After a volatile August, are the nation's shippers bracing for more weakness or just exercising caution going into the fall peak season? Separate surveys from two top investment firms delivered very different answers.
A group of 120 shippers that combined account for more than $25 billion in annual freight spending forecast continued economic and freight sluggishness heading into the peak holiday shipping season and beyond, with an increasing number planning to pare back inventory levels in response to uncertain demand trends, according to a third-quarter survey conducted by the New York City-based investment firm Wolfe Trahan & Co.
As a cost-cutting move, the respondents said they shifted 5.3 percent of their volumes from truck to intermodal in the second quarter, while only converting 1.1 percent of their shipments from intermodal to truck. The "net" diversion of 4.2 percent represented the largest shift from truck to rail in eight years, the firm said. Respondents say they expect the pace of truck-to-intermodal conversion to accelerate in the third quarter.
The respondents expect a 2.9-percent increase in same-store sales—activity in stores open for at least a year—over the next 12 months. That represented a decline from second-quarter estimates and is the lowest level in more than a year, the firm said.
About 34 percent said in the third quarter that they expect to reduce inventory levels over the next 12 months, down from 22 percent who said in the second quarter they would take similar action. Pessimism among shippers accelerated as the quarter has progressed, with volume expectations weaker among shippers who completed the survey in August than those who turned in their results in July, according to the firm.
Despite the dimmer expectations, most shippers still forecast modest growth in peak season volumes compared with a year ago, the survey found.
Meanwhile, a survey of shippers, privately held truckers, and third-party logistics firms conducted by the Baltimore-based firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. found that the weakness in August was due more to seasonal factors (i.e., the summer doldrums) than to a macroeconomic slowdown. A regional truckload carrier quoted in the report said, "Things are a little spotty, but that is normal for this time of year." A regional less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier added that it is "not seeing any slowness or unfavorable reaction" to Standard & Poor's Aug. 5 downgrade of the U.S. government's debt rating. The carrier said its August volumes are about in line with last year's and represent a "step up" from July's results, which showed some softness due to seasonality. Stifel analysts said the LTL carrier's comments are representative of feedback from the carrier universe at large.
Carriers interviewed for the Stifel report said pricing is holding firm with mid single-digit increases on a year-over-year basis. By contrast, respondents to the Wolfe Trahan survey said they expect a slowdown in the pace of rate hikes across all modes. Rates for intermodal service, which many had expected to be elevated due to increased shipper demand, have "moderated noticeably," the firm wrote. Pricing for international air and ocean freight remains weak due to a sharp slowdown in traffic that began in late spring, the firm said. Shippers expect "flattish air-freight and negative ocean [freight] rates," the survey found.