Here's some good news — we're at least halfway through the current recession. Didn't know we were officially in a recession? That's because the economists who have the final word on dating business cycles haven't quite gotten around to making a public pronouncement yet.
They're about to, though, and word is they'll pick last March as the starting point. The six economists who make up the Business Cycle Dating Committee at the National Bureau of Economic Research are reportedly ready to identify March as the end of our economy's 10-year expansion and the beginning of its contraction.
That's certainly not news to the trucking industry. Freight movement is always at the leading edge of economic activity, and since trucking carries 80% of the freight in this country, the industry is usually among the first to see signs of change. In fact, if you ask executives at for-hire fleets, they'll tell you that they saw things beginning to slow down as early as the third quarter of 2000.
In the nine other recessions the group has identified since the end of World War II, the average length was 11 months, with the two longest in the mid-1970s and early 1980s each lasting 16 months. If the current cycle follows historic patterns, we're at least halfway to the start of recovery.
The problem with this glass-half-full optimism is that history hasn't proved to be a very accurate predictor, especially when it comes to economic cycles. For example, the dating group's official start for the last expansion is March 1991, meaning the good times lasted an unprecedented 10 years. Historic patterns certainly didn't forecast such a long run of high growth and low inflation. Does that mean the ensuing downturn will be shorter than historic averages? Longer? The same? Your guess is probably as good as the economists'.
Then there's the economic fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks. Coming just as the decade-old expansion was faltering, they've added unprecedented pressure on so many aspects of the economy, ranging from our financial community to consumer confidence. They clearly make expectations based on what's happened before even more suspect.
The usual economic tea leaves are just as hard to read, with various statistical measures offering conflicting views on the health of the economy and the stock market dancing a nervous jig. Even the anecdotal evidence is contradictory; one day there's news of yet another company announcing massive layoffs and the next we hear of dropping energy prices and still another cut in interest rates.
Even if we can't quite see the big picture clearly, we are living with these conditions every day. So I guess official labels and historically justified predictions serve some purpose, giving us the illusion of control over things beyond our control. But somehow I doubt you need anyone to tell you that business has been bad for the last nine months. Everyone is a little busy at the moment trying to deal with things as they are right now. Why don't they come back when they have some good news?