Spring is in the air and cautious optimism is drifting across the industry. At every convention and trade show, speakers affirm it from the podium and attendees intone it in the halls. We are “cautiously optimistic” once again.
At the recent Truckload Carriers Assn. Annual Convention, for example, Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody's Economy.com, acknowledged the flickering spirit of cautious optimism in his presentation, called “Economic Boom or Bust…Your Roadmap Back to Profit.” “The economy is better today than it was a year ago, and next year it will be even better,” he said. “We are headed in the right direction.”
Cautious optimism is a twitchy, tentative version of a positive mood if ever there were one. It is the kind of optimism that might accompany waiting for the results of a test you are not sure you passed, or feeling like your flu symptoms might just be abating after all. Unlike hope, which does not necessarily require any fact-based rationale to thrive, cautious optimism is tethered to reality. Scraps of observable data, like the knotted tail on a kite, are required to get it off the ground.
The little scraps lofting this spring's mood are numerous, however. Truck tonnage is up at last by some 3.1% according to the American Trucking Assns.' seasonally adjusted For Hire Tonnage Index for January. Trailer net orders are up, as well.
In a recent release of its North American Commercial Vehicle Outlook, ACT Research projected that heavy-duty (Class 8) vehicle production will grow 19% year-over-year in the second half of 2010 before ramping up significantly to 77% growth in 2011. Medium-duty (Class 5-7) vehicle production is also expected to increase, growing 20% in 2010 and 30% in 2011.
The general consensus among many truckload carriers, according to Transport Capital Partners, is that “rates have bottomed out and that demand is stronger than normally expected in the seasonally low months of January and February,” they noted in a report at the annual BB&T Capital Markets Transportation Services Conference this spring. “Some carriers were looking forward to the May to September months to bring the inflection point upward in rates, but all expect this to happen no later than the second half of the year.”
There are, of course, plenty of other factors pulling industry optimism down to that cautious altitude, from rising diesel prices to the continued scarcity of credit and the still-flat employment picture. Shaped by decades of boom-bust cycles, it is not surprising that many in trucking tend to feel safer keeping a watchful eye on these negatives rather than an eager eye on the bright spots. Every silver lining has a cloud, right? And this recession has been some cloud.
There comes a time, however, when we need to find a way to get past anxieties about the future and move ahead. According to Edward Cornish, the founder of the World Future Society (www.wfs.org), foresight, or the ability to understand and give appropriate value to the likely consequences of one's actions, can help people “think realistically, creatively and hopefully about the future. Foresight conquers fear of the future,” he argues, and he might have a good point.
Maybe today's cautious, analytical optimism is actually foresight at work, doing its due diligence to enable the industry to stack the deck on the side of a positive future. It might even foster a more wholehearted optimism, which trucking could share generously and spread widely for the good of the industry and society as a whole. Extravagant optimism — just imagine what that would be like.