Consumer stimulus and a disrupted labor market has resulted in an extraordinary period of profitability for trucking companies in the last couple years, but market conditions have become more volatile as demand has begun to stabilize in the face of inflation, energy costs and other stresses.
“There’s this thing called supply chain disruption we’ve all been hearing about,” joked Avery Vise, vice president of trucking at FTR Transportation Intelligence, as he set the stage to explore the economic underpinnings of current and future freight markets during the Industry Spotlight Luncheon at Trimble’s Insight Tech Conference + Expo, Aug. 14-17, 2022.
Here’s a look at what Vise said are “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the current transportation market.
Vise introduced the “good” parts of the market by clarifying that it’s more accurate to call them “good-ish,” as each positive is accompanied by a negative, or at least a neutral.
- Employment: Job growth has been strong this year, with a 3.5% unemployment rate across all industries in June 2022, which is tied for the lowest rate since the 1960s. “Openings are currently down,” Vise said. “But there are still 10 million unfilled positions out there across the country.”
- Industrial production: Production of goods has slowed, but there is still strong demand. “There is plenty of demand for manufacturing,” Vise stated. “However, there aren’t enough Class 8 trucks and trailers to meet that demand.”
- Consumption: “I find it reassuring that we’ve had as much consumption as we have seen recently, and there is a lot of cash out there” due to stimulus checks, Vise said. But, he warned, individuals’ personal savings rates have dipped to extremely low levels, which is “scary.”
There are a couple of economic factors that fall into the potentially “bad” category for the trucking market, Vise says.
- Inflation: Rising costs are sharply reducing consumers’ buying power. “July was a good month, but it was all due to falling diesel costs,” Vise explained. “Food costs were and are still high and inflation is still very high.”
- Home sales: After a period of immense growth, home sales have dipped back down to their lowest rates since the first half of 2020, Vise says.
The Just Plain Ugly
A few factors are likely to result in some “ugly” ramifications for the economy and trucking industry, he shared.
- Inventory: Retailers and e-tailers ramped up the size of their inventories early in the COVID-19 pandemic to meet rising demand for physical goods at the beginning of the pandemic. However, with loosening restrictions globally, “people are spending more on services, like travel, concerts, etc. than products – which is why goods transport isn’t doing as well,” Vise says.
- Interest rates: Vise predicts that rising interest rates will slow the economy, but acknowledges that hikes are likely needed to stop the growth of inflation.
- Residential construction: “We’re at an interesting point for residential construction,” Vise says. New housing starts are slowing, but there is a backlog that has kept building activity strong.
What Does It All Mean for Trucking?
All in all, the road ahead is treacherous, but not necessarily bad for carriers, Vise says, while cautioning that the outlook points toward weaker trucking conditions. Truck freight activity has shifted back from spot to the contract environment, and the driver supply is no longer a limiter on capacity.
Vise points to a few additional indicators that show positive momentum, including that the chip shortage is starting to loosen, the supply of new and used trucks is improving, and that utilization and rates are likely to continue growing.
However, he recommends keeping an eye on continued disruptions and issues like consumer spending, residential construction and more.
Slides from Avery Vise’s Industry Spotlight Luncheon at the 2022 Insight Tech Conference are available at www.ftrintel.com/trimble2022.