From Popcorn to Corpses: What's the connection between them?

In this Friday, Feb 14, 2020 file photo, the buildings of the banking district are seen after the sun set in Frankfurt, Germany.
In this Friday, Feb 14, 2020 file photo, the buildings of the banking district are seen after the sun set in Frankfurt, Germany. Copyright Michael Probst/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Indrabati Lahiri
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Have you ever heard of the unclaimed corpses indicator and the Japanese haircut indicator? Most people haven't.

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The answer is economic indicators.

When one thinks of economic indicators, most people jump to common ones such as gross domestic product (GDP), balance of payments, interest or exchange rates. But did you know that, apart from these, there are several little-known ones, which can reveal fascinating things about an economy?

While the major indicators above tell us more about a country's macroeconomic situation, the rarer ones below can be more subtle, telling us about consumer trends and sentiment, as well as standards of living.

Many of these are thus especially relevant during times of economic downturn and gloomy outlook, as they can tell us how people are coping. As such, they can also be seen as indicators of a recession.

Below are some of the strangest economic indicators and what they can tell us about a country.

Unclaimed corpses indicator

The unclaimed corpses indicator basically says that, during times of financial strife, family members choose not to claim dead bodies, in order to save on funeral costs, which can often be very high. This results in the state paying for funeral costs instead.

As such, the higher the number of unclaimed bodies, the gloomier the economic outlook is likely to be. As an example, back in 2009, in the middle of the financial crisis, when layoffs were soaring, the US cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles saw an increase in the number of unclaimed corpses.

As Albert Samuels, chief investigator of the Wayne County morgue in Michigan said then, as reported by The Times: "I have not seen this many unclaimed bodies in 13 years on the job. It started happening when the economy went south last year. I have never seen this many people struggling to give people their last resting place."

According to UK financial services firm SunLife's 2024 Cost of Dying Report, the overall UK cost of dying rose 5% from 2023, now clocking in at about £9,658 (€11,346.5). This includes things such as a no-frills funeral service, estate administration fees, as well as optional items such as a post-funeral get together, also known as a wake.

Buttered Popcorn indicator

The buttered popcorn indicator can be seen as a counter cyclical index to the state of the economy, as it essentially says that, during times of recession, sales of buttered popcorn in cinemas increase.

This is largely due to more people going to see films, regardless of their quality, in an attempt to escape their day-to-day worries and financial anxieties.

Patrick Corcoran, former spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners, as reported by Entertainment, said: "Generally, when economic downturns hit, we have seen an increase in box office and attendance in six of the eight last recessions.

"People seek relief in forgetting their problems, so they go to the movies, and it is the least expensive form of entertainment."

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, this trend of rising movie sales was also seen during the 1981-82 and the 1973-74 recessions.

Alligator population indicator

The alligator population indicator says that, during times of financial strife, fewer well-off people spend on luxury items such as alligator skin bags, shoes or watches. As a result, populations of alligators in farms increase dramatically, especially in places where they are abundant, such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Georgia in the US.

For example, the Birkin 20 bag in Vert D’eau Matte Alligator, released in 2023, was sold for an eyewatering $115,570 (€105,761.00) at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong, in October 2023.

During the 2008-2009 recession, big designers such as Hermes also purchased several tanneries in the US. This allowed them to buy skins aggressively from alligator farmers, leading to what ended up effectively as a hoarding situation.

This managed to put more pressure on several other designers, such as luxury shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. Some designers also chose to step away from alligator skin products altogether, leading to their population surging even further.

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Regarding the cost of producing alligator skin products, George D.Malkemus III, the president of Manolo Blahnik, as reported by the New York Times said: "Every time I go to Neiman Marcus and say every year the price is going up, they fight me tooth and nail. They say: 'I'm not going to spend $4,000 (€3,660) for an alligator shoe.'" 

The number of mosquito bites indicator

The number of mosquito bites indicator says that, as the number of empty and badly-maintained houses increase, so do mosquito populations, due to back gardens, stagnant pools and unmowed grass. As such, rising mosquito populations and bites, in this context, could be a sign of a dysfunctional housing market.

In November 2023, England and Wales had about 261,189 empty properties, an increase of 12,556 on the previous year. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said, as reported by The Guardian: "All children deserve a safe and decent place to call home. We're spending £1 billion to tackle homelessness and get families into permanent accommodation, and we have reduced the number of long-term empty houses by more than 50,000 since 2010.

"We have given councils the power to increase council tax by up to 300% on long-term empty properties, and take over empty homes by compulsory purchase orders and empty dwelling management orders."

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First date indicator

The first date indicator says that people are usually more likely to ask others out on dates during a recession, due to feeling more lonely or anxious. Back in 2008, online dating website Match.com saw its most robust Q4 in seven years.

Other matchmaking services such as Amy Laurent International also saw a 40% increase in women in the dating market between November 2008 and February 2009.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz, sociology professor at the University of Washington and Perfectmatch.com relationship expert said, as reported by the New York Times: "At a time when money is scarce or uncertain, when people are assessing their priorities, they don't want to go through it alone.

When you're not sure what's coming at you, love seems all the more important."

During times of recession, people may also not want to spend money going out to bars and social events, to meet people in real life. This trend also contributes to the rise of dating apps and websites during economic downturns, as they tend to be cheaper, with a much wider range of people available.

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Japanese haircut indicator

The Japanese haircut indicator says that Japanese women wear their hair long when the economy is looking up and short when there is a downturn. For example, when Japan faced an economic slump in the 1990s, more women tended to have shorter hair, typically above the collarbone. This was once again seen during the 2008-2009 recession.

This could be due to haircare being seen as a luxury in some cases, especially when money is tight for most people, thus leading to shorter and more easily maintained styles during recessions.

According to a survey by cosmetics company Kao, one third of UK respondents revealed that salon visits made them feel more confident about themselves. Almost 70% of respondents also believed that going to the salon is a key self-care opportunity, while 51% felt that their hairdresser was as close to them as a friend.

Peter F.Pfister, president of the Intercoiffure Mondial trade association said, as reported by Kao: "When people go to the salon, they are not only paying for a good haircut, but also for "being pampered" or for a "time out" from everyday life."

Guns-to-caviar indicator

The guns-to-caviar index measures the amount of funds spent by governments on fighter jets (guns), versus the amount spent by the global elite on private jets (caviar). This can shed considerable light on periods of simmering geopolitical tensions, when defence budgets may be increased, as well as times of relative global calm, when the rich may spend more lavishly.

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For example, in the tail end of the 1980s as a result of leftover Cold War defence funds, the guns to caviar index surged due to continuing high spending on fighter jets. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it fell once more, because of the dot.com boom and the relative sense of global calm.

It's worth noting that this may not be a very reliable index, because of the time lag between plane orders being placed and actual delivery times.

Richard Aboulafia, analyst at the Teal Group, and the creator of this indicator, as reported by Slate said: "Defence budgets rise with threats and perception of threats, and cash filters down, with planes typically delivered two years after they are ordered."

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