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Trucking index still laboring

May 11, 2011

High oil prices aren’t hitting the economy as hard as you might expect.

That’s one conclusion of the latest reading of the Pulse of Commerce Index, the monthly report on U.S. diesel fuel usage issued by UCLA and data company Ceridian.

The index fell 0.5% from March levels in April but posted its 17th straight year-on-year gain. The results, says UCLA economist Ed Leamer, are surprising mostly in how little of March’s robust 2.7% gain was lost during a month in which the average U.S. gas price was $3.80 a gallon, according to Fed data.

All told, the index – which UCLA says is a good predictor of the government’s industrial production number and tracks closely with retail sales – is rising at a pace in line with modest economic growth in the 2%-3% annual range. At that clip, the economy should add around 150,000 to 200,000 jobs a month -- which is just enough to keep ahead of population growth.

And so the anemic recovery that took root in 2009 remains on track to continue, if at a pace that is unlikely to bring unemployment below 8% before the next election cycle.

“We’ve been getting this kind of pattern for a while, where you get one exceptional month and then a giveback month,” says Leamer. “There’s nothing to say we’re going to break out of that till we get some better news in housing.”

There is no sign of that lately, needless to say. Absent a surprising housing rebound, it appears the index won’t exceed its 2007 peak till the middle of 2013 – a lost half-decade, if we haven't seen enough of that sort of thing already.

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