The Cass Indices for June reported what observers knew was to be the case: Once again the trucking "recovery" has stalled and capacity exceeds demand. Part of this is due to the elevated inventory levels with retailers and part just due to increased capacity. Remember, items are much smaller today then ever and with advances in packaging, the trucking industry just has too many assets chasing too few loads to sustain a lot of pricing.
For the last three months, the truckload index has decreased 2.3%, 1.2% and 1.8% respectively and the graph shows how difficult this market has become. We now are looking into 2017 before there is any tightening of capacity and pricing. I believe capacity will need to exit the market as not only is there too much today but the economy will start slowing and that means just the normal cycle would require removal of capacity.
Interestingly, this comes at a time where trucking costs are rising and as we saw in the Swift 2Q reporting, OR rates are starting to increase (SWFT 2Q2016 OR rate was 92.7% - highest in the last three years). JB Hunt sees margin erosion in the latter half of the year for both trucking and intermodal. Great if you are a shipper as soon trucking companies will start working to get any contribution to fix but bad if you are an investor or a trucking company itself.
Suffice to say, Intermodal is following the same trends.
So, what is going on here? Why do we continually get told that "this is the year" and yet for the last 3 years at least, the tightening has never arrived? I attribute it to three main items:
1. The Economy is not nearly as robust as you may think watching the markets. Remember, finance (which requires no trucking) has grown to be a substantial part of our economy. In the past when you said GDP went up x% you could correlate that directly to an increase in the need for transportation of goods. Today, that is untrue.
2. Inventory levels remain elevated. Think of it this way, when inventory levels are as high as they are this essentially means you shipped the product in previous quarters. This is like "borrowing" against the future. Made those quarters look good but because there was not enough sell through, the product just sat and now when sales tick up, the inventory has already been shipped.
3. Miniaturization, packaging and digitization of products. I have always said the shippers would not sit idly by and just watch rates go up. They have figured out ways to streamline packaging, digitize what they can (including the growth of 3d printing, and make things smaller. This means less transportation capacity needed.
Overall, given the way the economy is headed, I would be shocked if 2017 was anything different. Hunker down, we are in for a bit of a ride here.