How is the U.S. economy doing? The answer depends on where’ you’re getting your information. Some people say the economy is stupendous; the best it’s been in years. Others say what we’re experiencing right now is nothing but the roller coaster click-click-clicking its way to the zenith before plummeting into another recession. So, what’s the deal? How can you know for sure? Here’s a simple hack: Check your underwear.
Economic forecasting is a complex field and as with any field where predictions are popular, there are always a number of unusual, or at least unusual-sounding, theories. In economics, these are known as Unconventional Economic Indicators — common products or services, the sale of which some folks think serves as a good indicator of good economic times or bad. Some of these unconventional indicators include haircuts, fast food, dry cleaning, hemlines, and lipstick. There are many smaller, lesser-known indicators that economists look to the way a bookie might find out if a college Quarterback’s girlfriend is mad at him before making a spread on the big game. If you want another, perhaps simpler, way to gauge the state of the economy, just check your underwear. As tighty whities, boxer-briefs, and BVDs go, so goes the nation. Well, sort of.
The Men’s Underwear Index, as it’s known, was originally conceived of and popularized by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. It looks at the sale of men’s underwear as an indicator of economic growth. In a healthy economy, the theory goes, men are more likely to buy new underwear; in shakier times, they’re more wary of spending and don’t buy much new underwear because it’s not a true necessity. Optimism, after all, is a big factor in trend-prediction.
So does the Men’s Underwear Index hold water? Well, in 2008 and 2009, sales of men’s underwear began to slow, which matched with the Great Recession. In fact, according to H&R Block, in the years leading up to and including the Recession, there was a three percent increase in men buying single pairs of underwear and a decrease in men buying multi-packs — a sign that buyers were looking to make one pair of underwear stretch a bit further. As the economy started to come back to life, men’s underwear sales across the U.S. began to increase again. They stayed pretty consistent.
Currently, it looks like men’s underwear sales for 2019 are down a bit. But perhaps that has to do with the changing landscape of underwear purchasing than the economy. There are, after all, a lot more direct-to-consumer underwear brands. There are also those who say the theory was wonky to begin with because it doesn’t account for the fact that women purchase underwear for their husbands and that it exists on the premise that men will wear ratty underwear when the economy is uncertain.
Still, certain economists do still look at it as one of many, many indicators. And it is interesting to think about. But if you haven’t bought new underwear in a while, you might want to. Economic certainty be damned. Winter’s coming and hole-ridden underwear will only make things worse.