Stronger freight demand in March pushed the Ceridian-UCLA Pulse of Commerce Index up 2.7 percent month-to-month, reversing declines in January and February.
The PCI, which tracks the volume and location of diesel fuel purchased by truckers, is the latest index to suggest freight demand may be leading the recovery.
Freight shipments rose 6.9 percent in March, according to the Cass Freight Index, while freight payments rose 6.3 percent, said Cass Information Systems.
The 2.7 percent monthly increase in the Ceridian-UCLA index in March more than offset a 0.3 percent decline in January and 1.5 percent decline in February.
The PCI is up 3.9 percent for the first quarter of 2011 from the last quarter of 2010, said Ed Leamer, chief PCI economist and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast.
The March PCI was up 3.7 percent compared with March 2010.
"March represents the 16th consecutive month of year-over-year growth in the index," explained Craig Manson, senior vice president and index expert for Ceridian.
"This is particularly encouraging because the first six months of last year were strong," which makes for a difficult year-over-year comparison, Manson said.
The PCI closely tracks industrial production figures, and the index's growth in March suggests a 0.8 percent gain in industrial production, Leamer said.
The 3.9 percent increase is a "middle of the road number," Leamer said. "The recession is over, but we are not yet experiencing a robust recovery."
The UCLA-Ceridian index is still forecasting 3 percent gross domestic product growth for the first quarter, lower than some Wall Street forecasts, Leamer said.