Googling the Economic Depression - 20 July 2009
THE TROUBLE with statistics, as any economics professor will tell you, is they look backwards, not forwards – and not even quite to the present.
That's as true of last-quarter earnings as it is of GDP. You're left guessing what today's outcome will be, until it becomes historic and you can claim it as fact. Even "up-to-the-minute" inputs have to exclude the very minute we're in. Corduroy-patch models like Greg Mankiw at Harvard should know this. So too should his chum, the White House's own Larry Summers – formerly head of Bill Clinton's Treasury and also of Harvard, before coming back as Obama's chief economic advisor.
Yet Summers highlighted one statistic in a speech on Friday that suggests he's forgotten the basics of empirical research, let alone sound judgment in public. Bundling himself into blind fortune's get-away car, he told the Peterson Institute for International Economics that it shows "the economic free-fall has ended," reports Politico.com.
What is this killer stat? "The number of people searching for the term 'economic depression' on Google is down to normal levels."
Hurray for Larry!
As you can see, searches for the term "economic depression" were apparently four times their typical level coming into 2009, Summers noted at the start of the year.
The search-engine depression was greater still as Larry dusted off his Team America badge ahead of last November's election.
But now, "The recent shift goes to show consumer confidence is higher," he claimed last week.
"If we were at the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of the year, we have walked some substantial distance back from the abyss."
Okay, let's forget how absurd it might be to base an economic conclusion on the broad pattern of Google searches. Nevermind that on Summers' logic, Led Zeppelin were never so popular as in late 2007...demand for food stamps displays a secular bull market...and the campaign to "free viagra" – that famous political prisoner – hasn't been this hot since 2004. (Larry himself shows a very erratic pattern, but we've no thesis to offer on that.)
No, the real trouble with Summers' thesis is that the data series has yet to end.
Ooops! Just look what's crept into the data since Larry last checked and the start of July entered Google's query results.
Summers' own comments helped push that spike higher, of course, as Google Trends show on a 30-day chart. But he was only adding on Friday to a clear new uptrend in people searching for the dread phrase. And besides, Obama's advisor himself is only driving us back to the abyss and the brink of catastrophe if he really believes this marker actually counts for something.
Better leave that forced march to government debt and sub-zero interest rates.
Adrian Ash runs the research desk at BullionVault, the physical gold and silver market for private investors online. Formerly head of editorial at London's top publisher of private-investment advice, Adrian Ash was City correspondent for The Daily Reckoning from 2003 to 2008, and is now a regular contributor to many leading analysis sites including Forbes and a regular guest on BBC national and international radio and television news. Adrian's views on the gold market have been sought by the Financial Times and Economist magazine in London; CNBC, Bloomberg and TheStreet.com in New York; Germany's Der Stern and FT Deutschland; Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore, and many other respected finance publications.