive, polished aspects of being in the Corps.
But when the economy's bad and there are fewer jobs, more people consider becoming a Marine. So, cue ads full of grunting and sweating, so that only the best and the toughest recruits apply.
Pay attention next time you come across an ad for the Marines. If it makes the Corps look grueling, a recession may be on the horizon.
2. Necktie styles
In the business world, thin, brightly colored ties are considered to be daring and youthful. Wider ties in darker, neutral colors are considered more traditional and mature.
Some observers have noticed that when the economy is doing well and jobs are plentiful, men tend to wear colorful and skinny ties because they are confident about job opportunities and are willing to be daring individuals in the office.
When the economy is poor, men wear more conservative ties because they don't want to risk looking immature. So, what color ties have you been seeing lately?
3. Men's underwear sales
Yes, this one sounds very strange, but former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan is among the believers. Here's how it goes: People who don't have enough money make sacrifices, so men tend to sacrifice shopping for underwear when the economy is bad.
This proved true back in 2009, when the U.S. economy was suffering through the Great Recession. Sales of men's underwear declined slightly.
Since "going commando" wasn't a fashion trend at the time, observers assumed men were wearing their old boxers longer, and cutting costs in the least visible way possible.
4. Rabid petnapping
Traditionally, times of economic crisis have tended to coincide with increased criminal activity. Today, online scams have made this more difficult to measure — but one thing is sure: During the mid-2000s recession, there was a spike in the number of dognappings!
Small dog breeds, like Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers, were more likely to be snatched, then sold over the internet. Alternatively, a stolen pet could be “found” and "returned" by the thief to earn a reward.
Sudden increases in the numbers of stolen pets indicate an economic slump, because it means people aren’t earning enough to survive and are turning to desperate measures to make extra cash.
5. Bad times at the bar
When prices are high and jobs are harder to come by, consumers look for ways to cut back on spending. One of the first unnecessary expenses to get the axe is going to the bar.
It's no secret that buying a six pack of beer from a grocery store is much cheaper than paying premium prices for individual bottles in a bar.
People without money tend to stay home more often. And, in lean times, those who do go out tend to spend less at the bar.
6. Popcorn prices
As if movie theater pricing weren't high enough already, the price of popcorn tends to go up during economic downturns.
People cut back on nonessential spending during recessions, and taking in the latest blockbuster on a big screen often falls to the bottom of the list.
With fewer people going to the movies to spend their money, theater managers have to fill their revenue gap somehow — and the easiest way is by raising the price of popcorn. Of course, they’ll never lower the prices again.
7. Beauty products binges
It would be too depressing to completely stop treating ourselves during a recession. But instead of shopping for expensive clothing or accessories, women are apt to compensate with a cheaper form of retail therapy.
Hello, drugstore makeup and perfume aisles! Lipstick and nail polish can be relatively cheap ways for women to splurge just a little.
When sales of affordable drugstore makeup brands start to rise, it can be a sign of economic uncertainty.
8. Boxes and boxes
Although it may not be apparent to customers, retail stores use tons of cardboard boxes in their stock rooms. Online stores also ship items in cardboard boxes.
When the economy is hot and customers are making plenty of purchases, retailers need more cardboard boxes.
Hence, an increase in the sales of cardboard boxes is considered by many economists to be an indicator of good economic times.
9. Counting crayons
Crayons can tell us how the economy is doing. Really!
Family-friendly restaurants often put out coloring pages and crayons for young diners to enjoy. In slow economic times, these same restaurants inevitably try to save money by cutting corners — and crayons.
When a child gets a large cup of crayons in many colors, the economy is probably doing well. But if she or he only gets two or three crayons, the economy is predicted to be doing poorly.
10. The Big Mac index
McDonald's has penetrated every country, making the Big Mac an economic phenomenon. The Economist's long-running Big Mac Index measures foreign currencies' exchange rates against the U.S. dollar based on the price of the sandwich in each country.
Economists then compare this Big Mac exchange rate to the official exchange rates. If there’s a significant difference, then something isn’t quite right.
Big Mac sales can be an economic indicator, too. Business surged at McDonald's during the Great Recession, because tightfisted consumers were eating out less often and choosing cheaper places (like Mickey D's) when they did go out.