Thursday, October 18, 2012

Housing - Good News Bad News for Transportation

First, I want to be clear that one month's data does not make a trend however we all have to be very pleased with the housing numbers yesterday.  According to the Wall Street Journal,
"On Wednesday, the government reported that new home-building levels surged to a four-year high last month, amid a nearly 12% rise in new building permits. "
As we all know, housing drives a lot of activity or "velocity" in the economy because along with a house comes a lot of other ancillary purchases such as appliances, furniture, drapes etc.  Housing also is a "mood" indicator because, generally speaking, people do not buy houses unless they feel fairly stable about their economic situation.  For these reasons, and I am sure a lot more, having housing move like this is a fantastic sign.  The Wall Street Journal even went so far as saying this movement may vindicate all the maligned recent activity by the Fed.

This is also good for transportation - in a way.  Transportation always gains from housing.  It is that simple and quite frankly housing is almost a singular metric for transportation companies to look at when determining the macro movement of the economy.  The last huge "boom" in trucking came when the housing market was at a froth of excitement in 2004 - 2006.

Now, for the "bad news". Housing is also right up there with manufacturing as one of the highest employment substitutes for drivers.  Drivers can migrate from construction to semi-skilled manufacturing to driving pretty easily and when construction jobs jump, drivers tend to want to move to those jobs.  Why do that and not just stay with trucking?

Two reasons help explain this migration between careers.  First, the time at home factor is big.  If a driver can even come close to replicating their driving income while staying at home they will do that.  Second, there really is no "penalty".  Most jobs and careers there is a penalty for hopping around such as loss of seniority, pay or other benefits.  For the most part (yes there are a few perks for being senior but not many and they are not highly valued relative to time at home) a driver loses nothing by pivoting to construction as they know they can move back to driving anytime they want and they will be welcomed back with a hug and a thank you.

Keep your eyes on these numbers as they develop.  If this is the beginning of a real sustained increase in construction and we get anywhere near close to 800K to 1M starts next year then the driver shortage will exacerbate really quickly.

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