As with the 2001 recession, there’s been much talk of a “jobless recovery.” It peaked with two reports in early November: Productivity increased 9.5 percent in the third quarter, while unemployment rose to 10.2 percent in October.

Not all explanations for the productivity gain, one of the three biggest in the last 30 years, carry equal weight. New computer systems or factory-line robots or low-wage workers in India could have taken over duties formerly done by Americans. Perhaps, but most such changes span more than three months.

In many workplaces, one person is doing a job formerly done by two. Whether it’s working extra hours or sloughing off inefficient procedures, it gets the job done.

Another factor is that rebounding businesses often start with hiring independent contractors or part-time help. This has long been a key part of for-hire trucking, especially when emerging from a recession. The strategy is good news for working owner-operators, not so much for other CDL holders who can’t find a job or whose pay has suffered.

However productivity gains were achieved, what scares those who are out of work or vulnerable to layoffs is that the newly lean and mean parts of the economy won’t need those jobs back. After all, employers are cranking out more with lower labor costs. The productivity report noted hours worked dropped at a 5 percent annual rate, yet output increased 4 percent.

Beyond the generally depressed conditions that affect the entire economy, trucking employment shouldn’t decline as much as other sectors from a recovery where recent and future productivity advances put the brake on job growth. There is only so much productivity to be gained in our industry and plenty to be lost:

  • The political pressure against longer or heavier rigs, or higher speed limits, will prevent change.
  • However the newly ordered review of the hours of service rule ends up, it’s more likely to cramp productivity. Ditto for if – more likely, when – electronic onboard recorders are mandated.
  • The Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 program (See Page 12) will introduce an amazingly in-depth data collection system that will screen out reckless carriers and drivers, based on recent history, starting as early as late 2010.
  • New carriers, including an owner-operator applying for operating authority, will be subject to tougher requirements if the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has its way.
  • FMCSA is likely to enact tougher health standards that screen out more drivers.

 

So the bigger concern for certain professional drivers is not a recovery that can do without jobs, but trucking jobs that must do without disqualified drivers. Those who are safe and physically fit need not worry. If you’re in lousy health and your driving history is peppered with bad inspections, citations and wrecks, make plans to change your record – or your profession. It’s not too late.

— Max Heine

Manufacturing monitor ISM issued a good news, bad news report today, but the good outweighs the bad.
   The sector expanded in November for the fourth consecutive month, says the Institute for Supply Management. The downside is that the rate of growth is less than a month ago, and less than analysts expected.
   “The signs are still encouraging for continuing growth as both new orders and production are still at very positive levels,” says Norbert Ore, head of ISM’s Manufacturing Business Survey Committee. 
   So what freight is hot? Here are November’s dynamic dozen leading sectors, in order:
· Apparel, Leather & Allied Products
· Printing & Related Support Activities
· Petroleum & Coal Products
· Miscellaneous Manufacturing
· Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components
· Transportation Equipment
· Chemical Products
· Computer & Electronic Products
· Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products
· Paper Products
· Fabricated Metal Products
· Machinery.
   And the five showing a November decline:
· Wood Products
· Furniture & Related Products
· Nonmetallic Mineral Products
· Primary Metals
· Plastics & Rubber Products.
— Max Heine

There was a mixed bag of trucking-related economic reports Friday, though the good seems to outweigh the bad.

The American Truck Dealers, citing trade press reports, notes that third-quarter earnings reports from fleets show freight volumes appear to be rising, though revenues aren’t keeping pace. Also, U.S. truck tonnage fell 7.3 percent in September from the same month last year. That’s not good news unless you consider that it was the best year-to-year monthly showing since November 2008, observes the American Trucking Associations. ATA’s seasonally adjusted for-hire truck tonnage index dipped 0.3 percent in September from August after rising 2.1 percent in August from July.

In his own weekly roundup, ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello cites the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report that real gross domestic product jumped 3.5 percent (annualized rate) during the third quarter. This marks the first time the U.S. economy has grown since the second quarter of 2008 and the largest gain since the third quarter of 2007. The quarter’s good performance was due in part to the feds’ Cash for Clunkers program, a rebounding housing market and a rise in personal consumption.

These trends are good signs for freight, even if you subtract the federal influence of the car-buying program and the stimulus for first-time homebuyers that ends in November. Still, like other economists, Costello continues to take a cautious view about the speed of recovery: “The third quarter GDP reading was encouraging; however, I expect the economy to grow modestly in subsequent quarters as the U.S. consumer continues to face several headwinds, including employment losses, tight credit, and high debt levels.”

 — Max Heine

Landstar System Inc., reported its share of lower revenue and income numbers in its third-quarter earnings statement, but the nation’s largest owner-operator carrier also sees a turnaround taking shape.

