The amount of North America freight shipments and freight spending remain below levels from a year ago despite monthly gains, according to the latest Cass Freight Index report, and there is a concern conditions could get worse.

Freight shipments continued to rise April from the month before, gaining 0.6%, although at a much lower rate than earlier in the year, including a 0.7% hike in March from February. Also the first four months of 2016 were a departure from the more robust growth seen in the same period for the last five years with the April reading being 4.9% lower that for April 2015.

According to Rosalyn Wilson, supply chain industry analyst and founder and president of the consulting practice FreightMatters, who provides analysis for the report, there were several reason for this:

  • April railroad shipments reversed the 22.2% increase in carloads from February to March, dropping 21.1%.
  • April intermodal shipments followed suit, declining 17.8% after a rise of 19.2% in March.
  • The March truck tonnage figure dropped 4.5%, erasing about half of the February gain. an all-time high for the American Trucking Associations’ monthly Truck Tonnage Index. April figures have yet to be released.
  • In April, the Institute for Supply Management’s Purchasing Manager’s Index declined 1.9%, a setback after four months of slow, but steady growth. New orders declined almost 4%.

“Interestingly, the only industry reporting a decline in new orders was textile mills. This is probably due to high inventory levels of retail goods, including clothing. Production fell almost 2%, with decreases in textiles and petroleum and coal production.” Wilson said. “The backlog of orders also declined about 1%. May is usually a relatively strong month for freight shipments, but given the high inventories with ever slower turnover rates and the decline in new production orders, May could be another soft month.”

Meantime, Cass’ reading of freight expenditures rose only a scant 0.2% in April from the month before and is down 8.3% from April 2015.

“With freight shipments up 0.7%, this indicates that rates are very soft. With ample capacity available across the modes, competition for loads is holding rates down,” Wilson said.

She believes much of the reasons for the April performance is the U.S. economy decelerated in the first four months of 2016.

“The slowdown was caused by the continued decline of the global economy; the reticence of the consumer sector to increase its buying; the loss of jobs and income from the plunging oil costs, which shut down the fracking business and cut back on coal shipments; very high inventory levels across the entire supply chain and poor export figures due to both the strength of the U.S. dollar and a decline in worldwide demand,” Wilson said. "Based on the trends of many economic indicators, it appears the economy may get worse before it gets better."