As we approach the annual peak period of global transportation over the next three months, there are additional troubling signs related to global transportation trends, trends that indicate more excess capacity remaining in ocean and air cargo, but continued restricted capacity within U.S. trucking.

Ocean Container Segment

Drewry Maritime Research recently reported that a the half-way point of 2015, east-west container trade was flat, and that the firm will likely be downgrading its global container traffic forecast for 2015 from 4.3 percent to roughly 2 percent in growth. Drewry pointed to some optimism related to Middle East traffic as a result of the possible lifting of economic sanctions related to Iran, causing the need for increased goods volumes. Keep in mind that many global ocean container carriers were previously forecasting global container volume increases averaging three to four percent, while adding more mega container ships to the global fleet. In August, ocean container carriers were motivated to significantly cut back on scheduling. The Wall Street Journal reported that freight rates at the time between Shanghai and Rotterdam barely covered carrier operating costs, hence the announced cutbacks. The WSJ noted that carriers were significantly reducing capacity to insure higher freight rates, in spite of dramatically reduced fuel costs. During that same period, industry leader Maersk Line revised its estimates of global container volume down to a range of 2-4 percent from the previous 3-5 percent growth estimate and vowed that it would defend and even expand its industry market share position.

The Drewry forecast downgrade comes in midst of the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Monthly Import Tracker report indication that import cargo volume at the nation’s major retail container ports is expected to increase 1.2 percent this month over the same time last year as retailers head toward the holiday season. The Tracker reported that import volume was up 2.9 percent from June and 8.1 percent from July 2014. The Tracker indicated that inbound container volume for the first-half of 2015 totaled 8.9 million TEU’s, up 6.5 percent over the same period last year. That may be an indicator that retailers elected to position holiday inventories much earlier, given last year’s port disruption. The NRF further reports increased inbound U.S. volumes for September through November, but that number may be skewed by last season’s U.S. West Coast port slowdown. The NRF additionally notes that U.S. retailer inventories are “plentiful’ and that “Shoppers should have no worries about finding what they’re looking for as they begin their holiday shopping.” By our lens, reports noted above are an indication that ocean container volume will indeed level off for the remainder of this year.

Air Cargo Segment

On the air cargo front, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicated a decline in air cargo demand in July. IATA reported that disappointing July air freight performance was symptomatic of a broader slowdown in economic growth, most likely caused by a slowdown of activity in China and other Asia based countries. The news comes as passenger airlines continue to add more air freight, as IATA indicates that in July, available air cargo space expanded by 6.7 percent.

IATA’s CEO noted to The Wall Street Journal:

The combination of China’s continued shift towards domestic markets, wider weakness in emerging markets, and slowing global trade indicates that it will continue to be a rough ride for air cargo in the months to come.”

U.S. Trucking

On the U.S. surface trucking front, the American Trucking Associations’ advanced seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index decreased 0.5% in June, following a revised gain of 0.8% during May. The soft June volume number was attributed to flat factory output and falling retail sales. However, the June, the index equaled 131.1 (2000=100) somewhat below the all-time high of 135.8 that was reached in January of this year. During the second quarter, the index fell 1.7% from the first quarter but increased 2% from the same quarter in 2014.

The ATA recently extended its U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast to the year 2026. The report forecasts a 28.6 percent increase in freight tonnage and an increase in freight revenues of 74.5 percent by 2026. However, the not so good news for industry shippers is a forecast indicating that the number of Class 8 trucks in use will grow from 3.56 million in 2015 to mere 3.98 million by 2026. That current demand-supply imbalance does not bode well for trucking cost projections. Factor the current building wave of acquisition activity among non-asset and asset based transportation and logistics providers and the picture becomes far more troublesome for industry supply chains that do not plan accordingly.

U.S. Railroads

How different can the clock speed of industry business change occur- consider the current plight of the U.S. railroad industry. Last year, the industry was booming, and was strategically placed to take advantage of the explosion of new oil exploration methods occurring throughout North America. Crude transport by rail was the new phenomenon that restored profits and expansion for U.S. railroads.

The continued plunging global based cost of crude oil and sudden glut affecting global commodity needs has changed that dynamic dramatically.

Union Pacific, a major U.S. railroad recently disclosed that 2300 workers are currently on temporary layoff or alternative work status as that railroad initiated efforts to adjust its current cost structure toward lower transport demand needs. UP’s shipping volumes are down 4 percent year-to-date with reported declines in chemical, agricultural and industrial goods segments. Industry rival, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is now part of Berkshire Hathaway, and it may be some time before similar news leaks out regarding the effects of the declines in crude-by-rail shipments.

Reports concerning other U.S. railroads indicate similar trends with hundreds of idle tank cars now parked and idle after recently being utilized to transport dedicated crude-by-rail trains. Railroads are now reportedly pushing-back on end-of-year regulatory mandates regarding positive-train control and tank car safety upgrade initiatives. The U.S. rail industry now has a capacity imbalance related to commodity transport, the bread and butter of volume and profits.

Future Prospects

Thus, as we approach that last three months of 2015, different capacity dynamics across global transportation lead to a similar impact and concern that being far more turbulence in global transportation circles in the months to come. Rest assured, these different imbalance situations will be included in our 2016 predictions for industry and global supply chains.

We want to hear from our readers on these trends. Is your organization currently concerned and is your organization actively planning contingency scenario? You can email your comments and feedback to: feedback <at> supply-chain-matters <dot> com.

Bob Ferrari