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November 23, 2009 8:00 AM, EST

A Cautiously Rising Outlook

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

Yes, it’s still impossible to pay your bills with “cautious optimism.” But that state of mind is a lot better than what we were hearing just a few months ago when we asked any gathering of truckers about the outlook for their businesses.

Last week’s Intermodal Expo/TransComp in Anaheim, Calif., yielded a lot of cautious optimism, from truck fleet operators, railroad executives, ocean carriers, shippers and equipment makers (see story, p. 1).

“The worst is behind us,” declared Dave Howland, vice president of rail for Schneider National Inc., during last week’s meeting.

“We like where we are and we are cautiously optimistic,” said Mark Young, executive vice president of Swift Transportation.

“We see heartbeats. We have a few good days. We are cautiously optimistic,” said Brian McDonald, vice president of intermodal for Union Pacific Railroad.

On the shipper side, “We have some optimism about 2010,” said Jeff Hoy, a transportation executive at Home Depot.

Considering just how bleak things have been for the nation’s motor carriers — among others — for the past year, comments like those are music to our ears.

Now, there’s no doubt that the economy these days is far from robust, but nearly everyone at last week’s event seemed to believe that the worst was behind us and that things were definitely improving, although more slowly than any of us are wishing for.

To be sure, some of the optimism expressed last week had more to do with the demise of competitors than a true expansion of business. But weeding out weaker companies always has been a function of the downside of the business cycle, and this steep recession has done more weeding than nearly every bad patch before it.

It appears that consumers are spending a little more money, which has helped clear out inventories and may lead to a respectable holiday shopping season.

Now, according to myriad analysts, an at least modest restocking has begun, which should boost truck freight volumes in the early months of 2010 as manufacturers and retailers increase their buying and production.

The missing piece of the recovery continues to be jobs, and until employment begins to rise, we won’t see a full economic recovery.

But we’re cautiously optimistic that better days are close at hand.