Uncharted Waters

I won't repeat my title line but I will say that for a long-time veteran of this industry, I do not recall anything close to what we have been experiencing during the past six months.

Freight tonnage dropped as a result of the combination of the housing bust, spiking energy prices, failure of a few major financial institutions, losses in retail sales, and the beginning of the economic slow-down, "maybe" recession, tough period, challenging times, economic slump, or whatever descriptive term was being used.

We were experiencing significant changes in the economy in the first two quarters of '08 and we all thought we would ride it out until the Dow returned to 12,000. The commercial vehicle build was forecasted, re-forecasted, revised, restated and otherwise played as the ball in a game of financial ping-pong. Everyone remained optimistic and soothsayers told us the recovery from EPA 2007 was delayed by a few months due to a range of reasons.

Then they re-delayed it a few more months, then quarters...

One major company announced a change in position on how to meet the 2010 EPA regulations and re-re-stating took place. I stopped looking at commercial vehicle forecasts on a daily basis in approximately July. I refused to ask anyone what their best guess was on the truck build for 2008 and 2009. It was a fruitless exercise and added to an already stressful situation.

Finally I felt better; I was in blissful ignorance of the side-winding build and sales rate forecasts of heavy-duty trucks and I only occasionally looked at prognostications.

All of this would be OK if we were looking at forecasting the NCAA championship or the World Series winner. This topic is very serious and the uncertainty has been incredibly difficult for those making employment decisions that potentially affected tens of thousands of the people who are working in our industry.

Some companies retained their workers and staff in anticipation of a modest recovery, while some companies moved quickly to lay off workers and shutter plants. All of the actions were based on some degree of optimism that we would see the industry and economy eventually begin to turn around, because that had always happened in the past.

Now we are in what is best described as uncharted waters. With the near complete collapse of the financial markets, there is reason to be very scared. The economic problems today defy an adequate adjective and appear to be moving down faster, more severely and deeper than anyone has ever imagined.

The reasons and blame can be handled by someone with more gray matter than me. I really do not honestly think anyone really knows or cares about the whos, whats, wheres, etc. with regard to any of that.

Of course, that has never stopped our elected officials, political appointees, pundits and general media from proposing how to fix things and assign blame. As is always the case, political people need a perpetrator, a victim and a punishment of some sort. Most politicians are in possession of JD's and are programmed to think that way. Others just want to blame someone for something that cannot be changed.

Our current economic situation--on a global basis--is best described as dire. Credit markets are dried up, consumer lending is nearly non-existent and major companies such as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and others are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. That does not just affect the mischaracterized high-roller CEOs that are running those companies.

Failure of one or all three of these companies would send a shockwave throughout the world and make life as we know it change forever. There are dozens of remedies proposed to "fix" what is wrong with these companies; perhaps one or two of them may actually work, but we cannot afford to play darts with this one.

Our association is working in Washington in conjunction with the vehicle manufacturers on this issue. The motor vehicle parts suppliers represent the largest manufacturer category in the country; in fact, in seven states it is the largest industry.

We all have a vested interest in seeing the vehicle manufacturers survive.

Without customers there is no need for suppliers.