Leading Economic Indicators: Longer Skirts, Empty Tunnels, and Uglier Waitresses

Is the economy getting better or worse? Many Americans are still trying to figure out (determine) the answer to that question. We don’t know if our economy is recovering (getting better) yet from one of the worst economic downturns (recessions; declines) in the past 50 years. What happens in the next few months could help determine who our next president will be (a good economy favors (is a good thing for) President Obama, a bad economy is good for his opponent (person running against him)).

An indicator is a measure of change, whether something is getting bigger or smaller, better or worse. A leading indicator is usually something that changes before the larger thing you’re interested in changes. For example, if you are interested in whether it will rain or not today, a leading indicator might be a lot of dark clouds in the morning. (The opposite of a leading indicator is a lagging indicator, which changes after the main thing has changed.)  For the economy, there are also leading indicators, such as the price of stocks (partial ownership in a company). Stock prices typically go up before the rest of the economy improves.

Some people have come up with (invented) other indicators of the health of the economy which are less scientific but still may be true. I wrote about some of these a few years ago here, but I found a few more recently I thought I would mention to you. The classic (the best or most typical) example of this is the length of women’s skirts, sometimes called the Hemline Index (a hemline is the bottom of the dress), invented by economist George Taylor back in 1926. When the economy is bad, Taylor observed (reported; said), women wear longer dresses, and when it is good, shorter ones. The reason may be that when the economy is about to get worse, people are anxious and fearful, causing them to dress more conservatively.

Here are a couple of other odd (unusual; strange) economic indicators people have invented:

  • Second Street Tunnel Index – If you travel down Second Street in downtown Los Angeles, you will go through a tunnel (long hole in a hill or mountain for cars or trains) that is very popular for making television commercials (ads) for cars. When there are a lot of production (movie- or commercial-making) companies that want to use the tunnel for filming (making the commercial), the economy is getting better. (This index or indicator was invented by the Los Angeles Times newspaper.)
  • Hot Waitress Index – One writer claims (says is true) that when the economy is getting worse, there are more beautiful, “hot” (sexually attractive) women working as waitresses in restaurants and bars. His theory (of course, it’s a man!) is that when the economy is doing well, attractive women who may not have a lot of other skills or education can more easily get jobs in sales, since companies that sell things like to have attractive women working for them. This may including selling houses or condos, beer, cars, even drugs to doctors (some say drug companies often hire attractive young women to sell to doctors, who are still mostly men). When the economy is poor, these beautiful but perhaps untalented (without other skills or abilities) women work in more demanding (diffiult) jobs like waitressing, where their beauty is still a benefit.
  • Big Mac Index – The Economist magazine tracks (follows; watches) the price of McDonald’s Big Mac hamburgers (available in 120 countries) to compare the relative purchasing (buying) power of different currencies (types of money, like the dollar, the euro, the yen, the yuan, etc.).

Do you know of any economic indicators like these? Do you think the world’s economy is getting better or worse?


Photo credit: Pencil skirt, Wikipedia CC


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28 Responses to Leading Economic Indicators: Longer Skirts, Empty Tunnels, and Uglier Waitresses

  1. Juan Manuel says:

    Hello Jeff, I’d like to thank you for all your greats podcasts, they are really very useful in everyday language. About your article I’m not an expert at economy,but I have to confess that these indicators are pretty curious and funny too. I’m living in Barcelona, and as everybody knows things are not very good. Mostly because it is a country where the two major engines have been the construction industry and tourism. What I see on the street is people consuming far less than before, maybe because they feel unsure.They don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. I hope things get better soon

  2. emiliano says:

    To me another economic indicator could be less cars by the streets till the point you don´t need to look for a zebra cross
    if you want to cross the street.
    Sometimes when I have to cross there are not any cars at the left or at the right, so no matter to wait the green light.

    Yes , now here it is the usual view, there are very few cars running through the streets as the result of people have not
    money to buy refill their car tanks.
    In fact yesterday I have listened by the radio that there are more than two millions cars absolutely stoped on the streets.
    Lot of cars are broken and people have not money to repair them or left the cars in the workshops without euros
    to pick them out once the car is in order.

    I do not know outside but here it is for sure that economy is getting worse, at least for the next three years.

    Thank you Jeff, interesting topic.

