The weather is improving and I’m feeling the “this time of year optimism” where we get out of our log cabins after a long cold winter and admire the greenery around us.

The first thing you notice is that 1 in 9 houses in the US are currently pretty vacant:

According to an article today in USAToday, census numbers show:

  • More than 14 million housing units are vacant. That number does not include an estimated 4.8 million seasonal or vacation homes, most of which are occupied part of the year. The combined vacancy rate of almost 15% is higher than during previous recessions: 11% in 1991 and 9.4% in 1984.
  • About 3% of owned homes are vacant. In normal times, “maybe 1% should be vacant,” Myers says.
  • More than 9% of homes built since 2000 are vacant compared with about 2% for older homes.
  • Homes priced at $500,000 or more are just as likely to be empty as homes that cost less than $100,000.

But the spring metaphor favorite is Shoots of Green or simply Green Shoots.

Here are some warnings about its use:

Caroline Baum at Bloomberg, one of my favorite economic columnists said in her Wall Street Swaps Zegna for Denim, Tool Belts piece:

Like crocuses poking their heads through the soil, straining toward the sun, the U.S. economy is sending out the slenderest of shoots.

Justin Lahart at WSJ, in his Fed Chairman Chauncey Gardiner: You Must Believe In Spring

The combination of signs that the economy may have begun to recover and the arrival of spring has led to the overuse of a metaphor that could use a little pruning. We’re talking about those “green shoots” (sometimes “shoots of green”) that keep showing up in policymakers’ speeches, economists’ notes and, unfortunately, reporters’ stories.

But more mundane, weed-like uses on the presentation of economic news are more like these (no offense meant to the authors):

Manufacturing, Retail Reports May Disappoint:

As economy-watchers everywhere continue their desperate search for green shoots — little signs that the recession won’t last too much longer — this week could bring some sobering news.

The shoots of recovery look pale green at best:

We have former Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont to thank for the term “green shoots” to describe the first signs of a post-recession return to growth. In the depths of the last downturn, in December 1991, he told a Tory party conference: “The green shoots of economic recovery are appearing once again” – only to be greeted with ridicule and contempt.

Dallas Fed chief points to ‘green shoots’: A few signs of life are sprouting in the U.S. economy, but it’s too soon to say whether these “green shoots” will lead to a sustained recovery, said Richard W. Fisher, president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Green shoots and tea leaves

One is that even in the Great Depression, things didn’t head down all the time. The chart above, from Eichengreen and O’Rourke, shows world industrial production in months from the previous peak, in the Depression and in the current crisis. Notice that there were several upturns along the way; each of those could have been — and was! — heralded as the beginning of recovery.

I’m thinking a Green Jacket is even better than a Green Shoot – or shooting on the Green is better than being green with a regular jacket on.


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