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Big fish and the state of the economy

The Rockford Registar Star has a “Big Fish” feature:

The Rockford Register Star launched the Big Fish list in 1982. Any person who catches a fish in freshwater on a hook and line – no nets – in the Register Star’s readership area can report the fish to the Register Star and receive a Big Fish button. Local residents who travel elsewhere and catch fish under the same stipulations can call those in and receive the button. The list is published every Sunday in Sports.

In today’s edition of the paper, reporter Alex Gary of the Registar Star presents a clever analysis:

What does the Rockford Register Star’s annual Big Fish list have to do with the economy?

Well, since 2000, the total number of Big Fish called into the paper to be published on Sundays has tracked perfectly with the jobless rate.

In 2000, when the average unemployment rate for Boone and Winnebago counties was just 4.7 percent, 1,602 Big Fish were called, e-mailed or faxed in for publication. By 2003, both of those numbers peaked with the unemployment rate hitting 8.1 percent and the number of Big Fish jumping to 2,542.

In 2004 and 2005, the jobless rate fell to 7.5 percent and 6.4 percent and it’s headed down more in 2006. Big Fish totals dropped as well, to 2,315 in ’04 and then 2,128 in ’05. Register Star outdoors writer Doug Goodman says submissions are down again this year.

What does this mean? Perhaps nothing. But the correlation between jobless rate and fish submissions may indicate – forgive us, statisticians and economists – that people have more time to fish when they are out of work.

It is always hard to draw strong conclusions from time-series data like these, but the fact that the Big Fish submissions track both increases and decreases in the unemployment rate makes it a little more believable that it is a real phenomenon.

Trivial, perhaps, but macroeconomists are always on the hunt for what are called “leading economic indicators,” i.e., factors that predict which way the economy will move. The Big Fish list isn’t exactly that — almost certainly if the link between fishing and unemployment is real, the unemployment proceeds the fishing. Still, the reporter’s analysis is more interesting than many of the academic papers that cross my desk.