  3. mahmoud says:

    I know worse economy and the index lead us to the worest
    I think it getting worse

  4. Eduardo Ramalho says:

    Man, I have never thought about this indicators before. Some of them seem a bit funny to me. Can you picture the economic trend of some country just observing Big Macs???
    Here in Brazil we have some indicators as IPCA, IPC,SELIC and many others… Do you want the truth??? I prefer to deal with Big Macs.

  5. Nele says:


    I read this blog since almost a year. I have written perhaps five to ten postings in this time. I followd some very interessting discussions and have gotten some views from around the world.

    And I see how much some persons are better and better in their writing. This give me hope. Anyday my writing will get better. Perhaps not in one year, perhaps in two or three years.

    But my listening skills are better than two years ago. Yesterday I have looked ‘The Waltons’ on youtube. Good understanding English and a very nice memory to my childhood.

    And my reading skills are better. I started reading with articles recommended on the ‘Successful English’ website. Read simplified, shortened books called Penguin Books. And now I have started reading “normal” books for adults from our library.

    It´s a great feeling.

    To the topic. I don´t have a crystal ball to look in it. I always try to think positiv and do the best of what´s possible. But perhaps it is “easy” to think positiv because here the conditions are good and I have a job.

    Best wishes

  6. elcomandant says:

    I’m a man in the street. I don’t know much about macro-economies. I just know about my family economy. However, if you think about this, you realise that is the best way, if not the only way, to know a lot about macro-economies.

    I lived long time ago, a very poor family economy. We were five people with two payroll, my wife, our three little children and me. Our incomes were good enough. Then, from one day to the next, our incomes went down dramatically at more than 60% because my wife had to leave her work. Then I put quickly a plan into operation. I found out how much my yearly incomes were and I divided it by 52 weeks.

    The result were the amount of money we could spend weekly. It’s simple, but difficult to do. We did it and, despite we lived some bad years, we won. Why don’t the countries do the same thing? Who knows.

    As simple as this, is knowing the economy indicator is. You just have to watch the people around you, family, friends, neighbors.

    Around me there are a lot of people that are without job, they spend less money in travels or restaurants, they speak about how expensive the cinema ticket is, their cars are getting older, and so on. This is the best indicator. The economy is still poor, at least here in Spain.


  7. Bruno Aguiar says:

    First of all i’d like to say that i’ve been reading esl blog as often as i can and for sure i can say that every article is pretty enjoiable, really, even i did not have idea about them, but when i read and stop to think a bit, i can see that this is really true! Congrats for your articles!
    I live in Brazil too, and as Ed said we’ve got lost of BORING indicators and it’s funnier thinking about a big mac can change the countries’ ideas of economy, actually i didn’t believe however now these indicators make sense because it’s pretty difficult to find out a ugly woman working like a house sellers and also like managers in big companies!
    I’m so thankful for these great articles and podcasts that change and also open my mind for the real world!
    Y’all have a good one!

  8. emiliano says:

    Dear Jeff and Lucy,

    you can not imagine how bad the economy is going here in Spain.
    We have spent such a lot of money, money we did not have, that the country is absolutely
    There is not resourses nearly for anything and it is hard of undersding the reality for the
    majority of people.
    So in a short time hundred of thousands persons would be on the streets protesting for
    the restrictions laws.

    Years ago when Mr. Zapatero said that everything was O.K. that our economy was
    one of the first of the world, there were lot of persons that believed what he said, and
    for years we have been living wasting averything.
    Now reality is hard, more than 5 millions of unployed persons and having to live
    by the popular christian charity, just an absolute misery.

    So, no I can´t be optimist about next future.


    Thank you Jeff and thank you Lucy.
    I know perfectly well you are working a lot to provide us the best information and topics
    like this one so interesting and polemic.

    My thanks in special for you Lucy, I know you have to type every day for hours to make
    this so good work and usually sometimes we do not appreciate in its just measure what
    all this work means at the edge of having it in time.
    Please Lucy and Jeff have all my best considerations and gratitude

    With all my respect and comprehension,


  9. Myo ko ko says:

    You always spot what other people overlook…huh?
    You always come up with articles that are full of funny but interesting stuff!
    You outdid yourself again!
    kudos to you, chief!
    (The last two lines are Peter’s! 😉 )

  10. Tania says:

    A nice spring to the ESL POD team.

    “Are the forests tall,
    Making music when I play.
    And buds past count
    And rivers and clouds and sun,
    With seasons and breath
    And time and flowers
    And all that has yet begun.”

