07:45 AM PST on Wednesday, February 10, 2010By JACK KATZANEK
A new survey that measures how much diesel fuel truck drivers are buying and where they're buying it is expected to offer new insights about the strength of the economic recovery.
The first look at the study released this week by UCLA economists does not show teeth behind the economic recovery. In contrast, strong gross domestic product readings for the fourth quarter of 2009 suggested to some the national economy was moving forward.
The Ceridian-UCLA Pulse of Commerce Index will be released monthly by the UCLA Anderson School of Management. It uses data compiled by Ceridian Corp., a global company that processes debit and credit card transactions, to monitor diesel purchases. Among Ceridian's biggest customers are trucking firms that use gas cards.
That, in turn, will give economists an idea about how many items, from food to manufactured goods, are being shipped. Heavy goods movement suggests increased economic activity.
The index for January, however, indicates it's way too early to celebrate the U.S. Department of Commerce's fourth-quarter GDP reading, which showed growth of 5.7 percent. UCLA economists say the economy appeared to have slid back in January and offset almost everything that was gained in December.
The good news is that the index suggests the economy is in better shape than it was a year earlier.
UCLA economist Edward Leamer, director of the Anderson school, said the December spike was holiday-related but unusual because the peak shipping season is expected to be October.
"Firms were not expecting to see much holiday sales, so October was weak," Leamer said. "Then the stores realized they'd been caught short, so there was a big, late ramp-up."
Leamer said the fall GDP growth was probably based on the same factor. Businesses whose inventories had been allowed to dwindle had to replenish their stocks.
Now it looks like the economy is back to the same pattern of weak growth. Leamer said that, at the current pace, the index won't get back to its pre-recession peak -- recorded in the second quarter of 2007 -- until late next year.
"We'll have growth, but not the kind of growth that puts people back to work any time soon," he said.
Ceridian has been keeping data on fuel expenditures for decades, and Leamer said economists and the media that cover financial issues are giving UCLA positive feedback on this new index.
Valerie Liese, president of Ontario-based Jack Jones Trucking, said that the California Trucking Association has developed similar data that is available for members. Liese is president of the statewide association.
Liese said she wasn't surprised UCLA's first reports showed such weakness.
"This was the worst January I'd seen in decades," Liese said.
Reach Jack Katzanek at 951 368-9553 or at jkatzanek@PE.com