Freight data is starting to tell a pretty good story

While I may have been on vacation this past week, that in no way means the rest of the industry was, not in the very least to be sure. And while I was out, there was plenty of stuff going on in the freight transportation and logistics sectors, especially as it relates to interesting and relevant data points.

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While I may have been on vacation this past week, that in no way means the rest of the industry was, not in the very least to be sure. And while I was out, there was plenty of stuff going on in the freight transportation and logistics sectors, especially as it relates to interesting and relevant data points.

That said, there were a few very notable data-rich reports issued or passed along to me that are definitely worth “sharing with the class,” given the relevant focus each of them has on specific sectors and modes.

ATA Truck Tonnage Data: Let’s lead off with the American Trucking Association’s (ATA) March Truck Tonnage Index.

According to the ATA, its advanced seasonally-adjusted (SA) For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index at 137.5 (2000=100) fell 1 percent from February to March and was off 5.2 percent compared to the all-time high of February 2016’s 142.7, while rising 0.7 percent annually. And for the first quarter of 2016, the SA was up 0.2 percent, which is not currently on pace with the 2.5 percent annual increase for all of 2016, based on ATA data.

ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello explained that overall March tonnage levels were impacted by some late season summer storms, but he noted that even with a bit of a decline in March SA tonnage was up 1.2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017

The ATA’s not seasonally-adjusted (NSA) index, which represents the change in tonnage actually hauled by fleets before any seasonal adjustment, saw a strong 14.6 percent gain from February to March, coming in at 143.9, while seeing a 1.3 percent annual gain and a 1 percent sequential decline. For the first quarter, the NSA index was up 1.2 percent sequentially and up 0.2 percent annually.

As defined by the ATA, the NSA index is assembled by adding up all the monthly tonnage data reported by the survey respondents (ATA member carriers) for the latest two months. Then a monthly percent change is calculated and then applied to the index number for the first month.

“While I’m not expecting a surge in truck tonnage anytime soon, the signs remain mostly positive for freight, including lower inventory levels, better manufacturing activity, solid housing starts and good consumer spending,” Costello said. “As a result, we can expect moderate growth going forward.”

In a video message issued by the ATA, Costello noted that March tonnage data is always going to be better than February, as it has more days in the month and it is a month in which freight activity tends to be stronger.

While trucking is not booming, it is by no means a laggard either, so at a little bit past the quarter pole for 2017, that can be viewed as welcome news.

Cass Freight Index: Shifting gears to a more multimodal data set, we have the recently-released March edition of the Cass Freight Index Report.

With so many data-rich freight indicators out there, this one is as notable as any, considering that many freight transportation and logistics executives and analysts consider the Cass Freight Index to be 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 Cass Freight Index is pretty straightforward in that, like the ATA’s data, there are two key metrics. In this case, it is shipments and expenditures.

Starting with the former, March shipments at 1.080 were up 0.9 percent annually and up 0.5 percent sequentially. As for the latter, expenditures at 2.355 rose 3 percent annually and dropped 1.2 percent compared to February.

This marks the third month in a row i.e. the entire first quarter that both metrics have been positive. The report’s author, Donald Broughton, transportation analyst at Avondale Partners, wrote that this is in tandem with a growing number of U.S. economic data points, with some “less bad, but even an increasing number of them are better, and even a few are becoming outright strong.”

What’s more, last October marked the first time in 20 months that shipments turned positive, which Broughton said was “one of the first indications that a recovery in freight had begun in earnest.”

But it was this quote from the respected analyst that really helped to put the current state of freight into perspective:

“Data is suggesting that the consumer is finally starting to spend a little, albeit not with brick and mortar retailers,” he wrote. “It also suggests that, with the surge in the price of crude in October of last year, the industrial economy’s rate of deceleration first eased and then began a modest improvement led by the fracking of DUCs (drilled uncompleted wells), especially in the fields with a lower marginal production cost (i.e. Permian and Eagle Ford). We have been questioning, ‘How fast will the recovery from here be?’ However, the overall freight recession, which began in March 2015, appears to be over and, more importantly, freight seems to be gaining momentum.”

To be sure, you can drown in data when it comes to assessing how things are going in the freight market. There is more than the ATA tonnage and Cass Freight Index data, too, of course, like good old retail sales, ISM manufacturing data, rail carload data from the AAR, monthly TEU data from U.S. ports, and intermodal data from IANA, among others.

They are all very important and require a watchful eye, of course. Based on these mini-dives into the ATA and Cass data, let’s hope that the positive data train keeps on running stronger as time goes on. 

About the Author

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. Contact Jeff Berman

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