    Christina Rossetti, The poem, The months (March)

    My best wishes,


  11. Peter says:

    The leading indicater,I guess, is the sharp decline in the number of jobs in the past few years.
    The job market has been shrinking since forever which means more people out of jobs leading to less general spending power.
    Less spending power effects directly the businesses in clothing ,food ,entertainment industry and so on.
    Overally People make less money ,so they start cutting corners. The first thing business owner usualky do to cop with the economy pressure is to cut down the number of employers who work for them. The result would be more people out of jobs and more reduction on spending power.
    Another leading indicator ,I personally think ,Is an notably increase in the number of empty resturants in meal rush hours (good one,just made up:)) in the evening and afternoon.
    If you look more closely ,you notice that resturants that used to packed ,now are almost empty of customers. Seems like ,nowadays more and more people recline to spend more time in the kitchen cooking than dining out.
    Another leading indicator that I can think of is an increae in the number of people at Coffe houses.
    My logic says that at the time of ecomomy melt down ,people’s money power takes a dive nose and decline drastically, fonancially ,they go down ,still they feel the need for fun and socializing. So,what do they do ? It is simple ,they start looking for alternatives that provides them with some fun ,and hang out time. As a way of letting some steam off in order to to relax and wind down, A getaway trip from all the hubbub and the host of
    Everday’s hocous-pocus in terms of economy,terrorism and so on.
    But let’s not forget the fact that they don’t have the same amount of money to burn through( good one,just made up:)) So ,as a lasr resort they swurm to coffee houses like TimHorton’s( thank Lucy for the explanation once you have on this very blog about the reason why “‘s” is put right after the name of some stores. Every single time I see TimHorton’s or write somewhere Timhorton’s It reminds me of you and how great you are)
    The same applies with Bars. Economy goes down you see more people in coffee houses and bars than resturants.
    To sum up,it is like butterfly effects . The economy turndown always intrigued a chain of reactions that effects every living entity in this planet
    Even let’s get less treat because their owner prefer to eat themselves first:)))

    The bonehead:))

  12. Tony says:

    Hi Jeff, Thank you and Jeff for all your efforts on the podcasts and articles. I’am a Chinese lived in Shanghai.

    I’m very sorry about the economy recession in America and European country.
    Regarding of the topics today, I can’t figure out some useful examples of indicators.
    Although the purchasing or consumption power is still impressive, I think, especially by foreign people.
    Chinese is also facing problem of economy growth being slowing.
    Anyway, I hope the economy of China can be helper for global economic refresh

    Thanks and Regards!
    Tony at Shanghai

  13. Bakhtiar says:

    I agree with the motion that the way women dress in your society does tell you about something that you can hardly observe in reality. In my experience after topple of regime in Iraq in 2003 and improving economic situation for most of poeple . Although the security situation is deteriorated in middle and south of country. In Kurdistan region people have welcome the humaintarian intervention in favor of people and against the regime, personally now i am taking my second intake in master degree in the University of Kurdistan Hawler one of our model is humaintarian intervention . For some international relations scholar. Current international legal system does not allow waging war for saving strangers. Others believe that waging war or exceptional act in the interational stage which is not documented in the international law is might lead to reform international law although the action is illegal.

  14. Peter says:

    Dear Jeff,
    I have a soft spot for your post.
    It is good that you almost always end your post with an essay question. It is best for intriguing us to get out of our comfort zoon and challenge ourselves.
    Writing in an Essay format is not easy. The introduction is the hardest part since you must start with something that grab the attention of the audience and then the thesis comes which is the message the essay intends to put across ,the boddy that follows tge inteoduction is your reasoning that support the thesis.The conclusion ,the part that essay ends with ,gets tricky,though.the conclusion must contain a brief of what you said in conclusion and body sections ,yet with no hint of the material used in both section.
    Technically speaking, Different wordings ,the same concept.
    To conclude, the questions Embeded at the end of posts are meant for us to push the boundaries.

    The bonehead:))

  15. Peter says:

    Now ,I m blushing:)
    You don’t need to mention my name.
    They are not my words ,they are some common expressions people use.
    I just tried to be funny ,and at the same time acknowledge the work of our great prof “Jeff”
    Happy that you found my gibberish interesting.
    I m way far from having some coinage of my own. Galaxy far my friend (good one,just made up,referring to way far from :)))


  16. Peter says:

    Guys ,
    Did you notice. There is sth big missing here on this post.
    Where is Betty ??

