Throughout the course of history, people have been caught with their pants down (so to speak) on various occasions by shifts in the economy—some sudden; some cyclical. Little did the gentlemen among these folks know that underneath said pants, was one of the more obscure metrics tracked as an indicator of the relative health of the economy.
The Men’s Underwear Index is, apparently, a real thing. So said Alan Greenspan in the 70’s.
As we’ve discussed in class, economics often gets a bad rap because many people’s exposure to it consists of a bunch of old, white guys on TV talking about the most widely used economic indicator—the stock market—in what sounds like an alien language. However, despite it including the synthesis of a lot of real-time information, the stock market is a leading indicator (a measure of what people think is going to happen) and is, by nature, speculative. To some extent, the talking heads on TV are guessing, and they know it.
Chonies as an indicator, on the other hand, are referred to as lagging. (I know…sorry, gents.) A lagging indicator is simply a compilation of data points from what has already happened—in this case, purchases of men’s underwear. This empirical measurement has been a fairly solid indicator of what has happened with the economy since it came into existence almost half a century ago.
Per Esquire (repurposed from Business Insider), men purchase an average of 3.4 pairs of underwear per year. That number has tended to increase in times of economic prosperity and decrease in difficult economic times.
What I don’t understand is why this is considered some genius insight. It makes sense that in a down economy people would not spend money, primarily because they don’t have it.
The best explanation I’ve been able to find is that underwear is deemed a necessity, which sets it apart from other clothing items and makes it a better baseline. That hasn’t stopped economists from developing other obscure indicators as well. Hemlines, dry cleaning, ties and lipstick have all been referenced to measure the health of the economy, but the common thread through all of them is that people purchase more when the economy is good and they have the money to do so. Regardless of what CNBC analysts tell you, it’s as simple as that.
Greenspan trolled us all, but I suppose I should thank him. He gave me a reason to write about underwear in a class blog.