Auguries and Portents of the New Year

As 2014 dawns, the question on all of our minds is what kind of year it will be.

Published January 10, 2014 5:00 AM
3 min read


As 2014 dawns, the question on all of our minds is what kind of year it will be.


By Paul Hicks


angela merkelAs 2014 dawns, the question on all of our minds is what kind of year it will be. Many will consult well-established economic indicators like the forecasts for the nation’s gross domestic product, inflation, and unemployment as well as the projected prices for gold, oil, and various market indexes. Some, however, will look for signs that are more unorthodox.


For example, there is the “hemline index.” It is a long-held theory that the prevailing hemline is a good indicator of consumer confidence, economic growth and even stock market levels. Since a short skirt’s hem can’t be lowered, a hem well above the knee is supposed to indicate optimism, while a lower hemline can be altered and will last longer as fashions change. Although it is a popular theory that has been around since the 1920s, it worked better when the fashion industry had more influence over women’s tastes.


Then there is the lipstick index, coined by Leonard Lauder, Chairman of the Board of Estee Lauder, who claimed that purchases of cosmetics, especially lipsticks, tended to be inversely correlated with the country’s economic strength. His theory was that women treated themselves to lipsticks in bad times when they could not afford more expensive items. Some say that nail polish has replaced lipsticks as the less expensive item of choice and, therefore, is a better indicator.


The hemline and lipstick/nail polish indexes are just the latest attempts in our perpetual search for ways to predict the future. The ancient Romans created a college of priests called augurs whose public role was to foretell future events and interpret the will of the gods.


Augurs were consulted when something important was about to begin (hence, the word “inaugurated”). They based their divinations upon various natural phenomena but especially on observing the flight and sounds of certain birds, such as eagles, vultures, owls and crows. It was a ritual process known as “taking the auspices,” a word derived from the Latin words avis (bird) and specere (to see).


janet yellenAccording to one version of Rome’s mythic history, Romulus and Remus each wanted to rule the new city and have it bear his name. To settle their dispute, the twins positioned augurs at camps on their separate hills to interpret the auspices. A flock of four vultures was sighted first at the camp of Remus, but Romulus won the honors when three times that number of the auspicious birds flew in his direction.                                                     


Beginning with Romulus, whose own skills at interpreting the auspices were highly praised, only men were selected as augurs by the Romans. But they also consulted revered women, known as sibyls, about what the future had in store for them. The most famous of the Roman sibyls offered to sell her sibylline books to the emperor Tarquin, but he refused to pay her high price. She kept burning the prophetic books until the emperor finally bought the remaining three at her original price, thereby proving her skill as a business woman as well as a seer.


Which brings us back to the present and the forecast of the future. The College of Augurs (The Federal Reserve Board) is losing its Chief Augur (Ben Bernanke), but in his place, we are enlightened enough to install a Senior Sibyl (Janet Yellen). Adding two other wise women, Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Chancellor Angela Merkel, we will have a triumvirate of sibyls looking over the horizon for us, and that makes me cautiously optimistic that the auguries and portents for the New Year will be auspicious.


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