Thursday, February 21, 2019

"What Trucking & Freight Just Said About the Goods-Based Economy in the US "

From Wolf Street, February 19:
Something has to give.
Starting to be a fascinating phenomenon: Rates charged by trucking companies and other transportation providers continue to surge on a year-over-year basis even as the volume of shipments has dropped below where it had been a year ago, while the “capacity squeeze” of 2018 has disappeared, and as the price of fuel is down year-over-year.

Freight shipment volume across all modes of transportation – truck, rail, air, and barge – in January ticked down (-0.3%) from January last year, according to the Cass Freight Index, the second year-over-year decline in a row. Those two declines are the first since the transportation recession of 2015 and 2016. The extraordinary plunge since the extraordinary peak in shipments last summer indicates that the transportation boom with its double-digit year-over-year increases has fizzled. This chart shows how freight volume changed from the same month a year earlier:
The Cass Freight Index covers shipments of merchandise for the consumer and industrial economy via all modes of transportation, but it does not include bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals.

The year-over-year comparison in the chart above – for example, comparing January 2019 to January 2018 – eliminates the noise caused by the hefty seasonal fluctuations of the transportation business that occur every year.

But the chart also delineates the notorious cyclicality of the transportation business, where some big up-years are followed by down-years, such as the drop in shipments during the “transportation recession” of 2015 and 2016, when the goods-based sector of the economy itself went into a recession, and only the strength of the service economy kept GDP growth positive (at a miserably low 1.6% in 2016). The transportation recession was followed by a historic surge in shipments from late 2017 through the first half of 2018, causing a capacity squeeze that triggered a lot of hand-wringing among shippers, such as retailers and industrial companies. That boom and capacity squeeze have now been unwound.

This capacity squeeze in the trucking industry, and the subsequent resolution of it, shows up in the DAT Load-to-Truck ratio which tracks the demand-capacity balance. This ratio for “vans” – the trailers that Class-8 trucks haul across the US – surged twice in 2018: First, the spike in January 2018, when use of Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) became the law, which caused a temporary squeeze as truckers had to rejigger their operations; and then, the flood of demand in the summer blew the ratio out again. But the demand-capacity balance is now reverting to the mean:...MUCH MORE