Friday afternoon, a long but productive and rewarding week ended in New Orleans as the 2010 edition of the International WorkBoat Show came to a successful close. Official attendance was up 6.6 percent, with a record 1,003 exhibitors displaying the latest products and services.
For me, the week began on Monday night when I hosted a dinner for panelists who were scheduled to appear the next day at our second annual WorkBoat Executive Summit. The dinner discussion set the mood for the entire week — yes, it’s still tough out there, but there are reasons to be optimistic.
I sat next to Doug Downing, the CFO at Canal Barge Company Inc., who appeared on my afternoon panel at the summit that featured a mix of marine company and industry association executives. Doug said business was OK on the inland waterways, and the outlook was anything but bleak.
This theme continued the next day, as finance executives on the morning panel also had some encouraging words. Sure, it isn’t the best business-operating environment to work in, but there is still money to be made and financing and deals to be had.
Greg Ip, economics editor for The Economist, was the summit’s keynote speaker. His message was a bit more sobering, and he laid out historical data, current account balances, private debt as percentage of GDP, etc., that basically showed that the “blame Obama for everything that is wrong with the economy” mentality is a bit misguided to say the least. Ip said the main reason things got so bad is that for so long “they were so good.” There was great moderation since 1982: lower inflation, lower unemployment, higher asset prices, and fewer recessions. Therefore, there was more leverage, more risk, and less liquidity.
But he had some good news. We are unlikely to fall back into recession, he said, which would require some kind of new shock such as Europe going way downhill, another massive bank failure, a sudden rise in interest rates, or a surge in oil prices. And, he added, banks are slowly loosening up their lending standards, debt burdens are coming down, and people seem to have got their saving rates back to a relatively comfortable level. This, Ip said, should allow the economy to grow at least 3 percent in 2011.
The WorkBoat Show opened the next day, and Ip’s parting growth message from the day before seemed to be a theme. People were cautiously optimistic, but most expected some growth next year, probably close to the 3 percent Ip predicted for the economy.
A sampling we took from attendees for our WorkBoat Show Daily ranged from “optimistic about our exports” to “focusing on expanding” to “optimistic moving ahead into 2011” to “we are anticipating 20 percent growth” next year. Not everyone had such positive outlooks, but generally, this is what I heard from exhibitors when I finally had a chance to walk the aisles on Friday. Most had received several good inquiries/leads at the show.
For the first time since I have been attending the show (My first was 1992, or was it 1993? I think I was 18 then.), I honestly didn’t hear a single negative comment, unless you count the woman who told me she was frustrated because she had been unable to get anyone to deliver a garbage can to her booth. Perhaps she didn’t order one.
Anyway, though business in the workboat industry is certainly not anywhere near where it was before the financial crisis hit in 2008, in my estimation the crowd at this year’s show was the most positive since 2007.
Hopefully, going forward, the economy and the workboat sector will continue to show some positive signs. Hey, who knows, maybe at this time next year I will be blogging about the restart of deepwater drilling with rigs actually moving back to the U.S. Gulf. Now that would be something.