Many of the nation's transportation and logistics business elite have gathered in Palm Beach, Fla., for investment firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.'s annual two-day conference, which starts today. For those seeking to divine what 2014 holds for those who ship and move stuff, it is hoped the commentary will be as warm as the near 80-degree weather in the tony South Florida locale.So far—and even the optimists concede that it's still early—the narrative from top executives indicates that 2014 is shaping up to be a decent year, though hardly a memorable one. Investment firm Morgan Stanley & Co. recently sifted through press releases and transcripts of conference calls between management and analysts over the past two years to compare 2014 outlooks with the prior year. The takeaway, according to lead transport analyst William Greene, is that freight executives "feel better about the 2014 outlook" compared with their mood when surveying the 2013 landscape at the start of last year.
In a Feb. 3 research note, Greene extracted comments made so far this year by top executives of many leading publicly held companies as they discussed 2013 fourth quarter and full-year results. Executives of Omaha, Neb.-based truckload carrier Werner Transport Inc. said that, "freight trends thus far in 2014 have been better than the same period in 2013." Leaders at Norfolk, Va.-based rail giant Norfolk Southern Corp. said that while "we were less sure about the economy" during the first half of 2013, "we felt better about a lot of our business segments" as the year progressed. Fort Smith, Ark.-based less-than-truckload carrier (LTL) ABF Freight System Inc. said the company had "better conversations" with its customers over business conditions as it finalized contracts during December.
Executives at Atlanta-based UPS Inc. cited economists' projections of stronger U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) growth, modest 1- to 2-percent growth in the Eurozone after a flat 2013, and China's economy expanding in line with 2013 results at around 7.5 percent. "More importantly, global exports are projected to slightly outpace global GDP," said UPS, whose fortunes, more than most U.S.-based transportation firms, are tied to the global economy.
On rates, most executives said they were seeing a firming not visible for some time. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Landstar System Inc., a trucking firm that operates through a network of agents, said revenue per load in December rose 3.1 percent over December 2012. That was the first month all year where that critical metric came in higher than in a comparable month of 2012, Landstar said. Kansas City-based rail holding company Kansas City Southern said that the pricing environment is "still positive" and that its rates will rise faster than the projected overall inflation rate, which was reported by the government at 1.5 percent for 2013.
LTL carrier Saia Inc., based in Johns Creek, Ga., said the rate environment remains "pretty good," though it saw stronger years for rate increases in 2012 and 2011. Oak Brook, Ill.-based Hub Group Inc., the nation's largest intermodal marketing firm, was one of the few firms that reported a tough pricing environment; efforts in general to hike intermodal rates have been muted by increases in capacity to meet growing demand for the service.
Not everyone is that upbeat about the outlook. John G. Larkin, Baltimore-based Stifel's lead transportation analyst, said freight growth will be suppressed by increases in supply chain efficiencies that better calibrate supply and demand and minimize the risk of over-production. An aging U.S. population that will spend more on services than on goods will depress economic and freight growth, as will a dearth of investment in freight-related infrastructure, according to Larkin.
The positive trends will be found mostly in international markets, Larkin said. Cross-border volumes in the U.S.-Mexican trades will continue to increase, he said. In addition, U.S. exports will come close to balance with U.S. imports due to the emergence of middle classes in developing countries and the rising global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, Larkin said. The analyst expects industry consolidation to continue as asset-based providers increasingly take share from nonasset-based rivals.
Roslyn Wilson, who authors the influential "State of Logistics Report," which is published annually, said she is cautiously optimistic about 2014. Wilson said early data points paint a mixed picture of economic and freight activity. The Institute for Supply Management's index of new orders for January was off more than 13 percent over December, hardly a positive sign although the numbers may have been skewed by bad weather and a pull-forward of orders into December. Inventory levels have been elevated for some time, also not a positive sign as companies will want to work off existing supply before placing new orders, Wilson said. On the positive side, growth in personal consumption and in residential and nonresidential fixed investment bode well for freight volumes, she said.
Wilson, who is now gathering data for the report to be released in June, said, "the things we look for that translate into more supply chain business are not sparking yet." However, perhaps mindful of her generally pessimistic stance on the economy and the industry since the 2009 recession, she added that, "I am more positive than negative for 2014."