That the general economy is picking up the pace is sharply reflected in new stats showing favorable conditions for motor carriers and trucking stocks as well as a new report showing increased manufacturing activity.

For starters, FTR Associates’ Trucking Conditions Index, as reported in the research firm’s January Trucking Update, increased by slightly less than two points from the previous month to a reading of 5.2 in November. What’s more, the TCI has now been in “positive territory” for over a year, FTR pointed out.

Indeed, according to FTR, the “environment for truckers remains modestly favorable with decent growth, capacity and pricing conditions.” The firm stressed that the TCI is projected to continue to move upward over the course of 2012, “but the removal of hours-of-service (HOS) regulation changes from the 2012 equation has made a severe capacity shortage much less likely.”

The Trucking Conditions Index is a compilation of factors affecting trucking companies. Any reading above zero indicates an adequate trucking environment with readings above 10 a sign that volumes, prices and margin are in a good range for trucking companies.

“The 2012 environment is coming into better focus now that it is certain that no changes in HOS regulations will occur before 2013 at the earliest,” said Larry Gross FTR senior consultant.

“The conditions for the trucking industry will now turn on the fundamentals of supply and demand, as well as the continuing effects of existing new safety regulations such as CSA,” he continued. “We expect these factors combined will work to keep trucking capacity modestly tight over the course of the year, enabling continued progress on trucking rates for carriers.”

Meanwhile, stock analysts Ed Wolfe and Scott Group at Wolfe Trahan & Co., who had recommended a disciplined approach to investing in transport stocks entering 2011, now write that entering 2012, they see the “best visibility for projecting domestic freight transport volumes and yields that we have felt in the past five years, and we recommend over-weighting transport stocks relative to the market in 2012.”

The analysts go on to say they ”favor domestic exposure as pricing lags volume.” They explain that international freight volumes and pricing trends have been well below domestic freight trends the past several months and note that contractual pricing always brings volumes down.

“As a result, entering 2012,” stated Wolfe and Group, “we favor domestic exposure, particularly the rails and truckload, where we expect strong pricing gains to continue. Truckload carriers also face easy fuel comps in the first half as well as easy volume comps, particularly KNX (Knight Transportation) and SWFT (Swift Transportation). We also expect another year of strong intermodal market share growth for JBHT (J.B. Hunt) and HUBG (Hub Group) and we are increasingly warming up to FDX (FedEx) and LTLs with high-end operating leverage, given our growing confidence in the U.S. economy.”

Last but not least—as it certainly backs up the rosy view of the road ahead expressed by both FTR Associates and Wolfe Trahan & Co.—are the latest stats out on manufacturing activity in the U.S. Economic activity in the manufacturing sector expanded in December for the 29th consecutive month and the overall economy grew for the 31st consecutive month, according to supply executives surveyed in the latest Manufacturing Report On Business issued by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM).

“The PMI registered 53.9%, an increase of 1.2 percentage points from November’s reading of 52.7%, indicating expansion in the manufacturing sector for the 29th consecutive month,” explained Bradley J. Holcomb, chair of the ISM Manufacturing Business Survey Committee. “The New Orders Index increased 0.9 percentage points from November to 57.6%, reflecting the third consecutive month of growth after three months of contraction.” He added that prices of raw materials continued to decrease for the third consecutive month, with the Prices Index registering 47.5%, which is 2.5 percentage points higher than the November reading.

“Manufacturing is finishing out the year on a positive note, with new orders, production and employment all growing in December at faster rates than in November, and with an optimistic view toward the beginning of 2012 as reflected by the panel in this month’s survey,” noted Holcomb.

Of the 18 manufacturing industries covered by the survey, nine reported growth in December, in the following order: apparel, leather & allied products; printing & related support activities; textile mills; petroleum & coal products; machinery; food, beverage & tobacco products; computer & electronic products; primary metals; and paper products.

The nine industries that reported contraction in December — listed in order — are: plastics & rubber products; nonmetallic mineral products; furniture & related products; chemical products; wood products; miscellaneous manufacturing; fabricated metal products; transportation equipment; and electrical equipment, appliances & components.