Column: The secrets to predicting 2014′s future

01/04/2014 10:00 AM |

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Tourists on NYC’s Wall Street in 2011.

Depending on who you talk to, the economy seems to be on the mend and 2014 will be a good year for Americans’ finances.

But that qualifier of who you’re talking to says it all. So in an effort to gather all the information we can, here at Gimme Shelter, on which way the economic wind will be blowing this year, we’ve been paging Babson & Roubini, but haven’t had any luck.

AMBROSE CLANCY

Even though these two might sound like sole partners in an up-island law firm monitoring police scanners for four-car pileups on the LIE, they are actually economic forecasters. Roger Babson and Nouriel Roubini predicted the two greatest financial catastrophes of the last 100 years.

Playing Chicken Little with the correct information, Mr. Babson saw the October 1929 Wall Street crash coming. And Mr. Roubini told everyone in 2006 who would listen — no one in power did — that the U.S. economy was heading for flameout.

Today some people prophesize doom, some say happy days are here again, and others rely on the unassailable truth that even a broken clock is accurate twice a day.

We’ll dispense with reading the entrails of housing starts, the labor market, factory orders, interest rates and currency supplies to look at seven other bellwethers telling us where the economy is heading.

1. Mens’ underpants. Former Federal Reserve Chairman and Ayn Rand acolyte Arthur Greenspan once said declining mens’ underwear sales means “a prescient, forward impression that here comes trouble.”
You’ve already crafted your own punch line to Mr. Greenspan’s unfortunate quote, so we’ll move on.

2. Sonny “Junior” Giorgio. In Chicago, during an interrogation of the alleged Cosa Nostra don — arrested for conspiracy and hijacking — Mr. Giorgio told investigators the price for federal judges had remained steady over the past quarter.

3. High heels. At the depths of the economic crisis in 2009, the median height of high heels was seven inches, according to Portfolio.com. That median figure has been steadily dropping since then. Meaning women can’t afford the bimonthly visit to the podiatrist?

Not so fast. Others took the heel indicator to mean the economy was strapping on its dancing shoes. Researchers at IBM broke down data from social media sites to find that flat shoes and kitten heels are hot, meaning, said IBM analyst Trevor Davis, that the proliferation of do-what-you-will-to-me shoes means buyers are looking for “fantasy and escape” from bad times. Lower shoes, brighter times ahead.

Which begs the question: Who comes up with names like “kitten heels?”

4. Hemlines. George Taylor, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, has noted that during the Roaring 20s women’s hemlines went north dramatically and plunged during the 1930s Great Depression. Taylor deduced women wanted to flaunt pricey silk stockings while Roaring and hide their bare legs when Depressed.

But a fashion clue these days is short skirts and bare legs. No word yet from Professor Taylor.
However, women’s fashion tastes must be analyzed because, referring to our first indicator, most men wouldn’t even have underwear if their wives didn’t buy it for them.

5. Seagulls. If you’ve noticed flocks of seagulls hanging out in Long Island parking lots with the occasional flap over for a dumpster dive, this means the economy is on the upswing. Forbes magazine recently noted the size of restaurant garbage piles means people are eating out more, since restaurants throw away more in preparation in fat times than in lean. Of course, seagulls in parking lots might just mean storms are brewing out at sea. But you can impress your dimmer dinner companions by either predicting the weather or the economy.

6. Alligators. In Cut Off, Louisiana, the 60,000 residents at Savoie’s Alligator Farm are breathing a bit easier as they bask in the mud or slither in the creek for a dip. Seems there’s less demand for their hides.

The gator farmers are suffering because Gucci, Vuitton and Versace haven’t made the trek for skins to Cut Off lately. Meaning the wealthy are settling for stingray, ostrich, python, eel and lizard for their shoes and handbags.

We’re not sure if that means anything, but it’s always fun to point out there’s a municipality in Louisiana called Cut Off.

7. The one-eyed car. An old friend, Martin Melkonian, professor of economics at Hofstra, sees merit in counting the number of cars sporting only one headlight at night. When those numbers increase, more people are going broke and putting off installation of a new light.

“At least in the neighborhoods I’m driving, I’m seeing more one-light cars,” Mr. Melkonian told us.

Professor Melkonian said he’d ask his wife about more “quirky” indicators and get back to us. “She’s good at that kind of thing,” he said.

It didn’t seem appropriate to ask if Mrs. Melkonian bought the professor’s underwear.

Maybe John Kenneth Galbraith had it right when he said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Happy New Year.

Mr. Clancy is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter. He can be reached at a.clancy@sireporter.com