Despite a projected falloff in U.S. retail spending due to tax increases contained within the fiscal cliff resolution, truck freight volumes remain in what analysts call “modest” growth territory – though that could change quickly depending on broader economic trends.

“Looking at freight, there’s modest growth and still many positive signs; we’re still in ‘OK mode’ for now,” Eric Starks, president of research firm FTR Associates, told Fleet Owner.

In particular, he said federal government stimulus funds to help the Northeast continue its recovery from Hurricane Sandy should provide a boost to freight demand through the second quarter this year, while continued improvement in the housing market should help drive demand for trucking-centric goods such as lumber and furniture.

Other analysts, however, are concerned over the falloff in retail demand that occurred at the end of 2012; a falloff that drive down trucking tonnage, according to data tracked by the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

ATA noted that though its for-hire truck tonnage index increased 2.8% in December after surging 3.9% in November, compared with December 2011, the index was off by 2.3% – the worst year-over-year result since November 2009. For all of 2012, tonnage was up 2.3% compared to an uptick of 5.8% for 2011.

ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello anticipates more sluggishness in the index to occur in 2013, especially early in the year, as the economy continues to face several headwinds.

“As paychecks shrink for all households due to higher taxes, I’m expecting a weak first quarter for tonnage and the broader economy,” he explained. “Since trucks account for the vast majority of deliveries in the retail supply chain, any reduction in consumer spending will have ramifications on truck tonnage levels.”

Indeed, as 2012 came to a close, retail research firm SymphonyIRI Group said the looming debt ceiling and the much talked about “fiscal cliff” did nothing to boost consumer confidence and that its quarterly MarketPulse survey found that shopper sentiment dropped to its lowest point in the fourth quarter last year since third quarter of 2011.

While the firm said consumers across all age groups felt the strain of ongoing economic strife, according to SymphonyIRI’s poll, those aged 35 to 54 held particularly gloomy attitudes, with 43% stating that their financial situation deteriorated in 2012.

 “Through quarterly analysis of two full years of MarketPulse data, we have consistently seen a solid representation of shoppers with a gray outlook on their financial health,” noted Susan Viamari, editor of SymphonyIRI’s newsletter Times & Trends.

“This sentiment remains very prevalent, especially for those aged 35 to 54, who are really influencing trends, because they are in their prime earning and family-raising years,” she added. “All of these pressures are converging to heighten their concern about their futures and leading the way on many conservative shopping strategies and money-saving behaviors.”

Another consumer survey conducted for Bankrate.com by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI) discerned that 28% of Americans spent less than expected this holiday season while just 16% spent more than expected – a finding consistent across most age groups, with only those under age 30 slightly more inclined to have spent more than expected.

Bankrate also announced that its Financial Security Index jumped three points to 98.6 in January – the biggest increase in 13 months – following the deal to avert the fiscal cliff, yet it remains lower than the October reading of 99.2 and is consistent with Americans' long-term feelings of deteriorating financial security.

“When the Financial Security Index is below 100, it indicates that Americans' financial security is lower than one year previous – and the index has been below 100 in 24 of the 26 months since its inception in Dec. 2010,” notedGreg McBride, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst.

“These results illustrate that the fiscal cliff was hardly the only headwind impacting the U.S. economy,” he said. “Yes, the resolution brought some temporary relief, but the economy continues to plod along in first gear. It's going to take sustained, substantive job growth in order for Americans to feel considerably better about their financial security.”

Still, FTR’s Starks believes that business investment levels affect the freight market in more immediate fashion than retail consumption – and so far business investment is holding steady, providing decent freight volumes.

“Business investment really determines how hard freight moves so if businesses cease investing, that has a direct impact on freight,” he explained. “Retail consumption behavior takes longer work through the chain, though eventually it does impact freight.”

Yet Starks points out that inventory levels remain low compared to historical trends, so even a mild bump-up in demand would create additional freight moves due to inventory re-stocking efforts.

Indeed, Bloomberg BNA's annual Economic Outlook, based on a consensus forecast crafted by economists at 21 leading financial, consulting, and academic organizations – predicts that the U.S. economy will slow in early 2013 from impacts of the payroll tax hike and constraints on federal spending, but that growth will improve in second half of the year as the private sector strengthens.

Key drivers of growth will be business investment and job creation, the housing industry recovery, and consumer spending, Bloomberg said.

“As long as freight volumes stay where they are now, we’ll be OK,” FTR’s Starks added. “But now the question is, when will freight accelerate? We still feel there’s a lot of pent-up demand in the economy, so it won’t take a lot to create a real spurt in freight activity.”