A spate of recent data points, from increased Class 8 orders in January (though actual heavy-truck sales declined) to strengthening trucking “conditions” metrics, are brightening the prospects for motor carriers in the near term.
However, industry analysts remain cautious as the upward trajectory for those numbers still remains very preliminary, with a longer streak necessary to confirm potentially positive implications.
“I always stress this well-worn point: one month of numbers does not make a trend,” Kenny Vieth, president and senior analyst at ACT Research, explained to Fleet Owner.
“But we’ve seen a lot of ‘green shoots’ over the past three or four months; a little more freight is being created each month, bringing freight volumes more in line with capacity,” he said.
Vieth noted that ACT’s for-hire trucking index indicated that freight increased faster than the capacity component in January – soaring 23 points from December to 67.7 last month, boosting the spread to a level not seen since early 2014, he pointed out.
“Hopefully, January’s readings represent a sustainable improvement in freight creation as rising commodity prices boost investment and lead to increased demand for machinery," Vieth noted, “Of course, as the move was such a strong deviation from the trend, some of January’s ‘high-side surprise’ may be related to longer plant shutdowns in December as inventories continued to be rebalanced.”
He emphasized that, at the end of 2016, the trucking industry as a whole suffered from 6% overcapacity. But if freight volume keeps headed “in this direction” and with the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate still on track to go into effect by the end of 2017, freight and capacity should be “roughly in equilibrium,” in Vieth’s estimation.
“It’s not like, all of a sudden, freight is better,” he stressed. “But it is moving in the right direction.”
Data compiled for the DAT North American Freight Index also indicated stronger-than-usual volumes for January. Though the index declined 2.5% last month, as spot truckload freight settled into a typical “post-holiday” pattern, it was 56% higher year-over-year, noted Don Thornton, senior vice president for DAT Solutions. "Coming off a high in December, January was still very solid for spot freight," he pointed out.
Compared to December, the volume of van freight on the spot market was down 9% in January, it was up 63% year-over-year. Refrigerated freight followed a similar trend, with available loads down 8 % in January compared to December but up 57% higher year-over-year.
Finally, DAT’s data indicated that demand for flatbed trucks jumped 18%t compared to December, rising 64% year-over-year.
Part of the rise in freight may be due to a significant uptick in manufacturing activity, noted Lindsey Piegza, chief economist with Stifel Fixed Income, though she stressed that the “data seems to ask more questions than provide answers,” with “further evidence needed” before the recent influx of activity in January is indicative of a new, more positive trend for domestic manufacturers.
Despite lingering headwinds from a strong U.S. dollar and still-modest domestic growth, as well as uncertain trade relations, she said the numbers indicate U.S. manufacturing appears to be on stronger footing, with the ISM Index hitting a two-year high in January.
“In some cases, the latest increase in manufacturing activity is supported by a rise in confidence that the Trump administration will follow through with a pro-growth agenda, redirecting job creation back to the U.S.,” Piegza noted.
“For others, increased uncertainty surrounding international trade policies and rising import prices, as well as concern over materials availability, have prompted some domestic producers to ramp up current inventories and stockpiles of goods and inputs,” she stressed.
And while the improvements for trucking “have not been in a smooth line,” according to John Larkin, managing director and head of transportation capital markets research for Stifel Capital Markets, the “positive readings” are providing confidence that trucking’s overall economic position is improving.
“We began 2016 in a mild industrial recession, in our view,” he explained in a recent research note. “[But] recent readings in particular have been reassuring that we are out of or close to out of the freight recession. The overall trend has been positive.”
Moving into 2017, while there are “still a lot of unknowns” and Stifel’s “base case” embodies “some headwinds” such as strong dollar, residual inventory overhang, and the seasonally-weaker first freight quarter of the year, Larkin said there are “some extant regulatory changes and some potential new policy changes” being made by the Trump administration that could improve the outlook for trucking significantly.
“But they would not come until later in 2017, at the earliest, and still uncertain to materialize,” he emphasized. “But longer term, LTL should reverse course to become a modal share gainer. The loose TL market is not helping right now, but that should change when TL capacity tightens.”