Business reporters are constantly under pressure to quantify whatever they’re writing about. Unfortunately, there’s so little context associated with this that the reader is left with absolutely no idea as to whether the information is significant or not. Case in point: the dreaded “in XX period of time” construct. First example, from today’s Globeinvestor.com:
Prices for new homes increased just 5.2 per cent in April from a year earlier, marking the slowest pace in more than two and a half years, Statistics Canada says.
The U.S. trade deficit widened in April, meanwhile, as the surging cost of oil boosted imports to a record, overshadowing the biggest gain in exports in four years.
Canadian industrial companies used less of their production capacity last quarter than at any time in the past 15 years, as auto manufacturers and lumber mills slowed production.
(Not surprisingly, given Bloomberg’s position as business news behemoth, its short article contains more than one of these constructs, also highlighting the fact that Canadian GDP contracted for the first time in five years in the first quarter.)
Now put all together, one might assume that all these indicators point to one thing: a slowing economy. I do. But it’s also possible, if we look only at the “lowest in XX years” phrasing, that they’re all one-time blips that are an aberration from an overall trend, whether it’s after two and a half years or fifteen. It’s particularly easy with the aid of a Bloomberg terminal or a simple spreadsheet to come up with these calculations. But in the end, it’s simply a way to add numbers to stories — numbers that really don’t mean very much.