Net orders for heavy-duty trucks plunged in November to their lowest level in more than three years and to the lowest level for November—normally a strong month for truck orders—since recession-plagued 2009, consultancy FTR reported today.
Net orders, defined as orders minus cancellations, dropped in November to 16,475 units, a 59-percent decline from last-year's levels, FTR said. The November numbers represented the weakest order activity of the year and came in well below expectations, according to the consultancy.
FTR, which usually finds a streak of sunlight in even the cloudiest forecasts, couldn't sugarcoat the November data, calling it a major disappointment, especially after order activity had held up reasonably well through the summer months.
"The November orders are very concerning," said Don Ake, FTR's vice president of commercial vehicles, in a statement. Ake said that truck inventories remain high, adding "the industry would appear to have enough trucks for now." Order activity should stabilize at some point, but not in the immediate future, Ake said. Current inventories will have to be worked off before production can resume in earnest, he added.
The poor truck-order data mirrors, to some degree, the subpar November numbers reported by the nation's purchasing managers in the monthly report published Tuesday by the Institute of Supply Management (ISM). According to ISM, economic activity contracted last month for the first time in three years, with the closely watched "Purchasing Managers Index," an amalgamation of various manufacturing metrics, falling to 48.6, a level that indicates economic contraction. This marked the first time since November 2012 that the level had fallen below 50, the dividing line between economic expansion and contraction.
There was little good news in the ISM report. New orders dropped 4 percentage points from October's readings, while the report's production index dropped 3.7 percentage points from the prior month. An index of prices dropped 3.5 percent from October, an indication of a continued contraction in raw-materials prices. Supplier inventories shrank, while customer inventories remained uncomfortably elevated, according to the report. Of the 18 industries surveyed, 10 reported contraction, ISM said.
The only pocket of good news was a sequential increase in employment, ISM said.
Each ISM manufacturing report is sprinkled with anonymous quotes from purchasing managers in various industries. Most of the quotes selected to accompany the November report were downbeat, with executives concerned about weaker demand and deflationary pricing trends. A few exceptions came from an executive in the transportation-equipment sector, who said that "business was still good," and from managers in the medical-device and fabricated-metal-products segments, with the latter reporting that demand in the automotive industry remained strong.
Separately, Old Dominion Freight Line Inc., considered by many the best-run less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier, reported on Tuesday fair but not robust October and November results for daily tonnage and weight per shipment. Daily LTL tonnage rose 4.4 and 3.1 percent in October and November, respectively, over the same periods in 2014. LTL weight per shipment declined 4.8 percent and 5.2 percent in October and November compared to the same periods in 2014, Thomasville, N.C.-based Old Dominion said.
Old Dominion's LTL revenue per hundred pounds shipped—known in the industry as "hundredweight—decreased 1.5 and 0.6 percent in October and November, compared to the same periods in 2014. The carrier said the downturns were due to the declines in fuel surcharges during the period. Excluding fuel surcharges, revenue per hundredweight increased 5.3 percent in October and 6.1 percent in November 2015 compared to the same periods in 2014, Old Dominion said.
On Monday, Old Dominion introduced a tariff under which noncontract customers will not pay a fuel surcharge if the federal government's average price of on-highway diesel fuel is less than $3 a gallon. As of Monday, the average national price of a gallon of diesel stood at $2.42.
"Old Dominion continued to produce solid year-over-year growth in shipments while also improving our yields, net of fuel surcharges, for the first two months of the fourth quarter of 2015," David S. Congdon, the company's vice chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "The domestic economy continues to show some weakness, however, which is reflected in our volume and weight-per-shipment trends."
Weaker manufacturing adversely impacts less-than-truckload carriers, whose traffic flows heavily tilt toward industry. However, because Old Dominion reported high-single-digit year-over-year gains in daily shipments during October and November, the carrier's issue appears to be more a stronger bias toward lighter-weighted shipments than an overall decline in demand for its services.