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American economy: The trucks and trains test; barely rolling along

MARKETS have moved from worrying about the Chinese economy to fretting about the biggest economy in the world. Brokers are now putting probability estimates on the chance of a recession in America this year. Royal Bank of Canada uses the jobless claims numbers to come up with a 15% probability; Bank of America comes up with 20%.

The Economist blog has returned from time to time to some old-fashioned measures; the goods that are being moved by truck and train. The American Trucking Association reports that December’s volumes were 1.1% higher than the same month in 2014. This hardly suggests an economy at full throttle but nor does it point to outright recession. A bullish spin on the numbers would point out that average volumes in 2015 were up  2.5% on 2014; a bearish spin would argue that January 2015 was the peak level for the index and December was below that level (the numbers are seasonally adjusted).

Those figures look pretty upbeat compared with the data out of the Association of American Railroads; its latest weekly numbers (to week ending January 23) show a 10.5% decline in shipments over a year ago. The decline in the oil price may have played a big part; fracking involves the transport of sand to the drillheads (in order to blast out the oild and gas) as well as the transport of the finished fuel. The figures may also be distorted by the weather; although there was a big snowstorm recently on the east coast, the winter has been milder than each of the last two, requiring less power use. Coal shipments are down 36% and oil products 16%. But total cargo for 2015 was not just below 2014’s figures, but 2013’s as well.

Separate Bank of America research suggests that declines in railroad freight volume tend to be associated with recessions. Perhaps the shale effect destroys the usefulness of this as an indicator. Still with most recent US economic indicators tending to disappoint (Citigroup’s surprise index is around -50%), and with the latest manufacturing ISM below 50, the message from the trucks and trains sector ought to be taken seriously. Via economist.com

 

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