The company earned $20 million from revenue of $501 million in the quarter that ended. Sept. 30. Comparable net income a year ago was $33 million from revenue of $733  million.

The good news/bad news, from Henry Gerkens, president and CEO: “Notable 2009 third-quarter over 2008 third-quarter revenue declines continued to be generated from the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as with respect to our substitute line-haul service offering. On a positive note, revenue generated from the automotive sector began to improve for the first time in a couple of years.”

A separate report this week confirmed the strong numbers on auto shipments. Production of cars and light trucks in North America during September reached the highest level since October 2008, said CSM Worldwide, an automotive industry analyst firm.

For overall business, Gerkens also noted a slowing of the decline in number of hauls. From 2008 to 2009, that measurement dropped 16 percent from second quarter to second quarter, but only 11 percent over the third quarters.

“I see a gradually improving overall freight environment, and I believe that the worst is over,” he said.

— Max Heine

“The economy has bottomed out, but it is going to be slow going in the months ahead.” That was the consensus of speakers at this week’s annual management conference of the American Trucking Associations, in Las Vegas, says ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello in his weekly newsletter.

One of those speakers, Sara Johnson of HIS Global Insight, predicts a contraction of  2.5 percent this year, followed by an increase of 2.0 percent in 2010 and then a normal 3.0 level in 2011.

Costello told the conference of a record reduction in freight volumes over the last year. “Unfortunately, the historical reduction in volumes was surpassed by an even larger drop in revenues,” he writes. “Still, most sectors in trucking appear to have bottomed out.”

He also cited “a record reduction in capacity,” which should end up as good news for owner-operators (and fleets) who can hold out until demand for their services returns: “While this reduction has been masked by an even larger drop in demand for trucking services, it means that volumes don’t have to return to pre-recession levels before capacity tightens significantly.”

And in a separate report, some other positive news. Class 8 orders for major North American truck makers totaled 10,817 units in September, the fourth consecutive month that orders have shown a month-over-month increase, according to preliminary data from FTR Associates, a consulting firm. Year-to-date orders through September are 5.2 percent ahead of the same period in 2008, reflecting the first year-over-year increase since June 2008.

 — Max Heine

More good news for manufacturing. A month ago, Institute for Supply Management data showed that manufacturing grew in August, for the first time since January 2008. ISM reported today that September gave an encore performance.

“While the rate of growth moderated slightly when compared to August, the recovery broadened as the number of industries reporting growth increased from 11 to 13,” says ISM’s Norbert J. Ore. “Both new orders and production are growing, but at a slower rate when compared to August.”

Those 13 growing sectors, listed in order: wood products; paper products; apparel, leather and allied products; transportation equipment; textile mills; printing and related support activities; petroleum and coal products; electrical equipment, appliances and components; fabricated metal products; chemical products; computer and electronic products; miscellaneous manufacturing; and food, beverage and tobacco products.

The four industries reporting contraction in September are: primary metals; furniture and related products; plastics and rubber products; and machinery.

ISM’s index was 52.6 for September, following a 52.9 in August. Any level over 50 indicates growth. The Associated Press reported that analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected a 54 for September.

— Max Heine

Lots of good news for trucking in today’s report from the Institute for Supply Management.

Economic activity in manufacturing expanded in August, following 18 consecutive months of contraction, according to the nation’s supply executives polled for the latest Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. The August numbers also show the overall economy grew for the fourth consecutive month.

“The year-and-a-half decline in manufacturing output has come to an end, as 11 of 18 manufacturing industries are reporting growth when comparing August to July,” says Norbert Ore of ISM. “While this is certainly a positive occurrence, we have to keep in mind that it is the beginning of a new cycle and that all industries are not yet participating in the growth.”

Those hot 11 sectors are, in order: Textile Mills; Apparel, Leather & Allied Products; Paper Products; Miscellaneous Manufacturing; Printing & Related Support Activities; Computer & Electronic Products; Transportation Equipment; Nonmetallic Mineral Products; Electrical Equipment, Appliances & Components; Fabricated Metal Products; and Chemical Products.

The six industries reporting contraction are: Primary Metals; Plastics & Rubber Products; Furniture & Related Products; Wood Products; Food, Beverage & Tobacco Products; and Machinery.

“The August index of 52.9 percent is the highest since June 2007,” Ore says of the PMI (Purchasing Managers Index). “The 4 percentage point increase was driven by significant strength in the New Orders Index, which is up 9.6 points to 64.9 percent, the highest since December 2004. The growth appears sustainable in the short term, as inventories have been reduced for 40 consecutive months and supply chains will have to re-stock to meet this new demand.”

Ore also notes that if the PMI for August (52.9 percent) “is annualized, it corresponds to a 3.7 percent increase in real GDP annually.”

 — Max Heine