Freight shipment and expenditure readings saw annual decreases in August, according to the new edition of the Cass Freight Index, which was recently issued by Cass Information Systems.
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. What’s more, the Cass Transportation Indexes accurately measure changes in North American freight activity and costs based on $44 billion in paid freight expenses for the Cass customer base of hundreds of large shippers.
August’s shipment reading, at 1.143, fell 10.6% annually and up 1.9% compared to July. It also trailed August 2022’s 1.278 reading, which marked the highest level for shipments since May 2018. On a two-year stacked change basis, August shipments were down 7.4% and up 0.8% on a month-to-month seasonally adjusted (SA) basis.
“The freight market downcycle is now 20 months old, which compares to a range of 21 to 28 months in the past three downcycles,” wrote the report’s author Tim Denoyer, ACT Research vice president and senior analyst. Part of the large [annual] decline is the comparison to the extraordinary time last summer when destocking was creating freight demand as retailers shipped out stale inventory. The current downcycle is similar to the peak-to-trough declines in two of the three downcycles in the past dozen years. The third ended with the pandemic.”
Denoyer added that the U.S. economy is accelerating, with the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow tracking at 4.9% annual GDP growth for the third quarter, driven by consumption. And he noted that although the resumption of student loan payments will likely trim this growth, real retail sales declines are moderating, and destocking seems to be mostly running its course.
“With this backdrop, how are for-hire freight volumes declining so much? Private fleet growth is evident as Class 8 tractor retail sales are on pace to set a record this year, yet for-hire fleets are by and large demonstrating capital discipline,” he wrote. “Thus, we think a substantial part of the decline in shipments is due to private fleets insourcing freight from the for-hire market. With normal seasonality, this index would be flattish m/m in September and decline about 8% annually, with still extraordinary comparisons, if less so.
August expenditures, at 3.459, were down 25.0% annually, in line with August’s 24.4% decline, and were up 1.1% compared to July. On a two-year stacked-change basis, August expenditures were down 9.7 and were up 1.8% on a month-to-month seasonally adjusted basis.
“The expenditures component of the Cass Freight Index rose 23% in 2022, after a record 38% increase in 2021, but is set to decline about 18% in 2023 and 11% in 1H’24, assuming normal seasonal patterns from here,” wrote Denoyer. “Both freight volume and rates remain under pressure at this point in the cycle, but fuel price increases could limit the savings for shippers.”