The uptick in Class 8 truck orders seen in March do not indicate any significant strengthening in demand, according to data compiled by research firm FTR Associates, which indicates the rate of order activity reveals that truck OEMs face several more tough quarters ahead.

"From what we're seeing, I think we're getting closer to the bottom," Eric Starks, FTR's president, told FleetOwner. "But the level of orders tells me there's still a lot of uncertainty out there. That means it's still going to be pretty painful going in the second and third quarters."

FTR's preliminary data shows Class 8 total net orders for all major North American OEMs totaled 8,594 units in March this year – which includes orders for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and for export. While that represented a 26% increase from February of this year, that performance was 44% below March 2008.

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The uptick in Class 8 truck orders seen in March do not indicate any significant strengthening in demand, according to data compiled by research firm FTR Associates, which indicates the rate of order activity reveals that truck OEMs face several more tough quarters ahead.

"From what we're seeing, I think we're getting closer to the bottom," Eric Starks, FTR's president, told FleetOwner. "But the level of orders tells me there's still a lot of uncertainty out there. That means it's still going to be pretty painful going in the second and third quarters."

FTR's preliminary data shows Class 8 total net orders for all major North American OEMs totaled 8,594 units in March this year – which includes orders for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and for export. While that represented a 26% increase from February of this year, that performance was 44% below March 2008.

The company's analysis of order levels for the first quarter further indicates a potential annualized Class 8 sales rate of 92,772 units for 2009. "We do not see a sustainable rebound in Class 8 order activity for the foreseeable future," Starks said. "The industry and economic environment just don't support increased fleet equipment purchases."

Still, there are signs that the economy may be improving. For example, the seasonally adjusted Credit Managers' Index (CMI), compiled by the National Association of Credit Management (NACM), rose another 0.5% in March after rising by 2.5% in February-- breaking a lengthy string of negative readings.

The data from the CMI matches up well with some of the other economic reports that have emerged over the last few weeks , such as a slight reversal of the downward trend in manufacturing, a small boost in retail sales and a sharp spike in durable goods orders . And all that leads to a sense there may very well be a bottom in sight for this recession, according to NACM chief economist Chris Kuehl.

"Getting back to an expansionary position will be not be simple and may take a few more months, but there are more and more signs that the recession may have reached its low point. The key issue from this point is how fast the rebound may be," Kuehl said.

"The key will be the favorable factors as they will likely show progress of the recovery more quickly than the unfavorable factors," added Kuehl. "It is not uncommon for business to feel the most threat as the economy starts to come out of a recession—bankruptcies often surge as stronger competitors begin to put pressure on weaker companies. But if new credit applications and the amount of credit extended show signs of progress, the economy will respond relatively quickly."

That being said, Starks told FleetOwner that several factors may continue to keep demand for new trucks low. "Obviously, the main one is the ongoing economic recession, which is depressing freight volumes," he said. "There's also a lot of excess capacity in the market still, meaning many fleets won't buy new equipment unless they absolutely need to. Finally, lots of owners are ‘upside down' in terms of their equipment loans – basically, they owe more than the equipment is worth, so there's no advantage to trading in their old trucks right now."