Fill 'er up

I think the general attitude after a year of truly horrible economic news is best summed up by one word feh

I think the general attitude after a year of truly horrible economic news is best summed up by one word — feh! For those of you who didn't grow up in a part of the country where Yiddish was common, feh can be loosely translated as “ugh,” only much stronger. You really need to imagine a screwed-up face, a dismissive wave of the hand and a slow, sad shake of the head to get the full meaning.

So in an attempt to get into the holiday spirit, let's put 2009 behind us a few weeks early and look at some hopeful signs that next year will bring a bit of relief.

Starting with the broad view, the best news is that the recession appears to have finally bottomed out. After shrinking for four straight quarters, the GDP showed solid growth in the third quarter and is expected to at least stay positive when all the numbers are in for the fourth. Other indexes used to measure a broad range of manufacturing and commercial activity have also started to move from negative territory to at least mildly positive. As usual, economists are mixed on whether we'll continue to see that kind of growth in the first months of the new year. But the consensus appears to be that even if the improving indicators “level off” a bit or take a breather, the new year will bring an end to economic contraction.

Job security — real or perceived — has a direct impact on consumer spending, which has been the driver for the U.S. economy, and indeed the world economy as well. Our current unemployment numbers are frightening, and no one is expecting them to drop below 10% anytime soon; but, again, there are signs that the worst is over. The number of new unemployment claims has finally stopped growing. Better still, temporary employment numbers are moving up, which is often seen as an indication that businesses have stopped shedding jobs and are getting back in a hiring mood.

Narrowing the view to look at trucking, 2010 is likely to be a mixed bag, but with more goodies than coal for the first time in years. We didn't have the usual spike in holiday freight, which meant demand remained weak and rate pressure high in the second half of 2009. However, the positive manufacturing and inventory indexes bode well for the new year. In general, for-hire fleets have done an excellent job reining in costs and capacity during the downturn, leaving themselves positioned to take advantage of even a modest freight recovery.

Long term, the picture is even rosier for those fleets that have weathered the Great Recession. Predictions are that freight volumes will grow slowly but steadily for at least the next decade, absorbing the industry's excess capacity in relatively short order and bringing back the strong rates that accompany tight capacity.

And finally, we need to give an appreciative nod to the truck manufacturers and their suppliers. Yes, trucks will cost considerably more in 2010, but they will also deliver the lowest engine emissions in the world while also improving fuel economy. The price tag may hurt, but everyone involved in trucking should take pride in the industry's new role as a real leader in the green revolution.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling better already and looking forward to New Year's Day.

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