My Favorite Secret Economic Indicator

It was with an enormous sense of pride and relief that I watched the last of my kids graduate from the University of California at Berkeley. Clutching his hard fought degree in political economics in hand, Robert posed for photos among friends, with thousands of beaming parents looking on. His mother died ten years ago, and raising three kids alone, getting them through top colleges, and launching them into the world has not been easy.

There is nothing more electric than attending a ceremony like this. The commencement speaker was former Secretary of Labor and my old friend, Robert Reich, whose classes I attended myself. Some 40% of the graduates were Asian, and I spent much of the time explaining symbolism rooted in the Middle Ages to foreign parents; the robes, mantles, hoods, and swatches of ermine. A dozen unintelligible foreign languages babbled in the background.

Unfortunately, the unenviable task of moving him out of his Berkeley hovel fell to me. When I arrived, I was stunned to find nothing less than a war zone. Both sides of every street were piled with mountains of trash, the unwanted flotsam and jetsam of university life cast aside by fleeing students. Computer desks, stained mattresses, broken lava lamps, and an assortment of heavily worn Ikea furniture were there for the taking.

Next year’s sophomores and juniors were foraging en masse, looking for that reusable gem. Diminutive Chinese teenagers were seen pushing massive suitcases on wheels down the sidewalk on their way back to Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. The university attempted to bring order to the chaos by strategically placing dumpsters on every block, but they were rapidly filled to overflowing.

It was all worth it in the end because of the insight it gave me into one of my favorite, least known leading economic indicators. When I picked up the truck at U-HAUL, the lot was absolutely packed with returned vehicles, and there were more parked on both sides of the streets. The booking agent told me there is a massive influx of people moving into California from the Midwest and the Northwest, with the result being that lots all over the San Francisco Bay Area are filled to capacity.

I love this company, because in addition to providing a great service, they get the first indication of any changes to the migratory habits of Americans. The last time I saw this happen was after the dotcom bust, when thousands of technology savvy, newly unemployed pulled up stakes in the foggy city and moved to Lake Tahoe to work in “the cloud.” Bottom line: California is enjoying a resurgence of hiring and new economic growth.

UC Berkeley is the world’s greatest public university, producing more PhD’s than any school in history, over 100,000, and also the most Nobel Prizes, at 19. By the way, anyone in the financial services industry looking to hire an ambitious young graduate from this fabulous institution of high learning, please send me an email. Robert lives in New York City now and is on the prowl for a job with a hedge fund.



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