  17. Peter says:

    Good words of recognition on your part for Lucy and Jeff. I m 100 percent behind you bro.
    The economy is bad everywhere my friend. Is not sth specific or exclusive for u guys.
    Here,In Canada we suffer thorough as well.
    But,the economy is a bit better here mainly due to the immigration. People who come here mostly bring in money and some of them bring in big money. The ones with money start up businesses ,buy houses and some even throw some money after bad,that is how wealthy some of them are.
    See,with immigration comes money and as u well know money is the only fule for every economy.
    Basically, immigration of people to Canada pump up some extra fule to the economy,so that way the government manage to fill up some deficits.
    Still,the global economy downturn has hit here as well. The manifestation is less festive crowds.


  18. Tania says:

    Hi! In the ESL Podcast 768 I have found out an answer regarding the verb “to quote”.
    I have known only the meaning to give a price, price quotation for an offer.
    You have used it up to now only with the meaning “to cite” an author.
    I thought there was about one of my many confusions.
    Thank you.

  19. Tania says:

    Hi! I know the phrases “high price” and “low price” but not and “rock-bottom price”.
    Thank you.

  20. Tania says:

    Hi! Sad, sad, but very excitement spy trials.
    I have listened to the English Cafe 299 again.
    “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of passing nuclear weapons (A-bomb) secrets to the Soviet Union, were the first American civilians executed for espionage by the electric chair on June 19, 1953.”

  21. Tania says:

    Hi! New phrases for me : the statute of limitations, they were a cause celebre,…

  22. Tania says:

    Hi! Nice and emotional Johnny Appleseed’s story.
    And his grace prayer …yes, it is nice. It gives you a peace and quiet mood.

  23. Tania says:

    Hi! We know the meaning of the verb “to crave” and “craving” from the English Cafe 227/2010.
    “I have a craving for apple-pie.” You told us about vampires. I think the vampires have a craving for blood.
    And I had to read the novel “Dracula” by Abraham Stoker. I like it very much and I have to thank you.
    And the vampires can bite us. Want a bite of blood?
    New phrase for me “want a bite?”
    Thank you.

  24. Tania says:

    Hi! The same “She was drop dead gorgeous” and “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”.
    I have had no idea about the verb “to stomach”. I can stomach, I may puke. Interesting.

  25. emiliano says:

    The point here it is not about economy it is about pooverty.
    Spanish population, the same as in Greek, Portugal or Ireland, is going to be poor.
    Without the essential to survive as it could be a flat to be covered, food, dressing and a work
    to feel themselves as useful people.
    Nearly half the young of less than thirty have not a single work to apport something
    to their families.
    Hundred of thousand of young couples have lost their houses, their works, and have needed
    to look for a refuge to live…where?. Easy, again in their parent´s house and what is even
    worst they live on the retired pension of them as they have nothing with some children to

    So, it is not subjects about good or bad economy, it is a question about people.
    Persons that are suffering the irresponsability of politicians that need to be in prision
    by their bad delictive administration.
    No body have any responsability about these events, and now we have thousands of
    young in the streets shouting agains the new goverment that try do restrict everything
    in order to continue belonging to the euro and inside Europe.
    It is like a real tragedy with real people that are suffering till nobody knows.

    Barcelona´s disturbswere the cover of the New York Times yesteday what is not
    a good example for showing a city or a country.
    Hundred of thousands spanish youngs, very well prepared, have went out of the
    country looking for a job outside the country.
    There are thousands in Germany, France, England and the north countries of
    My daughter Laura is in Denmark despite she was working in TVE., that now
    the mentioned TVE is under low minimus, without money to emit, so she took a
    good decission after all.

    That is the real situation here dear Peter.
    Be in mind that if I could, despite I am retired, i´ll be out from here at once.
    But I can´t, Cuca has not good health, and I have to remaind here seeing how
    this country is going down till a bottom no body knows.

    Yes Peter, I do think Lucy makes an incredible huge work day after day in order to
    give us the best scrips and ideas we could find in the web.
    Some times we do not think about this her exaustive daily work, me too also, so
    from here I would like to say her a big thank you and ask her to forgive all our
    nuisance on questions or messages, all of them with the best of the intentions
    but I do think she has to be just a little mind tired, too much thinking about
    new interesting subjects to talk about or to make the lessons.
    Thank you Lucy, we love your work the same as Jeff´s always happy and nice with
    the best English voice and acent I have ever listened to.


