Commentary: 2008, The year of the rat

Updated Jul 27, 2020

By Stu MacKay: MacKay & Company

The Chinese, to their credit, have a wonderful system of classifying the passage of time. Every 365-day period is individually identified – I assume so there will be no confusion from one period to the next. This year, of course, we have one additional day, ostensibly to keep the whole system in balance. In reality, of course, this additional twenty-four hours allow the presidential politicians and their flacks a few more shots at an already oversaturated (and generally exasperated) audience. To the best of my knowledge (expert witness jargon), the Chinese had nothing to do with this last phenomenon!

This year, it would appear that it is not only the year of the rat in China – but in North America as well. Putting aside Webster’s broadly accepted “larger than a mouse” definition leads us to a second descriptor, “a sneaky person, one who betrays his associates.” Indeed, it would appear that the North American truck business has clearly been betrayed this year by one or more sneaky persons. The challenge, which hopefully becomes clear shortly, is attempting to determine just who this rat really is – and how we finally bait a suitable trap for him, her or them.

One rather obvious rat is the residential housing market. It is being blamed for the apparent collapse in the economy, for the crumbling financial markets, for disappearing demand for heavy trucks, for a soft aftermarket – and probably for the heartbreak of psoriasis as well! (I guess if a mortgage broker crawls on his hands and knees for long enough, the end result could resemble psoriasis!) But isn’t this a little too obvious as the only rat plaguing us?

The rat behind the residential housing rat is either the aspiring homeowner who misrepresented his finances (willfully or otherwise) or a greedy mortgage broker who, unlike the IRS, was willing to take any old set of numbers and pass them along to apparently equally uninformed lenders. And we’re all familiar with the progressive repackaging of these dogs. Once again, it’s the “smartest guys in the room” that look pretty stupid.

But wait! What made it so easy for the aspiring buyers, greedy brokers and Fido repackagers to make this all happen? Cheap money – and lots of it. So maybe these folks aren’t the real rats, either. Maybe it’s the folks who set the price of money, our friends at the Fed. Maybe Alan Greenspan should have stayed in the bathtub instead of strolling on the Potomac River (he did walk on water, didn’t he?). Perhaps Ben Bernanke would have been better advised to continue lecturing Princetonians instead of Congress. Maybe these guys are the real rats of 2008.

Hold on! These guys weren’t sent by God, they were appointed by the executive branch of government (a couple of whom we elect) and confirmed by the Congress (all of whom we elect). Greenspan may have claimed divine inspiration on occasion – but somebody let him do that. And while the Fed is allegedly independent of political pressures, the chain on the plug in Greenspan’s (and Bernanke’s) bathtub CAN be pulled. So, perhaps the real rats behind this disappointing year are all in Washington, and all pointing fingers at someone else.

Stop! Who put these folks in Washington, anyway? Like the Fed heads, they weren’t sent by God (although many apparently believe this). WE sent them there – or our parents did – or THEIR parents did (a plug for you West Virginians!). You and I are the true culprits in this messy scenario called 2008. WE are the real rats, certainly several steps removed from the current economic plague. Yet this whole mess began with us – and that’s where it ends up as well, right back in our laps.

The year of the RAT can stand for many things in our business; “Really Awful Trucking” and “Reluctant Aftermarket Throughput” immediately come to mind. It could lead to “Running Away Tearfully” or “Rejoicing After Thanksgiving,” depending on one’s political perspective. But keep in mind, if you’re looking for the real rat this year, a mirror is more appropriate than a telescope!

Stu MacKay has headed MacKay & Company since its inception in 1968. MacKay & Company serves manufacturers and distribution organizations serving the vehicle, equipment and engine businesses. The company provides its clients with proprietary research and consulting, participation in multi-client studies and its DataMac aftermarket tracking services.

The views expressed in the guest editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Truck Parts & Service magazine.

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