Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Citing imports to gauge US trends

Unless they work for Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan, even the rich are having problems these days. In fact, that's the theme of the story your editor assigns to you. Give examples, s/he says, of how the rich aren't buying as many luxury products as they once did.

You select jewelry (the non-costume kind).

Where to start? Typically, you call Tiffany's, and ask how business is doing. Or, you go to Tiffany's website, or to the website of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and get the company's annual report (10-K, in governmentese). From that, you compare this year's sales with last year's, and draw the appropriate conclusion.

But Tiffany's, no matter how prominent a luxury retailer, is still only one. There are many others, and most of them are privately held, which means they aren't likely to release their revenue or profit and loss figures.

So here's another approach: find out how the countries that export the most jewelry to the United States have fared in 2009 versus the year before.

Start with one of the government units that tracks imports and exports. It's the International Trade Administration. (There are others, but don't bother about them now.) Then click on "Consumer Goods."

On the left, you'll see a list of industries: click on "Jewelry."

When the new window opens, look for "Current Imports," and under that "Jewelry (except costume)." Clicking there yields a page of how all the major exporters--India, China, Thailand, Italy, Hong Kong, France, etc.--are doing. Glancing at the very last column on the right, you can see that all of them have sharply lowered their exports of jewelry to these shores, at least over the first six months (from January through June). India is down more than twenty-eight percent, China more than thirty-seven percent, Italy almost forty-two percent.

So this column contains the most important figures for your story. If these countries are shipping so much less, it can mean only one thing: the rich (and likely the upper levels of the middle class, which is also a vast market for jewelry) simply are not buying as much as they used to.

That's a good statistical grounding for your report.

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