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Freight data suggests “muted” peak season

Sept. 4, 2012

Freight trends monitored by Wall Street investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co. remained broadly weak overall in July and August, with demand for truck capacity “soft” though July and weakening in August.

Benjamin Hartford, one of Baird’s transportation analysts, told Fleet Owner that the numbers so far indicated a “muted” peak season for trucking, though that will ultimately depend on how freight patterns look by mid-September.

“Right now, freight demand is very, very choppy,” he explained. “Though trans-Pacific ocean freight is firming up, which will feed domestic freight volumes, those can’t be described as robust by any stretch of the imagination. Our next guidepost is mid-September and if we don’t see a discernible pick-up in freight by then, that’s when it’ll become a ‘weak’ peak season.”

Hartford added that U.S. freight trends in August were below expectations, with trucking contacts indicating weak spot truck demand throughout the month.Below-seasonal demand in August followed a seasonally weak July, with the Baird Freight Index declining to 3% year-over-year (YOY) in July versus 4% YOY in the second quarter.

He also noted that paid deadhead to the U.S. west coast did not materialize – an unusual trend for late August, according to Baird’s data – while diesel fuel prices jumped up 12% from early-July; increasing for eight consecutive weeks.

“Rising fuel prices are a near-term profitability headwind for both truckload carriers and railroad companies,” Hartford pointed out. “[Also] pricing gains supported by limited carrier truck capacity additions and continued challenges sourcing qualified drivers, though we note that core pricing growth could be challenged if demand conditions remain below seasonal in upcoming months.”

Other economic metrics also indicate the U.S. economy continues to slow, with Bloomberg BNA's employment survey suggesting that there will be no dramatic gains in job opportunities over the next quarter or two. Since a period of substantial post-recession gains in 2010 and early 2011, workforce expansion plans have stalled, the firm noted.

For all three employee groups covered by BNA’s survey, workforce expansion plans have exhibited mostly modest variations since early 2011, with little indication of any sustained trend in hiring prospects.

Over the past eight quarters, for instance, the percentage of employers reporting workforce expansion plans has hovered in a five percentage-point range for both production/service workers (21% to 26%) and technical/professional employees (28% to 33%), according to BNA’s research, with the range only slightly wider for office/clerical staff (12% to 19%). 

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