Cass Freight Index reports more shipment and expenditures declines in May

May shipments, at 1.128, slipped 6% annually and were down 2.8% compared to April. This marks the sixth consecutive month that annual shipments were down. Freight expenditures in May, at 2.845, were down 1.08% annually and down 2.2% compared to April.

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Freight shipments and expenditures in May were again mixed, according to the most recent edition of the Cass Freight Index Report from . 

Many freight transportation and logistics executives and analysts consider the Cass Freight Index to be the most accurate barometer of freight volumes and market conditions, with many analysts noting that the Cass Freight Index sometimes leads the American Trucking Associations (ATA) tonnage index at turning points, which lends to the value of the Cass Freight Index.

May shipments, at 1.128, slipped 6% annually and were down 2.8% compared to April. This marks the sixth consecutive month that annual shipments were down, following a 3.2% decline in April and a 1% decline in March. Shipments initially turned negative in December 2018 for the first time in 24 months, when it fell 0.8%. January and February were down 0.3% and 2.1%, respectively. As previously reported, the December and January shipment readings were up against respective all-time highs reached in December 2017 and January 2018, coupled with stabilizing patterns in nearly all underlying freight flows.  

, wrote in the report that with May shipments down 6%, he sees the current state of the shipments index as going from “warning of a potential slowdown” to “signaling an economic contraction.”

“We acknowledge that: all these negative percentages are against extremely tough comparisons; the two-year stacked increase was 5.1% for May; and the Cass Shipments Index has gone negative before without being followed by a negative GDP,” wrote Broughton.  “The weakness in spot market pricing for many transportation services, especially trucking, is consistent with the negative Cass Shipments Index and, along with airfreight and railroad volume data, strengthens our concerns about the economy and the risk of ongoing trade policy disputes. Weakness in commodity prices and the decline in interest rates have joined the chorus of signals calling for an economic contraction.”

Freight expenditures in May, at 2.845, were down 1.08% annually and down 2.2% compared to April.

“The Cass Freight Expenditures Index was signaling continued, overall pricing power for those in the marketplace who move freight,” wrote Broughton. “With demand no longer exceeding capacity in most modes of transportation for several months, it is not surprising that realized

pricing power has gone negative. Unfortunately, the weakness in spot market pricing (especially in trucking) and the decline in fuel prices, suggests that realized pricing will be under increasing amounts of pressure and is at risk of staying negative through the end of the year.”

Broughton added that concerns about inflation are being replaced by concerns about contract pricing and cancellation

of transportation equipment orders, citing four factors:

1. Almost all modes of transportation used their pricing power to create capacity, which first dampened and have now killed pricing power;

2. Spot pricing (not including fuel surcharge) in all three modes of truckload freight (dry van, reefer, and flatbed) has been falling for eleven months. Spot pricing, using dry van as a proxy, has fallen 25.8% from its peak in June 2018 and is now 30.0% below contract pricing (which we see as unsustainable);

3. The cost of fuel (and resulting fuel surcharge) is included in the Cass

Expenditures Index. Since the cost of diesel has gone negative (down -2.0% in May, down -5.5% in the most recent week), it will increase the negative amount of pricing reported;

4. Whether driven by capacity addition/creation or lower fuel surcharges (or a combination of both, which is our best guess) the Expenditures Index has sequentially declined: the May 2019 Index is down -4.8% from its peak in September 2018

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