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February 20, 2009 4:00 PM, EST

Of Acorns and Lean Times

This Editorial appears in the Feb. 23 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

According to what we’ve heard in recent weeks at several trade shows and an analysts’ meeting, the cure for the nation’s economic ills is hardly around the corner.

There was gloom aplenty at the Technology & Maintenance Council meeting, at the Heavy Duty Dialogue and at the BB&T session earlier this month from a host of supply industry officials, economists and fleets.

Most insiders now say the recovery probably won’t occur before 2010, and there was a considerable divergence of opinion on how strong a rebound we’ll see when it does arrive.

However, there were a few voices in the wilderness — among them William Strauss, senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, who said we should be seeing the first signs of a reawakening around midyear.

Strauss, speaking at the Heavy Duty Dialogue in Orlando, Fla., helped put the recession in perspective, saying it was bigger and more severe than recent economic hard times but far from anything resembling the Great Depression.

He also indicated that U.S. manufacturers seem to have shed more workers than economic statistics would justify, which, he said, means the job picture may turn around more quickly than usual. Strauss said businesses may have fired more workers in anticipation of worse times.

In all, it was a sobering round of commentary. Several other speakers made an interesting point: The economy has cycles, and the trucking industry is captive to the movement of this wave. But, they said, even though this recession may be a bit steeper and may last a bit longer than we’re used to, it’s still just another down cycle.

And, they assured their respective audiences, we can all bet that this down cycle will end and better times will reappear.

To these executives, bad parts of the economic cycle are there to be weathered. The common thread seemed to be that because hard times can be predicted, prudent managers stored acorns for the winter.

And while acorns may not be the tastiest of meals, these companies are looking to take advantage of the opportunities offered by hard times: namely, to buy competitors who weren’t as well prepared and to take advantage of slack times to get the best prices on things such as new equipment and real estate.

Now that the nation’s stimulus plan has been signed into law and first trickles of cash are making it to road projects and other things, let’s hope we begin to see the first signs of an economic spring.