“The U.S. woodworking industry’s most challenging year of the young 21st century is drawing to a close.”

That’s how I opened my final column of 2007. Sad to say, I find that lead sentence rings truer still as we prepare to exit 2008.

From a business standpoint, we haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about in 2008. The housing crunch exploded into a banking crisis, joined by plummeting stock prices and sagging consumer confidence. Congress reacted with a much ballyhooed $700 billion bail-out package that was soon followed with a stealth $800 billion program administered by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Of more recent note, executives of the U.S. auto industry went to Washington, cup in hand, looking for “loans” to keep their plants open and up to 3 million workers employed. The Bureau of Labor reported a net loss of 533,000 jobs in November, raising the nation’s unemployment rate to 6.7%.

The news making headlines in the wood products industry has largely mirrored the consumer news media. Three recent examples posted on www.iswonline.com include:

• La-Z-Boy Slashes 850 Jobs (equivalent to 10% of the company’s workforce);

• Vaughan-Bassett to Shut Down Elkin Plant (and leave 400 people out of work); and

• Cabinet Sales Down 22.8% in October (following a 9.4% drop in October 2007)

Isn’t Cheap Gas a Confidence Booster?

While I wait with fingers crossed for the Fed’s bailout to work its magic, I can’t help but wonder why more fanfare is not being paid to the virtues of falling gas pump prices.

I’m stunned to realize that only two months ago I paid more than $4.30 a gallon and this week I filled my car for under $1.70 per gallon. If that price differential held steady over the course of an entire year, I would easily have another $1,500 in my wallet and my wife would probably save half of that or more.

Considering that the gone-but-not-forgotten record high oil prices were blamed for tacking on costs to all forms of transportation services and goods, I would think that we should expect some significant savings to occur in everything from airfares to grocery prices.

Admittedly, it is impossible to predict how long we will benefit from these retro-gas prices. And while I might be willing to pay $10 a gallon at the pump in return for a full reinstatement of my market-stung 401k portfolio, cheaper gas comes at a good time for my three daughters as my wife and I consider our Christmas present budget. It also gives cause for us to revisit our wish list of home improvements.

What’s Your Silver Lining?

Amid all of the economic doom and gloom, cheaper gas stands out as a silver lining in my book.

How about yours? What potential bright spot do you see for the U.S. economy in twenty-o-nine?

Do you have any advice for Barack Obama, as he prepares to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States?

In addition, what actions are you or your company taking not only to weather the storm, but to prepare for the bluer skies that lie ahead? Are you looking to develop a new product or branch into new markets? Are you initiating or escalating a program of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement?

We would love to share some good news for a change. If you have some to share, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]. Here’s to better days and a brighter future!

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.