Forget the moody money supply, the dancing Dow Jones average and the plummeting prime rate. Gary Hohne has an economic indicator he says leads them all.
And the signs are decidedly bullish.
The president of Hohne's Pool & Spa Center in Parkville says the sales at his family-owned business have been correctly predicting economic cycles since it was opened in 1954. When pool sales dip, the economy is sliding into a recession. People frolic back to the water as the economy bobs back to the surface.
"It's amazing. I think we are the first to get hit and the first to feel it when we come out of it," said Hohne, who, at 31 and wearing shorts at the office, is an unlikely candidate for economic guru.
He learned the pool business from his father, Leroy, who is still chairman of the company. The elder Hohne said sales used to track the Dow Jones industrial average, but index trading and other aberrations in the stock market have changed that.
But overall economic performance appears to be reflected on the salesroom floor long before it hits the charts at the Federal Reserve Bank, he said.
For example, in the boom year of 1988, a banner year for the industry, the company sold a record 85 in-ground pools, both vinyl and concrete-sided. But in 1989, the year when a recession loomed only in whispers, sales dropped to 45 units. The company had only 35 sales last year, when the recession officially began, and staff had to be laid off.
But the company is swamped with orders again, and business year-to-date is on par with 1988. Workers have been hired and suppliers can't keep up with demand.
Pools are luxury items, and most people don't buy them unless they feel confident about their job security and personal economic outlook, he said. As such, pools represent a blue-hued barometer of consumer confidence, Hohne said.
Some competitors agreed. Dennis Talley, owner of Pool World of Maryland in Millersville, said sales are up about 20 percent from last year's levels.
"We're having a much better year than the last couple of years. There's no question it's a better situation right now," Talley said, agreeing that the performance of the pool industry tends to presage economic shifts.
Tom Kenny, sales manager of the Severna Park office of Anthony Pool, said sales are stronger than last year but he did not know why.
Economists are split on the health of the economy, with the more optimistic predicting a recovery during the second half of this year. Increasingly, some are suggesting better times may not return until later in the year, however.
The elder Hohne said the business always felt downturns early, but being on the leading wave of a recovery is new.
"I think we're still in a recession. I think we're starting to come out of it, however."