5 Weird Economic Indicators That Are Actually Insightful

A big mac, tube of rash cream, and various boxes in front of a financial chart
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    Would you like fries with that prediction? Big Macs, unclaimed corpses, and diaper rashes can tell us a lot about market trends. These weird economic indicators look beyond the traditional metrics of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), inflation, and unemployment. Instead, they spotlight oddball data that can help predict where the economy might be headed and how it affects us. Here are 5 weird economic indicators and what they mean.  

    1. The Big Mac Index

    The Big Mac Index was created by The Economist magazine in 1986 to assess currency valuations by comparing the cost of a Big Mac across different countries. It is self-described as a “lighthearted” way to measure the purchasing power parity (PPP) between nations. The Big Mac Index can reveal the relative strength or weakness of currencies, which helps economists and forex traders predict long-term exchange rate trends. It can also be a great tool for travellers and expatriates to estimate relevant travel and living costs.  

    While it’s fun and insightful, it’s not intended to be a precise analytical tool. McDonald’s restaurants tend to source their goods and ingredients from the communities in which they operate. Therefore, the cost of a  Big Mac is heavily influenced by local variables such as ingredient costs, labour costs, rent, and other economic conditions that the index does not adjust for. Variations in the size and ingredients of the Big Mac in different countries can also skew comparisons. For example, Big Macs in India are only made with chicken or vegetable patties, which affects the price and is not a fair comparison to Big Macs made with beef patties.  

    2. Unclaimed Corpse Indicator

    While incredibly morbid (and sad), the unclaimed corpse indicator can signal if a recession is on the horizon, worsening, or if the economy is starting to recover. Morgues typically experience an increase in the number of unclaimed bodies during economic downturns because it indicates that more people are dying alone or that their families cannot afford burial costs. For investors, this could be a warning sign to brace for market downturns or to invest in historically resilient industries like healthcare or consumer staples.

    It also sheds light on the nuanced socioeconomic issues that vary among local markets. Traditional indicators like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) use national averages, which can distort the financial health of households and communities. For example, the cost of living crisis has led to a significant increase in the number of unclaimed bodies in the Greater Toronto Area, even though the average income is among the highest in Canada.     

    3. Baby Diaper Rash Indicator

    A spike in the sales of diaper rash cream is another sad economic indicator. It’s based on the assumption that when times are tough, parents try to save money by cutting back on diapers or switching to a lower-quality brand. The longer babies are exposed to a wet or soiled diaper, the more likely they are to develop a diaper rash. Therefore, increased demand for diaper rash cream is a weird but insightful way to predict a recession or recovery. It also tells us a lot about the financial stability of families. 

    As a mom with two small children, I’ve seen this theory play out in my parenting community. Families who experience financial distress because of inflation, job insecurity, unemployment, or skyrocketing housing costs are forced to make hard budgeting decisions – diapers are among the first to get slashed. Following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, U.S. diaper rash cream sales jumped 8% despite fewer babies being born. 

    On a broader scale, this weird economic indicator can signal increasing poverty levels or a widening gap in wealth distribution. On the flip side, a decrease in the demand for diaper rash products could signal economic recovery. However, the diaper rash indicator can also be influenced by non-economic factors such as supply-chain disruptions, which caused a diaper shortage during the Pandemic

    4. Cardboard Box Indicator

    The demand for cardboard boxes often correlates with economic booms and busts because it strongly represents the level of consumer spending. As a leading market indicator, it can give investors an early sign of where the economy is headed. An uptick in cardboard box sales can signal economic growth, while a decline can indicate economic decline. 

    Investors can use this information to decide whether or not to invest in the manufacturing and retail sectors, the packaging and shipping industries, or even in cyclical stocks that perform well during economic expansions or contractions. Business Insider recently reported that in late 2023, U.S. cardboard box sales experienced the largest quarterly decline since the Global Financial Crisis. This has economists on alert for an impending recession, especially during a time of high inflation and interest rate hikes. 

    Having said that, the cardboard box indicator can also be influenced by changes specific to the shipping or packaging industry, not just the overall economy. Environmental policy and shifts toward digital consumption can also impact the accuracy of this indicator over time. 

    5. Dog Knapping

    The rate of dog theft has been known to spike with economic downturns. When times are tough, valuable or in-demand breeds are more likely to be snatched. The offenders typically breed or resell the dog for a profit. Sometimes, the thief pretends to be a good samaritan returning the dog in hopes of getting a cash reward from the owner. According to PAWS.org, purebreds are stolen most often because their pedigree can be worth thousands of dollars. This phenomenon is not only a sign of a weak economy, it can also be a signal of increased financial distress, poverty, and income disparity. 

    In the U.S., the years following the Global Financial Crisis saw a significant increase in the number of reported dog thefts. And we’re seeing this same pattern play out in Canada amidst a cost of living crisis. Cities in Alberta and Ontario are currently experiencing a rise in dog thefts. However, it’s unclear if the uptick is driven primarily by a weakening economy or an increased demand for dogs since the pandemic. It’s likely a mix of both. 

    Final Thoughts

    If these five weird economic indicators can teach us anything, it’s that people respond to financial uncertainty in nuanced yet predictable ways. The economy is not some abstract behemoth. It’s the collection of living, breathing people, families, and communities. These metrics remind us that market forces affect everything from global currency markets to the intimacy of our household spending. The knock-on effects impact the most innocent among us – our children and pets. For investors and economists alike, this unconventional data provides a useful toolkit for understanding the diverse experiences and realities that underpin our financial system. 

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    Heidi Unrau is a senior finance journalist at Hardbacon. She studied Economics at the University of Winnipeg, where she fell in love with all-things-finance. At 25, she kicked-off her financial career in retail banking as a teller. She quickly progressed to become a Credit Analyst and then Private Lender. This hands-on industry experience uniquely positions her to provide expert insight on loans, credit scores, credit cards, debt, and banking services. She has been featured in publications such as WealthRocket, Scary Mommy, Credello, and Plooto. When she's not chasing after her two little boys, you'll find her hiding in the car listening to the Freakonomics podcast, or binge-watching financial crime documentaries with a bowl of ice cream. Fun Fact: Heidi has lived in five different provinces across Canada and her blood type is coffee.