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Weak demand offsetting capacity crunch for now

Aug. 19, 2013

What’s being characterized as “weak” freight demand is negating an ongoing truck capacity shortage for the moment as the trucking industry continues to adjust to hours of service (HOS) regulatory changes made back on July 1, according to various reports – but that may evaporate quickly if and when U.S. economic growth increases.

FTR Associates reported that its Shippers Conditions Index (SCI) for June fell only marginally from the previous month to a current reading of negative 8.1 – a minimal change reflecting what the firm calls a “relatively weak freight environment” and one expected to remain through year end.

“The June SCI does not yet reflect the new HOS regulations that are now the law of the land,” noted Lawrence Gross, one of FTR’s senior consultants.

“We estimate that the onset of these new regulations will eventually pull about 3% of truck capacity out of the system,” he added. “Offsetting this removal of capacity is the currently weak freight environment due to an economy which is growing slower than we had expected or hoped.”

The construction industry illustrates this “slow growth” trend, with total construction in the U.S. expected increase 6% this year to $506 billion, according to the Midyear Update to the 2013 Construction Outlook from McGraw Hill Construction – the same rate of increase for total construction starts that was predicted last October, and follows the 8% gain that took place in 2012.

“The recovery for construction continues to unfold in a selective manner, proceeding against the backdrop of the sluggish U.S. economy,” noted Robert Murray, VP- economic affairs for McGraw Hill Construction.

“While the degree of uncertainty affecting the economy seems to have eased a bit from last year, tight government financing continues to exert a dampening effect on both the economy and the construction industry,” he added. “On the positive side for construction, the demand for housing remains strong, market fundamentals for commercial building are strengthening, and lending standards for commercial real estate loans continue to ease gradually. On balance, the recovery for construction is making progress, but at a single-digit pace given the mix of pluses and minuses by major sector.”

That’s one reason FTR’s Gross believes the “net effect” of such slowing economic growth will be to postpone significant tightening of capacity into later this year or even next year, depending on what happens with the overall U.S. economy.

In the opinion of BNY Mellon Chief Economist Richard Hoey, though, the “developed economies” of the world – such as the U.S. – are better positioned to experience growth in the near term.

“From a longer-term perspective, emerging countries have a higher trend growth rate than developed countries, due to continued diffusion of modern technologies and the long-term uptrend in the productivity of their labor force," said Hoey. “Cyclically, however, the countries with the best prospects for a near-term improvement in economic growth are the developed countries, as they recover from depressed levels of economic activity in response to easy monetary policy.”

Hoey expects the pace of expansion in the U.S. to accelerate from approximately 2% in the last four years to 3% in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

“For U.S. economic growth, we expect a 'three for three' pattern," he said. “The U.S. economy has been experiencing a fiscal drag from tax hikes on upper-income taxpayers, a Social Security tax hike, and sequesters spending cuts. This large fiscal tightening is now cresting.”

As a result, Hooey believes the U.S. faces a reduced fiscal drag in 2014 and beyond. “We believe that the U.S. economy is near an inflection point to a somewhat faster growth rate,” he explained. “All the stimulative monetary policy of the past should continue to support expansion in the interest-sensitive sectors, including housing, autos and capital spending.”

Thus trucking should experience a beneficial surge in demand once the pace for U.S. growth picks up, according to analysis conducted by Wall Street firm Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

“We continue to believe that asset-based truckload carriers are well-positioned to benefit from the ultimate tightening of supply and demand in the truckload industry,” the firm said in a recent research update.

“This tightening supply/demand dynamic will be driven by the coming onslaught of federal safety regulations that will effectively shrink truckload industry capacity, the re-industrialization of North America thanks to the near-shoring/in-sourcing trend, the [domestic] energy development boom, and the eventual acceleration of economic growth to sustainable, full potential growth rate [of] 2.5% to 3% GDP [gross domestic product] growth per annum.”

Stifel Nicolaus added that “asset-heavy” companies with exposure to the truckload space and the private fleet/dedicated space should also do well over the long-term as both shippers and brokers struggle to find sufficient capacity to handle the nation’s freight volumes. 

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