    Sorry, too long.


  26. Maziyar says:

    Hi Dr. Jeff,

    We have such indicators in our country, Iran, too.

    Bank lines index, when the economy is in steep fall people tend to exchange their money to gold or some strong foreign currencies like Dollars or Euros. So, you notice more people in long lines of banks and other exchangers, waiting to buy gold or foreign currencies.

    The second thing is what I call, Alcoholic Beverage Index, as you may know trading alcoholic drinks are restricted by law, in Iran, but it doesn’t mean that people don’t drink alcohol at all. there are many alcohol smugglers who bring very limited in variety kinds of drinks from outside boarders and sell them to people in bulk. Then those people sell them to other bunch of guys and the process continues till the drinks spread all over the country. As you might have expected, the price gets higher each time it is sold to people and finally when it gets to the hand of the poor consumers, they pay much more than the real price of the drinks. The relation between economy and alcoholic beverage is that, when people are in economic difficulties they won’t pay for expensive drinks in their parties, and they prefer to buy handmade alcoholic drinks which we call ‘ARAGH’ (Sweat) ,a very high percentage alcoholic drink sometimes with a very low quality. On the other hand, when people are in good economic conditions you would see pricey bottles of scotches and vodkas on the tables in the parties.

    Thanks everyone all over the world and have a good time 🙂

  27. Paul De Smet, Belguim. says:

    Hey all, It is a topic which have been well spoken of in the media . As I watch BBC television regularly I know of that TV programme which spoke about what makes Britain great, or ‘Made in Britain’. And lately, that TV production ‘1929. The Great Depression’ from producer William Karel. Yes, I loved to leave some comments but my English is still too poor for that. So long and stay tuned.

    By Michael Hogan
    10:00PM BST 20 Jun 2011
    Evan Davis rarely fails to cheer me up. Partly because of his self-confessed “campy moments” on the Today programme. Partly because I confuse the real Davis with Paul Whitehouse’s unsettling Dickensian impression of him on Harry & Paul. And partly because during his often slightly awkward pieces to camera, I chuckle about the urban myth that he’s blind and the crew put a bell on the camera so he knows which way to face. Go on, imagine that next time you see him on-screen – it livens things up no end.
    He did it again in Made in Britain (BBC Two). Not only was this an optimistic documentary about our economy, a rare beast indeed, but Davis provided several moments of inadvertent levity (= humour or lack of seriousness ,esp. during a serious occasion.). He twice strayed into Top Gear territory, hopping into a Typhoon fighter plane and McLaren sports car, and on both occasions looked genuinely terrified. There was a random close-up of his shoes, which seemed to be built-up brothel creepers – slightly surprising as he was otherwise dressed soberly in shirt and slacks. And those awkward pieces to camera included a bizarre pronunciation of “economeeee” (economy, i’kon.e.mi). You’d think a pre-requisite for being an economist was being able to pronounce that word. ( Cambridge Advanced, requisite: an important necessary thing. Self-esteem, self-judgement and self-will are said to be the three requisites of independence.)
    His thesis was that contrary to the myth that Britain doesn’t make anything any more, we’re actually still a manufacturing powerhouse. To illustrate his points, Davis visited factories, admired lots of well-designed vehicles and sat impishly (= showing a child’s pleasure in being playful and making trouble. At seventy, he still retains his impish grin)) in the front row at London Fashion Week. There were apprentice-influenced swoops (= would be managers ?) round the capital’s shiny skyline (they seem to be standard procedure when business is mentioned on TV these days), some lovely archive footage and a stretched metaphor involving a string quartet that didn’t make sense.
    This was a Money Programme production but more cheering than their usual output. If only all economists wore brothel-creepers and cocked their head at the camera like a curious meerkat. [Link removed.]

  28. flicker says:

    Dear Jeff and Lucy

    Here is a good indicator I read in a book. It’s “litter index”.

    In general, good economy shows more litters

    In upward side of economy people usually drink a lot.

    You can check people’s recycling garbage. (like counting the number of empty cans.. )

    But in upward point of economy does not mean eating a lot.

    Increasing usual home garbage mean down side of economy.

    ( I guess this comes from unemployment. Unemployed people stays home. Nowadays some people works at home, but demographically small.)

    In some cultures increasing of cigarette butts means down side of economy.

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