Fleet Management

Lower Freight Index Numbers Mask Increased Expectations

February 12, 2016

By Evan Lockridge

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The number of freight shipments and the dollars spent on freight declined again in January as part of a seasonal trend. However, that's not necessarily a sign of further weakening for the overall economy, according the latest Cass Freight Index report.

Its measure of shipments opened the year with a reading of 1.025, just 0.2% below the level a year earlier, the lowest since January 2014. Expenditures fell 1.4% from a year earlier to a reading of 2.301, also the lowest in two years.

On a month-over month basis the gauges fell 1.3% and 1.9%, respectively, after the overall U.S. economy grew much more slowly in the second half of 2015. January freight shipments were down 11.6% and dollars spent 11.5% less when compared to the June 2015 high.

The December-to-January drop in shipments was the fourth consecutive monthly decline, as railroads reported double-digit drop in carloads and intermodal shipments. Truck tonnage eroded in January but not to the same extent as railroads, according to the report.

The decline in freight spending in January from the month before is much less than the month-tomonth drops of 5.7% in January 2015 and 5.1% in January 2014. The report said this most recent decrease can be mainly accounted for by the drop in the number of shipments and the mix of commodities moved. Generally speaking, rates were stable in January because available truck capacity was not a problem.

According to Rosalyn Wilson, supply chain expert and senior business analyst with the management services firm Parsons, who provides analysis for the report, there are some encouraging signs ahead. One of those is a report from January showing that while a measure of U.S. manufacturing during the month showed the sector contracted, it also rose for the first time in four months.

“If manufacturing continues to grow, and it should, freight levels will return,” she said. “This, coupled with the growth of wages in the second half of 2015, should increase consumer spending, giving the economy another boost. Wages have grown more in the last six months than in any other time since the recovery began over six years ago.”

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