Railroad Freight Indicator Suggests U.S. Economy Gaining Steam

The nation's railways are the circulatory system of the economy, so any evidence that points to rail's recovery argues against the likelihood of a double-dip recession. That's why it's worth noting that Ed Yardeni, the bullishly prescient president of Yardeni Research, just updated his indicators for things like rail loadings and shipments and -- with some exceptions -- he says train cargo is gaining momentum.

In a Monday report, Yardeni told clients that total railcar loadings dipped and stalled earlier this year, then accelerated and popped during the week of September 4. They jumped 9% year-to-date and 12.7% year-over-year, notching their best reading since the middle of Feb. 2009.

On the Right Track

"There are no signs of a double dip in the measures of total railcar traffic, though there are a few important categories that may be running out of steam," Yardeni says.

Weekly railcar loadings are volatile, so Yardeni and company smooth them by charting a 26-week average. Here's how loadings look compared with the S&P Transportation index.

In other bits of bullish data, total carloads hit a new cyclical high during the week of Sept. 4, according to Yardeni, and chemical shipments rose at their best pace since Nov. 2008. Freight shipments by rail of metals and products have also rebounded, Yardeni says.

Autos, Housing, Off the Rails

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As for the bad news, rail loadings for the automotive and housing industries remain lousy. That hardly comes as a surprise, given the weakness in sales of new cars and new homes, and neither accounts for much of the country's rail traffic, anyway. Yet it's troubling, nevertheless.

"Both industries are important for the economy, and their respective railcar loadings are great weekly coincident indicators of their activities," says Yardeni. "After rebounding solidly last year, both have stalled at still very depressed levels."