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Near-term tonnage boost from accelerating economy may not last

Dec. 23, 2013

A revised 4.1% uptick in third quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the U.S. helped boost truck freight volumes in November, according to data tracked by the American Trucking Associations (ATA); with tonnage volumes posed to end 2013 at more than double the level of 2012 if December’s numbers stay on the same upward path. Yet that level of growth may not continue into 2014 based on current projections being made by economists.

“Assuming that December isn’t weak, tonnage growth this year will be more than twice the gain in 2012,” noted Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist, in a statement.

The ATA’s for-hire truck tonnage index increased 2.7% in November, after falling 1.9% in October, with year-to-date data indicating that tonnage is up 5.8% compared to the same period in 2012, when tonnage increased 2.3%.

Those numbers are a reflection in part of a broad, if at times modest, improvement in U.S. economic picture. For example, the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) for the U.S. increased 0.8% in November to 98.3, following a 0.1% increase in October, and a 1% increase in September.

"The LEI continues on a broad-based upward trend, suggesting gradually strengthening economic conditions through early 2014," noted Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist at The Conference Board. "Improving labor markets and new orders in manufacturing, combined with strong financial indicators, drove November's gain.”

"November data reflect a U.S. economy that is expanding modestly, discounting some renewal in activity after the government shutdown," added Ken Goldstein, another Conference Board economist. "The coincident economic index shows the economy expanding at a relatively slow pace. The trend in the leading economic index is stronger, signaling for some time that the economy is developing forward momentum, and will continue to strengthen through early 2014."

ATA’s Costello pointed out that tonnage accelerated in the second half of the year, indicating that the economy is likely stronger some might believe, with those freight volumes supported by what he called “fast growing” sectors of the economy that generate heavy freight loads, such as residential construction, fracking for oil and natural gas, and automobile production.

Indeed, U.S. consumers are expected to spend more than $34 billion on new vehicles in December, which is a “historic high,” according to data tracked by J.D. Power & Associations and LMC Automotive.

New-vehicle retail sales in December are expected to exceed 1.13 million units in the U.S., a 4% increase from December 2012. Though this December’s seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) for retail sales is projected to hit 12.7 million units – a decline from the 13.4 million unit SAAR rate in November – that is still 660,000 units or 5.5% stronger when compared to December 2012.

"Strong consumer demand in December is the culmination of another strong year for the automotive industry," noted John Humphrey, senior vice president of the global automotive practice at J.D. Power. "Retail sales in 2013 are expected to reach 12.8 million units, with consumer spending reaching a record $375 billion, a $40 billion increase from 2012."

LMC added that its total light-vehicle sales projection for 2013 is set to finish at 15.6 million units, with the firm increasing its sales projections for 2014 by 100,000 units to 16.2 million units.

"The budget deal in Washington is helping fuel a higher level of optimism for the economy and auto sales in 2014," said Jeff Schuster, LMC’s senior vice president of forecasting. "December sales faced some challenge early in the month, with some sales that pulled ahead in November and winter storms, they have rebounded well, and the year ahead is set up to edge new-vehicle sales closer to pre-recession levels."

Automotive-related freight volumes will no doubt see a spike as North America vehicle production volumes continue to climb as a resulted of this continued rise in light vehicle sales.

J.D. Power and LMC noted that vehicle production in North America year-to-date through November has increased 5% from the same time frame in 2012, with nearly 700,000 units of additional volume. Even as inventory has increased, production volume in November remained strong at 1.4 million units, a 4% increase from November 2012 – with full-year production for 2014 forecast at 16.6 million units, which is a 3% increase from 2013.

Lindsey Piegza, chief economist for Sterne Agee, added that the upward trend in automobile production also is a reflection of the continued strength in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

“Manufacturing activity continues to expand at a modest pace as companies are beginning to take a less conservative stance toward capital spending … and a more optimistic outlook for demand, several sectors including high-tech, wood-product, and steel manufacturers, [who] expect a gradual increase in activity over the next three to six months,” she said.

“America’s continued appetite for autos is expected to further spur Midwest manufacturing, which has been a main source of strength in the region thanks to new vehicle launches and increased demand for medium and heavy-duty trucks,” Piegza added.

“Additionally, the ISM [Institute for Supply Management] suggests growing momentum in the U.S. manufacturing base, balancing between modest domestic demand and an improving global outlook,” she noted. “Manufacturing output has slowed to a 2.3% pace in 2013, down from a plus-4% pace in 2012, [but] even a modest improvement in growth to plus-3% will contribute an additional two- to three-tenths to headline growth.”

In the housing industry, from a supply side, Piegza pointed out that “several large builders” have noted a desire to only slowly increase construction in order to sustain the continued rise in home prices. Although that’s a slower pace than observed earlier in 2013, residential investment has contributed between three- and five-tenths to growth to the U.S. economy over the past two years – a trend she expects will continue.

Yet even with all that being said, Piegza remains cautious concerning the economic outlook for 2014 – a view that, if it comes to pass, could dampen freight prospects for the New Year.

“The economic growth outlook over the next six to twelve months looks relatively benign given that headline growth has been stubbornly near 2% since the end of the Great Recession,” she explained. “Given the tremendous and longstanding headwinds the economy has endured, we would argue a modest, yet positive growth trend of any kind is an impressive and welcome outcome.”

Yet from the robust 4.1% rate of U.S. economic growth recorded in the third quarter this year, Sterne Agee expects GDP growth to slow down to 1.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013, then only marginally accelerate to 1.9% in the first quarter of 2014, followed by increase of 1.7% and 2.3% for the second and third quarters next year, respectively.

“Because the consumer remains under pressure from a lack of quality job creation and minimal wage growth, total spending – the key to the economy – is likely to improve only moderately throughout 2014,” Piegza said. “Coupled with less hesitant business development amid a more certain political environment, a more robust manufacturing base and balanced housing market, headline growth is likely to moderate by 2% to 2.25% in 2014 from a current pace of 2.5%.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean reports and comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry -- light and medium duty fleets up through over-the-road truckload, less-than-truckload, and private fleet operations Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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