The Sound of the Economy

Traditional methods for measuring the health of the U.S. economy—for example, new residential construction, manufacturing trade inventory and sales, and residential sales—do not provide a full picture of growth or decline. And so, a number of financial firms have turned to offbeat indicators to fill in the gaps. Convergex is one of them, and it has provided Foreign Affairs with the numbers to produce a similarly offbeat presentation of that data: sound. Penn State professor Mark Ballora, who in a TedX talk implored visualizers to "open their ears to data," explained that "we tend to be visually oriented and to underappreciate the contributions other senses give us." In fact, Ballora notes that the ears can be better than the eyes at "picking up patterns and dynamic changes." Here, Matthew Kenney, who works with Ballora at Penn State helps us to listen to the economy with the sonifications of three unusual economic indicators: coin sales, truck inventory, and inflation as measured by the rising prices of bacon cheeseburger ingredients.

COIN SALES

Traditionally, interest in coin sales perks up at times of economic and geopolitical malaise—years 2011 and 2013 are particularly noteworthy, according to Convergex. Here, higher pitched rings signal monthly silver states and slower pitched rings, monthly gold sales. The variable is mapped to the pitch and frequency of the noises. As the price for silver and gold increases, the speed, pitch, and intensity of each instrument increases.

Silver Coin Sales

Gold Coin Sales

VEHICLE INVENTORY

Since Americans prefer to buy their cars from dealers—new and ready to drive off the lot—car dealerships often keep an average of two months of inventory, and stock up or down, based on the state of sales. Car supply is represented by the "wooshing" noise of passing automobiles and truck supply takes the form of lower pitched rumbles of truck engines. Again, each variable changes based on pitch and frequency. As the inventory for cars and trucks increases, the speed, pitch, and intensity of each instrument increases.

BACON CHEESEBURGER INFLATION INDEX

As Convergex notes, "consumer attitudes regarding inflation are anchored in their shopping cart." That is why the firm watches the price of basic foods to determine how far a dollar goes. Here, groundbeef sounds like a spatula slapping the grill; cheese, a gurgling drip; and bacon, a static-like sizzle. As the price for ground beef, bacon, and cheese increases, the speed, pitch, and intensity of each instrument increases.

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