I strongly suspect you're tired of reading about the economy. I know I'm tired of writing about it. For the last three years, though, it's been the unavoidable topic.
At first, we all looked to any small indication that things weren't going to be as bad as they seemed, that against all plausible evidence we were only facing a minor downturn.
Then when even the most optimistic could no longer deny that we were in a deep recession, the talk turned to just how bad things really were. Every government report or analyst's survey was examined in obsessive detail for the early warning signs that we were headed into a true depression.
Last year the pervasive doom and gloom was replaced by what I'd call the neurotic phase of economic tea leaf reading. Even the smallest movement in anything that could be remotely tagged as an economic indicator was enough to justify dramatic pronouncements that rapidly veered between forecasts of disaster and miraculous recovery. Daily swings of 1%, 2% and even 3% in the major stock indexes became the norm.
American business in general reacted to the good news/bad news vacillations with paralysis, unwilling to hire or invest without some certainty of a meaningful recovery. Trucking, especially fleets in the for-hire side of the industry, showed considerably more confidence. After four years of sitting on the sidelines watching their equipment age to historic levels, fleets began buying trucks in 2011.
It wasn't an all-out buying spree like we saw in 2005 and 2006, but Class 8 sales rose above 200,000 trucks for the first time since 2007. And fleets would have bought even more if manufacturers had the components and capacity to build them. What have fleet executives seen that their peers in the rest of the business world have missed?
For-hire trucking is often called a leading economic indicator as the freight it moves represents a relatively early stage in commercial activity well before it reaches the ultimate engine for our economy, the consumer. Last year's freight activity gave fleets good reason to start positioning themselves for a sustained recovery, showing decent growth despite a soft patch towards the end of the year.
We didn't see anyone rushing to add capacity, but instead witnessed execution of disciplined strategies intended to gradually replace older, less efficient equipment and to get into position to profit from a gradual but steady overall recovery and growth.
It takes confidence and bravery to invest when everyone else is sitting on their hands and when even the best forecasters are — to put it politely — confused. But as we head into 2012, it looks like those fleets that chose to act rather than wait were right. Yes, the stock markets continue to react wildly to every bulletin in the daily news stream, but finally the consensus opinion is that our economic recovery is not only well underway, but actually starting to pick up steam.
Buying new trucks when other industries refused to make overdue capital investments is now looking like a very smart move. So here's a nod of appreciation to all of those fleet executives who had the courage to act when others were frozen with indecision, and a hearty welcome for what I hope will be a great new year for all of us.