Fear factor, reluctance to invest constraining economic growth

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The US and global economies are as weak this year as they’ve been since the Great Recession and there’s little indication growth will accelerate anytime soon.

And trucking continues to be dogged by excess capacity. Those were a couple of takeaways from the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) Management Conference & Exhibition’s always popular economic outlook session.

“Everyone keeps waiting for a big rebound,” said Diane Swonk, founder and CEO of DS Economics. “We’ve got an economy that is growing at a subpar pace. This year could likely be close to the weakest year since the Great Recession.”

GDP growth is on pace to come in at about 1.6-1.7%, Swonk indicated. She cited consumer spending – growing at about 2-2.5% – as the lone bright light.

“We’re not running on all cylinders,” Swonk said of the US economy, noting a dearth of investment and a lack of fiscal policy to support infrastructure development.

“The economy has legs but it needs help,” she said.

Consumer spending continues to fuel the US economy and consumers have reined in their debt to 2003 levels. Lower energy prices are helping to drive this, Swonk said. Retail sales this year are about 2% higher than a year ago and that’s in part due to lower gas prices. Swonk also said cheap gas boosts the economy by reducing commuting costs and allowing people to accept jobs that are further from home.

Looking specifically at trucking, ATA chief economist Bob Costello said excess capacity continues to weigh on the trucking industry’s productivity and earnings.

“It’s actually a pretty simple story,” he said. “Freight has slowed down and we kept adding some capacity.”

Trucking volumes are mostly flat and traditional seasonal patterns are not holding, Costello explained. Spot market loads are down about 12.3% this year.

“The good news is, I think the spot market has turned the corner,” Costello said, noting spot market freight volumes are now at their highest point since May 2015. Dry van loads are up 1.2% this year, flatbed loads are up 6.6%, refrigerated loads are up 0.7% and tanker loads are up 0.3%. LTL tonnage, however, is down 0.5% due to a manufacturing slowdown.

Manufacturing, said Swonk, was hit by a “perfect storm” of negatives, including low oil prices, which affected the steel industry, and the strength of the US dollar, which damaged the US manufacturing segment’s competitiveness. This slowdown has been offset by a strong auto industry but that has peaked, she said.

Because of this uncertain economic picture, Swonk said many businesses are unwilling to invest and are instead focusing on share buybacks and paying dividends.

“We’ve seen, in this environment, an unwillingness to invest in the future,” she said.

Costello showed slides that indicate trucking capacity has exceeded freight growth. There were 252,900 Class 8 trucks sold into the US market last year. The truckload sector had 3% more tractors on the road last year than in 2014. “There’s just too much supply out there,” he said. Revenue per tractor is down about 3.3% year to date, Costello added.

Swonk said she is “somewhat bullish” on the energy sector making a recovery, though she is not projecting oil to sail back to $100 a barrel anytime soon.

“I think it’s going to stay in the $40-$50 per barrel range for the next couple of years,” she said. But she also noted the oil industry has reduced its overhead to the point where investment is picking up, even at current prices. “We are moving in the right direction,” she said, adding investment will start picking up in mid to late 2017.

Housing should continue to be strong in the US, as demand is outpacing supply, Swonk noted. She said first-time buyers are returning to the market and there is a lack of affordable housing available.


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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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