Two measures of freight shipping posted their first year-over-year improvements in more than 12 months, indicating there has been more than the usual fall surge in shipment volume.
The newly released Cass Freight Index Report for October shows shipments increased 2.7% from the same time a year ago. That marks the first year-over-year hike in 20 months, with the gauge hitting a level of 1.121. This is also the highest reading since September 2015 and a 0.9% improvement from September.
This is due to a wide range of results in the different modes, from continued volume growth in parcel and airfreight driven by e‐commerce, to a sequential improvement in truck tonnage, to less bad rail and barge volume overall, according to Donald Broughton, author of the report and managing director, chief market strategist and senior transportation analyst at investment firm Avondale Partners
“Although it is far too early to make a change in trend call, data is beginning to suggest that the consumer is finally starting to spend a little and that the industrial economy’s rate of deceleration has eased,” he said. “Simply put, the winter of the overall freight recession we have seen for over a year and a half in the U.S. may not be over, but it is showing signs of thawing.”
However, when it comes to the amount of money spent on freight shipments, it is down both overall as well as when it comes to truckload linehaul rates. Meanwhile, intermodal rates posted its first gain in nearly two years.
The Cass Freight Index of expenditures, which measures all freight modes, declined 3.8% in October compared to October 2015 with the gauge registering 2.343. While that’s down 2.2% from the September reading, it’s higher than where it was during the first five months of this year.
Despite this, Broughton said, the index offered a glimmer of hope because the rate of contraction appeared to be “less bad,” as it tapered much less than the rates of contraction in May, June, July, and August, which were down 10.1%, 8.8%, 5.1%, and 6.3%, respectively.
“We see this increase as a result of the steady rise in the price of fuel over the last six months, but we are seeing some improvements in pricing power of truckers and intermodal shippers,” Broughton said.
For example, the Cass Truckload Linehaul Index fell just 1.4% in October to a reading of 125.6, its highest level since March, due to month-over improvements for two straight months. This latest year-ago drop is less than the 3.5% year-over-year decline in September. The gauge measures market fluctuations in per-mile truckload pricing, excluding fuel and accessorials.
The Cass Intermodal Price Index faired even better, increasing 0.4% in October compared to October 2014, which was also not only better than September’s 0.7% decline, but marked the first year-over-year increase after 21 consecutive months of declines. It’s reading of 130.4 is also the highest since April 2015. This gauge is an indicator of market fluctuations in per-mile U.S. domestic intermodal costs that includes all costs associated with the move, such as linehaul, fuel and accessorials.
Data within all the Cass measures is derived from $25 billion in freight transactions processed by Cass Information Systems annually on behalf of its client base of hundreds of large shippers, according to the company.
In digesting all of these numbers, especially when it comes to what they mean for the long term, Broughton said readers need to keep in mind the fundamental rule of marketplaces: volume leads growth. “Repeatedly we have watched in a host of different markets, volume goes up before pricing starts to improve and volume goes down before pricing starts to weaken.”
So what drove October’s growth in freight volume? Partly it was due to outstanding rates of growth, with both FedEx and UPS reporting strong U.S. domestic volumes in the most recent quarter up 10% and 5.2% respectively, while airfreight has shown some increased strength.
And while railroad volumes have been part of the weakness, they have become increasingly less bad, and in recent weeks have actually turned slightly positive, Broughton noted. Also, the lower price of diesel has been driving domestic intermodal loads off the rails back to over‐the‐road trucks.
Despite this benefit for trucking, truck tonnage itself appears to be growing, based on its three month moving average. However, he cautioned that truck loads have now contracted on a year-over-year basis five out of the last seven months.
“No matter how it is measured, the data coming out of the trucking industry has been both volatile and uninspiring," Broughton said.