Editor's Note: This article is part of Inc.'s Recession Watch series tracking the possibility of a downturn through offbeat economic indicators followed by economists, entrepreneurs, and other financial experts.  

Alarm bells that could signal a peak in the business cycle are ringing in a strange place: the whiskey aisle. 

Surging prices for high-end whiskey recently caught the attention of Wells Fargo corporate economist Richard DeKaser, who noted that in Washington, D.C., where he's based, two types of whiskey made by Japan's Suntory had shot up in price. A bottle of Hibiki that once sold for around $90 was selling for more than $130, while the higher-end Yamazaki that typically sold for around $100 was priced at near $180. Rising demand for high-end products is characteristic of a business cycle peak, which has preceded some recessions. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 800 points on August 14, the largest one-day decline of 2019, on the news that the global economy has continued to slow down.  

"I can't help being piqued at the observation casually after walking into a liquor store," DeKaser says. "I don't think I'm alone in this. I think most economists start asking why." While DeKaser conceded that anecdotal price fluctuations are no substitute for conventional data analysis and should always be included in conjunction with other economic indicators, he added that "we dismiss anecdotes at our peril." 

Suntory, a consumer products company made famous by the 2003 Bill Murray movie Lost in Translation, is not the only business seeing surging demand for Japanese whiskey. Earlier this year, all 416 bottles of a new series from Japanese distillery Chichibu sold out online in just five seconds, Forbes reported. Other Chichibu bottles snapped up immediately the day of a release can be found hours later selling online for double or even triple the price. DeKaser notes that although whiskey isn't setting record highs as often as it has in the past, prices are still rising briskly.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York's recession probability chart puts the chance of an economic downturn in the next 12 months at about 30 percent. Still, DeKaser is quick to point out that economists don't have a great record of predicting recessions, which is one reason he pays attention to anecdotal signals.

"History suggests humility is in order, so there's an open-mindedness to unconventional alternatives," he says. "As an economist, I'm looking at the conventional stuff literally every day."

Published on: Aug 16, 2019