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October 2012 Cass Freight Index shows flattish volumes and slight uptick in rates

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
November 06, 2012

A slow growing economy and the staving off of a potential east and gulf coast ports strike translated into mixed shipment and expenditure results in October, according to the October edition of the Cass Freight Index Report from Cass Information Systems.

The Cass Freight Index accurately measures trends in North American shipping activity based on $20 billion in paid freight expenses of roughly 350 of America’s largest shippers, according to Cass officials.

As LM has reported, many trucking industry 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.

October freight shipments were down sequentially and up annually. Shipments at 1.139 were down 1.4 percent compared to September and up 5.4 percent compared to October 2011. This represents the 29th consecutive month shipments were above the 1.0 mark since May 2010, when shipments moved above the 1.0 mark for the first time since November 2008.

In her analysis of the report, Rosalyn Wilson, senior business analyst with Delcan Corporation and author of the annual CSCMP State of Logistics report, said that the decline in October shipments puts volumes in line with what has been occurring since mid-year in the form of relatively flat shipping volumes due to slow economic growth, coupled with some declines in retail sales and manufacturing in recent months.

And while October shipments were up annually, Wilson explained that October 2011 was the beginning of a “significant downward trend in shipments,” while September 2011 represented the holiday peak and generated the highest amount of freight volumes since before the recession, which has subsequently been followed by 13 consecutive months below that level with volumes depressed across various modes of transportation.

On the expenditures side, October came in at 2.487, which was 1.6 percent better than September and 8.4 percent better than October 2011. October expenditures were up for the second straight month, following three months of declines from June through August.

Wilson said that the rate gains were due to Western railroads raising rates on a variety of commodities, some of which were experiencing explosive volume growth, whereas eastern railroads struggled to expand volume in other commodities to cover lost coal shipments, the single largest commodity moved over rail.
As for trucking rates, Wilson noted that the sector is close to full capacity despite lower volumes, adding that contract rates are not on the rise at the moment while spot rates are running higher, which reflects tight capacity in some markets for some types of trucks.

Not surprisingly, Wilson explained that economic uncertainty continues to rule the day, and this is apparent in freight volumes and rates, too.

“Uncertainty remains the strongest influence on the economy,” she wrote.  “With the election…some unknowns will begin to resolve themselves. Many of the most recent figures about the economy have been positive: manufacturing is beginning to strengthen again in the U.S.; consumer sentiment is up, as is consumer purchasing, especially for cars; housing sales and prices are climbing; bankruptcies are falling; and unemployment is down. The first estimate of third quarter GDP growth was 2.0 percent, which is higher than the second quarter’s 1.3 percent, but still not enough to fuel a strong recovery. In fact, these are the first back?to?back quarters in which economic growth was 2 percent or lower since we emerged from the recession. There are still many unfavorable signals in the economy too. Job creation has not been strong and most jobs created have been part time with no benefits. This indicates a lack of faith on the part of employers that they will be able to keep the workers in the long run. Businesses have worries about the pending automatic budget cuts, including the end of the temporary cut in the payroll tax. The growth of private company sales is lower in 2012 than 2011 and businesses have cut back their spending over concerns about the “fiscal cliff” and the debt crisis in Europe.”

But even with the economic uncertainty, she said there are some likely trends for the transportation sector, including trucking capacity is tight and getting tighter as trucking fleet expansions are not happening; the truck driver shortage is expected to grow, as it will take some time for the infrastructure in the Northeast to return to 100 percent;  intermodal volumes will continue to grow as more mid?size companies embrace the option and as rail handles the traffic trucks can’t handle; and rates will continue to rise.

What’s more, when there have been positive signs of economic upticks, they have largely come from manufacturing or other sectors that are not directly tied to consumer spending activity. This has led to ongoing cautionary spending by consumers overall.
Concerns over these issues and others were prevalent at last week’s Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals Annual Conference in Atlanta last month. Various shippers and carriers told LM they continue to remain cautious on the inventory management and ordering front, as well as making major capital investments and hiring until the economic outlook becomes clearer. 

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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