Until recently, however, there had been no formal analysis of the skyscraper curse. A new paper by Mr Barr, Bruce Mizrach and Kusum Mundra (all of Rutgers) investigates Mr Lawrenceâ€™s musings in detail. They look at the building of 14 world-record-breaking skyscrapers, from New Yorkâ€™s Pulitzer (which opened in 1890) to the Burj Khalifa, and compare them to American GDP growth (which they see as a decent proxy for the world economy).
If, as the skyscraper curse suggests, the decision to build the biggest towers happens near the peak of the business cycle, then you could use record-breaking projects to predict the future path of GDP. However, the range of months between the announcement of the towers and the business-cycle peak is large, varying from zero to 45 months. And only seven of the 14 opened during a downward phase of the business cycle (see chart). In other words, you cannot accurately forecast a recession or financial panic by looking at either the announcement or the completion of the worldâ€™s tallest building.
With such a small sample, it is tricky to draw firm conclusions. But the paper expands the sample to 311 by looking at the tallest building completed each year in four countries (America, Canada, China and Hong Kong). The authors then compare building height to GDP per person. They find that in all countries GDP per person and skyscraper height are â€œcointegratedâ€, a fancy way of saying that the two things track each other. In other words, developers tend to be profit-maximisers, responding rationally to rising incomes (and thus increased demand for office space) by making buildings bigger. While ego and hubris afflict the skyscraper market, the authors argue, its foundations appear sound.