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Cass Freight Index points to more signs of a slowing economy

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
September 06, 2011

Signs of a softening economy remain intact based on the most recent edition of the Cass Information Systems Freight Index. This index accurately measures trends in North American shipping activity based on $17 billion in paid freight expenses of more than a hundred of America’s largest shippers, according to Cass officials.

In its August report, Cass data indicated that shipments at 1.143 were down 3.7 percent compared to July, with shipments topping the 1.0 mark for the 15th straight month since May 2010, when shipments moved above the 1.0 mark for the first time since November 2008. On an annual basis, August shipments were up 4.4 percent compared to August 2010.

August expenditures at 2.282 were down 3.8 percent compared to July and up 15.8 percent compared to last year, which is roughly half of what annual expenditures comparisons have been in previous months, with January through July averaging 30.9 percent.

Many trucking industry executives and analysts consider the Cass Freight Index as the most accurate barometer of freight volumes and market conditions, with many analysts noting that the Cass Freight Index sometimes leads the American Trucking Associations (ATA) tonnage index at turning points, which lends to the value of the Cass Freight Index.

The ATA’s advance seasonally-adjusted (SA) For-Hire Truck Tonnage index dropped 1.3 percent in July on the heels of a revised 2.6 percent June gain. This index has fallen in three of the last four months, with 0.6 percent and 2.0 percent declines in April and May, respectively, continuing a largely uneven pattern of freight transportation volumes. And the ATA’s not seasonally-adjusted (NSA) index, which represents the change in tonnage actually hauled by fleets before any seasonal adjustment, was at 111 in July, down 9 percent from June’s 122.3. The July 2010 NSA index was 109.9, putting the July 2011 NSA up about 1 percentage point higher.

While the most recent batch of Cass numbers shows annual gains and mixed results on an annual and sequential basis, respectively, Rosalyn Wilson, senior analyst with Declan Corporation, wrote inn her monthly analysis of the Cass report that freight continues to be very soft in the midst of a very sluggish economy bordering on the brink of another recession.

Among the reasons cited for this by Wilson were: a 9.1 percent unemployment rate with no new non-farm jobs added in August; faltering consumer confidence levels; and a slowing down of the Institute of Supply Management’s Manufacturing Report on Business which slipped to 50.6 percent in August from 50.9 percent in July (any reading at 50 or higher indicates a growing economy).

While the ISM data still points to growth, Wilson observed that its New Orders and Backlog of Orders indices both are contracting but at a slower rate than they were in July.

“The unwillingness of businesses and consumers to place new orders now will negatively affect manufacturing in the coming months, which in turn will lead to a drop off in shipping volume,” wrote Wilson. “Signs are not pointing to a turnaround in the second half of the year. Most likely, we will see a slow trailing downward or, at best, stay where we are.”

While there are various signs pointing to slower economic growth in the coming months, Stifel Nicolaus analyst John Larkin told LM in an interview that there is a possibility that things may not end up being as bad as they currently look.

“The first three weeks of August showed strength…and it appears things may be picking up,” said Larkin. “September could be very strong, and the Peak Season could be more normal than it has been in a long time, especially in light of the fact that inventory levels in the supply chain remain quite low and last year people moved Peak Season up a bit in order to avoid a capacity shortage—a container shortage in particular—and that does not appear to be a problem this year.”

Larkin said that shipping activity into the U.S. over September, October, and November appears to be good, but he added that if these goods are purchased quickly remains to be seen.

What’s more, recent data from the National Retail Federation and Hackett and Associates Port Tracker report suggest September and October could shape up to be strong months for import and retail sales activity. 

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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