Friday, September 11, 2009

From the Editor: Encouraging trends from “the dismal science”

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

One of the best ways to compare the performance of the railroads against the economy is to examine some of the data that economists—those people that practice “the dismal science”—crunch for a living.

william-vantuono-web.jpgThe Association of American Railroads Policy & Economics Department now makes much of this information readily available monthly on its website (www.aar.org) through Rail Time Indicators, described as “a non-technical summary of many of the key economic indicators potentially of interest to U.S. freight railroads.”

One indicator is of particular significance, and we offer examples in the charts at right. This is the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), released by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM, formerly the National Association of Purchasing Managers).

The PMI, says AAR, “is a compilation of data on new orders, inventory, production, supplier deliveries, and employment, based on a survey of several hundred supply managers at manufacturers throughout the U.S. It is considered a key indicator both of actual ‘on-the-ground’ conditions as well as sentiment for what the near- to medium-term will hold.”

A PMI greater than 50 indicates that overall manufacturing is expanding. AAR points out that the PMI in July 2009 was up to 48.9 from 44.8 in June—the seventh straight monthly increase and the highest since August 2008. The “new orders” component of the PMI rose to 55.3 in July 2009 from 49.2 in June 2009. That’s the highest it has been since August 2007.

“Of all the economic indicators tracked in this report, right now the PMI might be the most optimistic,” AAR notes. “It’s now about at the level it was for much of 2007 and 2008. As such, it might be accurately foretelling a brisk upcoming turnaround—or it might be an unreliable outlier signifying nothing.”
(Of course, we all know it’s the former—right?)

Quoting ISM: “The . . . more leading components of the PMI—the New Orders and Production Indexes—rose significantly above 50%, thus setting an expectation for future growth in the sector. . . . Overall, it would be difficult to convince many manufacturers that we are on the brink of recovery, but the data suggests that we will see growth in the third quarter if the trends continue.”

What’s the PMI’s correlation to freight rail traffic? Says AAR: “Since January 2005, the PMI has corresponded reasonably closely with the following month’s rail carloads, excluding coal and grain. (Due to seasonality issues such as harvests, the role of exports, and other factors, carloads of coal and grain are more volatile and less closely tied to manufacturing than other commodity categories. And since the PMI focuses on manufacturing, it makes sense to exclude coal and grain when comparing rail traffic to it.) This close relationship has not always held in the past and may not hold in future. If it does continue to hold, rail carloads should swing more strongly upward to match the big recent increases in the PMI.”

Not too dismal, eh? 

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William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.