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More romance… and other stupid ways to measure the downturn

More romance… and other stupid ways to measure the downturn

The media loves to find new ways to put spin on the downturn, and they can often be entertaining. Pity they’re an utter nonsense, says Sam Potter.

July 6, 2010 4:27 by

The economic crisis has been tough on many of us, no doubt about that. But for the media, it’s been a different kind of ordeal entirely.

When the scale of the world slowdown became clear, it must have been a bit of a gift for editorial departments. At least, in terms of content (the prospects of layoffs and lower revenues, which the media has largely endured, aren’t a gift for anyone). All of a sudden everyone was talking about the same thing, and the job of the media became simple for a while – more about how to cover than what to cover. But as the crisis dragged on, it became harder and harder to put a fresh perspective on things.

Thankfully for them, there’s always a new way to look at economics and a new angle to put on an analysis, even if you have to get a bit whacky. This week offered one of the tamer options: Gulf News ran an article picked up from the Economist on two recent major art auctions. These auctions, at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London, turned in disappointing results, and the author says the lesson is the buyers are currently “skittish.”

Far be it for me to stick my oar into economic interpretations (it certainly doesn’t belong there) but couldn’t sales have simply disappointed because buyers decided the price was high, or they weren’t interested in the sale items? Why do they have to automatically be labeled as “skittish”? If you have the money for a Picasso, I’m pretty sure you’re on a solid financial footing. If you want it you buy it, if you don’t you don’t.

This art auction business strikes me as over-analysis. I’m reminded of some of the other ways the media has chosen to assess the severity of our crisis. A number of good ones are set out on a US blog post from Kiplinger. They include:
Packed movie theaters. Tickets sold in early 2009, at the height of the downturn, were up 9 percent. Apparently this happens because film-going is an affordable entertainment option. But the last time I checked, a trip to the movies for a family of four, say, was a particularly expensive night out.

Busier gardens. The number of households growing their own fruits, berries and vegetables shot up in 2009 according to statistics. I can’t name a single person I know who has turned to gardening to survive the downturn.

More relationships. Take a bow,, for grabbing the headlines with your announcement that the fourth quarter of 2008 (when the credit crunch began) was your busiest in seven years. The company puts this increase down to the fact that people are looking for someone to help them forget about money worries. Personally, I think it could well be PR bul… ahem, I mean, PR opportunism.

Make-up sales. Eyeliner and mascara sales were up in 2009, apparently. In the past, lipstick sales always rose in a recession, causing many to say it was an indicator of consumers settling for inexpensive luxuries. But since lipstick sales are down, the same people apparently say that eye make-up is now the more accurate indicator. Here’s an alternative view, folks: it could all be utter nonsense.

In a downturn, more people will have to tighten their belts, it’s true, but they will all do it in different ways. To try to gain some incredible insight from general trends will very rarely offer a useful analysis. I’m reminded of a school mathematics lesson in which I was taught firmly: correlation does not imply causation.

But for those who still want a new angle on the recession, here’s one for you: The number of articles suggesting an obscure way to measure economic confidence throughout the downturn has gone up 1,453 percent since the start of the crisis. Surely, that must mean it is serious indeed.

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