There are a lot of conflicting signs floating out in the U.S. freight market right now, some positive indicators and others more on the negative side. In the view of analysts, though, at least in the near term freight volumes are expected to settle and stabilize somewhat. But for the long term, truckers should expect to be navigating some very choppy waters.

“There are really two sides to this story,” Sandeep Kar, industry manager at research firm Frost & Sullivan, told FleetOwner. “On the one hand, the fundamentals aren’t changing. We’re still looking at 9.4% to 9.5% unemployment in the U.S., and that’s not good. The Chinese stock market is experiencing extreme volatility right now, and that worries me because that affects import volumes into the U.S. – freight that is carried largely by trucks.”

Fox Business News reported today that stock traders are paying very close attention to another wave of selling overseas, which sent China’s Shanghai Composite plunging 4.3%. The index, which ran up even more than U.S. markets, is now 20% off its highs, putting it into another bear market.

"As China is predominantly responsible for lifting the global economy off its [behind] in March, the pullback is having its now obvious impact on everyone else," said Peter Boockvar, equities strategist at Miller Tabak.

Yet on the other hand, Frost & Sullivan’s Kar noted that based on reports from large transportation companies such as FedEx and United Parcel Service, freight volumes seem to be moderately stabilizing. While volumes won’t necessarily get better, he stressed, they should remain firm through the third and fourth quarters, and some trucking companies are seeking to take advantage of this stabilization.

Bibby Financial Services, for example, said that its transportation finance subsidiary provided $2.7 million in new credit facilities during June and July to small and medium sized trucking companies that are using accounts receivable financing to purchase equipment, start new businesses or cover costs of doing business.

“With this increased activity, we are seeing trucking stabilize, which suggests that the worse of the recession is over and the transportation sector may soon begin to recover as consumer confidence and spending increases,” said Eric Hunter, executive vp and managing director at Bibby Transportation Finance Services.

“We think the benefits coming from the effect of reduced capacity in the market are driving higher rates per mile, which is increasing bottom line results,” he said. “And while it’s too early to make a definite call, we are hearing a more upbeat and optimistic outlook from our clients who are seeing increased demand for their trucking services.”

Integrated transportation provider Janel World Trade is also reporting positive signs in the freight markets, noting that in particular a recent report from the Commerce Dept. that retail sales in May increased by 0.5% over April, whereas many economists only forecast a 0.2% gain. That gain comes after four straight drops, James Jannello, Jane’s executive vp and CEO said.

“With this news, we believe the recession-related drop-off has mostly stabilized; our volumes of shipments have been increasing since May except for August, which traditionally is our biggest vacation month,” he said.

“Our customers continue replenishing inventories for the holiday season [but] because many of our customers will be ordering later in the season to keep their inventories minimized, we see a shift in some clothing and textile shipments that normally come from Asia to Central America due to shorter transit times and duty free CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement] arrangement,” Jannello added. “We see this trend continuing throughout the year.”

Still, the freight picture remains far from rosy, warned Frost & Sullivan’s Kar, so truckers should remain on their guard. “Though there’s a lot more optimism out there, and we’re not getting the strong dose of bad [economic] news like we did several months ago, but the fundamentals remain unchanged,” he explained. “Yes, credit isn’t as tight, but we are nowhere back near the levels of even 2008.”

The firm is also forecasting a choppy long-term economic picture, with another one or two quarter economic downturn in 2012-2014 as stimulus funding winds down, followed by another dip in the 2018-2020 time frame.

“This forecast is all without taking diesel prices into account,” Kar cautioned. “A spike in diesel prices could change everything in a heartbeat, and there are so many factors that affect [fuel] prices – conflict in the Middle East, a terrorist attack, anything. As a result, [truckers] should keep a close eye on diesel prices out through 2012.”