Economic indicators remain uneven

Despite a strong start to the holiday shopping season, trucking companies looking for signs of rising freight volumes are still being treated to a mixed bag of signals. One area of consistent trucking demand, new home construction, recently took a sharp drop. Housing starts fell 11% in October from what economists have called an "extraordinary pace" this year. Lynn Reaser, chief economist and senior

Despite a strong start to the holiday shopping season, trucking companies looking for signs of rising freight volumes are still being treated to a mixed bag of signals.

One area of consistent trucking demand, new home construction, recently took a sharp drop. Housing starts fell 11% in October from what economists have called an "extraordinary pace" this year.

Lynn Reaser, chief economist and senior market strategist for Banc of America Capital Management, said in a recent report that home construction permits actually increased 1.7% over the same period, suggesting that the homebuilding sector should remain strong.

"Look for another strong number on new home sales, as low mortgage rates have kept the volume of real estate activity high," she explained.

Also, the traditional start of holiday shopping got off to a robust start, which is a good sign for consumer goods. Discount retailer Wal-Mart posted a one-day sales record of $1.43 billion on the day after Thanksgiving, but it is the only retailer so far to report sales figures.

Consumer spending fell 0.4% in September but is now expected to inch up 0.1% to 0.3% through the end of the year. Lower auto sales dampened overall consumer spending in October, but a strong pickup in apparel buying boosted expenditures for non-durables, while spending on various services probably also registered a moderate gain, Reaser said.

In addition, the gross domestic product (GDP) for the third quarter has been revised upward to 4%, up from the 3% rate the Commerce Dept. originally projected. After-tax corporate profits also rose in third quarter by 2.1%, though that was 1% lower than the same period last year.

Projections for fourth quarter GDP growth, however, have been lowered to 1.4% as the economic recovery continues.

Durable good orders are predicted to jump in the last two months of this year. In September, durable good orders fell 4.9% but are now predicted to climb 1% to 2.5% through December as consumer confidence and spending increase.

Finally, there is growing worry about deflation, which could have serious overall consequences for the U.S. economy and trucking.

The Federal Reserve said prices for all goods rose less than 1% from September 2001 to September of this year, the smallest increase in 50 years. A cycle of falling prices helped trigger the Great Depression of the 1930s, which is why economists are concerned.

However, the Fed said there is only a 15% to 20% chance of true deflation occurring.

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