U.S. Trucking Industry Indices Up But ‘Wobbling’

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 75 views 

The health of the U.S. economy is improving but remains fragile, according to three reports that track the activity of the national trucking industry.

The American Trucking Associations’ seasonally adjusted (SA) For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index rose 0.5% in February after falling a revised 4.6% in January.

The not seasonally adjusted index, which represents the change in tonnage actually hauled by the fleets before any seasonal adjustment, equaled 112.9 in February, which was 1.3% above the previous month.

“I’m still expecting continued truck tonnage growth going forward. Rising manufacturing activity and temperate consumer spending should be helped a little from an improving housing market,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in a statement.

Costello emphasized that February’s month-to-month increase was the sixth in the past seven months.

According to the ATA, trucking serves as a barometer of the U.S. economy, representing 67.2% of tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods. Trucks hauled 9 billion tons of freight in 2010.  Motor carriers collected $563.4 billion, or 81.2% of total revenue earned by all transport modes.

St. Louis-based Cass Information Systems also views the trucking sector as an economic barometer, and produces the monthly Cass Freight Index.

“Compared to January, freight shipment volume was 2.5 percent higher in February, while freight spending was 1.2 percent higher. Annually, freight volumes were up 3.5 percent from January 2011,” noted the Cass index.

Cass uses data from $20 billion in annual freight transactions processed by its information processing division to create the Index. The company processes transactions for about 350 large shippers who represent a broad sampling of industries including consumer packaged goods, food, automotive, chemical, OEM, retail and heavy equipment.

The Cass index is not as optimistic in its outlook as Costello with the ATA. Cass officials note that consumers are spending more, but much of that is due to higher food and energy prices.

“Despite figures that seem to indicate that the economy is off to a stronger start than last year, GDP growth is still expected to be below three percent. There are no clear signs that we can expect a fast turnaround for the freight industry; but rather several signs that this year may be more reflective of the uneven growth we have experienced for the last three years,” according to the Cass Freight Index.

The Ceridian-UCLA Pulse of Commerce Index — managed by the UCLA Anderson School of Management and Ceridian Corporation — also shows inconsistent recovery in the trucking sector.

The index uses diesel fuel consumption data for over-the-road trucking and “serves as an indicator of the state and possible future direction of the U.S. economy,” according to the index report.

February’s index was up 0.7%, compared to a 1.7% dip in January.

“The year-over-year growth in the PCI since May of 2011 has been wobbling slightly above zero. In December 2011, the year-over-year growth turned decidedly negative at -0.8 percent with January 2012 even worse at -2.2 percent; February year-over-year was only slightly negative at -0.2 percent,” according to the index report.

The trucking sector is important to the Arkansas economy. Arkansas and Nebraska are tops in the country in in terms of percentage of total state employment being in the trucking sector, according to the ATA trends. In Arkansas, 3.7% of all people employed in the private sector worked for a trucking company, with 3.6% for Nebraska. California and Texas have the most people working in the trucking industry in terms of total numbers.

In the Fort Smith region, more than 1,500 good-paying jobs are tied to the trucking sector from employment with Fort Smith-based Arkansas Best Corp. and Van Buren-based USA Truck Inc.

In Northwest Arkansas, more than 3,000 are employed in corporate trucking jobs, including about 2,600 jobs at Lowell-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services.

Michael Tilley with our content partner, The City Wire, is the author of this report. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].