It's a media tradition: Reporting on the level of hootin' and hollerin' at the Calgary Stampede as a barometer of the city's and province's overall economic health.
Interviews with street vendors, tallies of corporate parties, auction results for the right to plaster company logos on the tarps of the chuckwagons – they go hand in hand each July with oil prices, real-estate data and GDP in the quest to pinpoint the state of the economy.
Of course, it's not scientific, as there are numerous reasons why the turnstiles at Stampede Park spin quickly or slowly, not all related to the health of the oil patch. Vendors, for instance, may be hawking western-themed trinkets that simply fail to suit folks' fancy. Or it could be rainy. A weak Canadian dollar may drive up foreign tourist numbers.
But there are valid observations. With crude at half the price of a year ago, some companies have cancelled or scaled back events, saying that it sends a bad message to shareholders to be spending their money on costly hoedowns when they've spent the last six months chopping budgets on operations and laying off staff.
I'm making a call, though: that this year's Stampede is a darned poor gauge of the health of the energy sector and Alberta. That's because economic conditions are worse than the tenor of party suggests. Thanks, oil.
Since hitting a recent peak of $61.43 (U.S.) a barrel last month, U.S. benchmark crude has skidded almost 15 per cent, settling at $52.33 on Tuesday, and many signs suggest the ground is giving way again. Oil has shed $4.60 this week alone.
The trouble stems from far away. Unknown economic damage from the Greek debt crisis and turmoil in China's stock market, despite efforts by the government to prop it up, suggest an already over-supplied oil world may be headed into a period of even weaker demand.
Oil supplies, meanwhile, appear to be growing, as some members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries pump record volumes., U.S. shale-oil output remains resilient and Canada's oil sands production increases. Iran could be set to resume crude exports for the first time since sanctions were imposed in 2012 if the country and a group of world powers agree on a deal to limit its nuclear program.
Canadian energy stocks have fallen well below levels of March, when crude sank into the low $40s per barrel, and analysts and investment bankers have predicted a feeding frenzy of takeovers in the coming months as weaker producers succumb to the effects of dwindling cash flow and unmanageably high debt levels.
Alberta and Canada are feeling the impact. The province's new NDP government is preparing a fall budget that will include a deficit that finance minister Joe Ceci has pegged at around $5-billion. A further energy-industry slowdown could worsen that.
With the national economy more enmeshed in crude markets than ever, some economists believe that data in the coming weeks will show that Canada slumped back into recession in the first half of this year.
But wait – cowboy-hat-festooned people are everywhere in Calgary and the downtown outdoor bar patios are full each day. On cue, carousing is going well into the night. A glance at the grandstand during Saturday's rodeo action showed a packed house, just before a late-afternoon hailstorm sent everyone scurrying for cover.
Attendance at the Stampede grounds is down, but not by much. In the first four days, 463,000 people had visited, compared with 489,000 last year, when oil was in the $100 neck of the woods. The five-year attendance average is 477,000.
Indeed, Calgary's annual party has been through much worse, and as recently as two years ago when the Elbow River swallowed up the site during the province's floods, just two weeks before opening day.
It may not be the most accurate economic barometer, but the Stampede is a pretty good 10-day respite from economic worries.
Calgary's Black Spruce Merchant Capital is going ahead with its annual Stampede party this week, and its invitation urges defiance in the face of low oil prices: "When life hands you lemons, break out the tequila and salt."