Friday, February 13, 2009

The Tchotchke Index

Between 2000 and 2007, the Tchotchke Index fell 33 percent, after adjusting for inflation. What is the Tchotchke Index? It is the amount of money spent by the average household on "decorative items for the home," one of the detailed categories of household expenditures examined by the government's Consumer Expenditure Survey.

The Tchotchke Index, it turns out, is an excellent gauge of the economic wellbeing of American households. Spending on tchotchkes--a.k.a. trinkets, junk, yard sale detritus, and the raison d'etre of the self-storage industry--rises when Americans are feeling flush and falls when they are feeling pinched. Spending on tchotchkes tracks the economy's ups and downs with the precision of other, better-known measures such as the the Consumer Confidence Index, the unemployment rate, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. If only more of the experts--especially those in the financial services industry--had been paying attention to the Tchotchke Index, then they would have known to run for cover three years ago. The index has been falling since 2005.

The Tchotchke Index peaked in 2000, along with the dotcom boom. In that year, the average household spent $230 (in 2007 dollars) on decorative items for the home. Spending on tchotchkes fell to a low of $147 in 2003 following the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the trauma of 9/11. It clawed its way back up to $207 by 2005--coincident with the housing boom. Now that the housing bubble has burst, spending on tchotchkes is down again. By 2007, average household spending on decorative items for the home had fallen to $155--a 25 percent loss in just two years, after adjusting for inflation.

The Tchotchke Index is a measure of the fluff in America's household budgets. It is pure impulse spending, and the first item cut when times get tough.

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