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Economic confidence trending up despite tonnage dip

May 22, 2013

Despite a dip in TL tonnage this April due to continued sluggishness in the overall U.S. economy, broad confidence remains in the economic direction of the nation, according to corporate surveys and public opinion polls.

The monthly for-hire truck tonnage index compiled by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) fell 0.2% in April after rising 0.9% in March – a decline tied to a 0.4% drop in factory output and a 16.5% plunge in housing starts, noted Bob Costello, the trade group’s chief economist.

Still, Costello stressed that the longer-term track for tonnage growth remains upbeat, as year-to-date figures compared with the same stretch in 2012 showing that tonnage is up 4%.

“The slight drop in tonnage during April fit with trends from other industries that drive a significant amount of truck freight, such as manufacturing and housing,” he explained.

“After rising significantly late last year and in January of this year, truck tonnage has been bouncing around a narrow, but elevated band over the last three months.” Costello added. “It is also worth noting that the year-over-year comparisons are much better than expected just a few months ago and I’m hearing good comments about freight so far in May.”

One sign that the industry retains confidence in its freight prospects moving forward is that Class 8 truck orders remained above 20,000 units for a seventh consecutive month this April – rising to their second highest volume in sixteen month, according to data tracked by ACT Research.

The firm said April Class 8 net orders totaled just over 23,200 units, with medium-duty truck net orders totaling 16,740 units – the best order volume in six months and the second best in the past twenty-six months.

“Class 8 orders year-to-date bound for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico all continue to trend above year ago levels. Demand from Mexico is particularly strong,” added Kenny Vieth, ACT’s president & senior analyst. “Class 8 cancellations remained in record low territory in April, which is a positive indicator for stronger demand. And, as has been the case this cycle, backlogs for the medium duty market remain thin relative to build. Per-day build hit its second highest level in a year in April.”

Optimism is also rising in the equipment finance market, according to the most recent survey by the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation.

The firm said its Monthly Confidence Index for the equipment finance industry (MCI-EFI) reached 56.7 in May, an increase from 54 in April, reflecting industry participants’ increasing optimism despite continuing concerns over the economy and the impact of federal policies on capital expenditures.

When asked to assess their business conditions over the next four months, 9.7% of executives responding to the Foundation’s poll said they believe business conditions will improve over the next four months, up from 6.3% in April. A further 87.1% of respondents believe business conditions will remain the same over the next four months, up from 84.4% in April. 3.2% believe business conditions will worsen, down from 9.4% the previous month.

Currently, 90.3% of the leadership in the equipment finance sector evaluates the current U.S. economy as “fair,” up from 87.5% last month, with only 9.7% rating it as “poor,” a decrease from 12.5% in April.

The Foundation added that 32.3% of its survey respondents believe that U.S. economic conditions will get “better” over the next six months, an increase from 15.6% in April. Finally, 64.5% of survey respondents indicate they believe the U.S. economy will “stay the same” over the next six months, down from 68.8% in April, with 3.2% believing economic conditions in the U.S. will worsen over the next six months, a decrease from 15.6% who believed so last month.

“With strong liquidity in the market we are seeing lending extended to middle market credits again,” noted Aylin Cankardes, president of the Rockwell Financial Group, in the commentary portion of the Foundation’s survey. “Lessees continue to renew leases but for shorter periods of time as they are now becoming more interested in financing capital equipment to replace existing assets.”

A broader measure of business optimism is also on the rise, as chief financial officers (CFOs) are reportedly “significantly more confident” in the U.S. economy, according to the 2013 Spring CFO Survey from Grant Thornton LLP.

That survey found that 45% of 1,259 CFOs and comptrollers polled believe the state of the U.S. economy will improve during the next six months, compared to just 31% in the fall and 25% last summer.

That confidence extends throughout the survey findings, added Stephen Chipman, Grant Thornton’s CEO, with 44% of those polled predicting that industry financial prospects will improve during the next six months, compared to 34% in the fall. In addition, when CFOs were asked about employment opportunities during the next six months, more than a third (40%) said their company’s head count would increase, rising 6% from the fall.

“The results of our spring survey are encouraging — particularly with respect to the uptick in expectations for improved financial prospects,” Chipman said. “Seemingly, steady improvements in key economic indicators, including labor and housing, have helped stimulate greater optimism among CFOs, at least in the near-term.”

Those findings come on the heels of similar data from the Grant Thornton International Business Report, which found that optimism in the performance of the nation’s economy among U.S. business leaders rose from negative 4% in fourth quarter 2012 to 31% in first quarter 2013.

Even public opinion about the direction of the U.S. economy seems to be turning more positive, according to the most recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive.

Based on an online survey of 2,240 adults between May 8 and 13, looking at household financial conditions, half of Americans (50%) expect their financial conditions will stay the same over the next six months, while one quarter each say it will get better (26%) and that it will get worse (24%).

This is an improvement from April, when just over one in five thought their household's financial condition would get better (22%) and almost three in ten said it would get worse (28%), the firm stressed.

U.S adults are also slightly more optimistic about the coming year economically, with one-third (32%) saying they think the economy will improve and 25% saying it will get worse; two in five (42%) believe it will remain the same, Harris noted – while in April, 29% believed it would improve while the same percentage thought it would get worse. 

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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