The following Supply Chain Matters commentary is our annual reflection on the Annual State of U.S. Logistics Report. Normally, our postings typically average 350-400 words of blog content for reader benefit. Rather, this is a longer length advisory report to educate our readers that will be also be made available for separate complimentary downloading in our Research Center within the next few days.
The 26th Annual State of Logistics Report prepared for the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals was released last week (free for CSCMP members and can be purchased for $295, both options available on the CSCMP web site). This report, the latest which reflects on 2014, has consistently tracked U.S. logistics metrics since 1988 and is often of high interest to logistics, transportation and procurement professionals. Since our inception, Supply Chain Matters has provided specific commentary and our view of the key takeaways from the report. With the latest report, we believe that industry supply chain teams to move beyond industry media spin. Pay close attention to the concerning industry trends and their implications, and act proactively to continuing logistics challenges that could prove costly.
Our editorial commentaries for both the 2012 and 2013 State of Logistics reports expressed concern towards a continued trend for increased logistics, transportation and inventory costs. The latest report depicting 2014 activity is no exception.
The report summary begins: “Total logistics costs increased only 3.15 percent in 2014.” The underline and emphasis of the word “only’ is ours since we were astounded by such use depicting normalcy. Considering the low rate of inflation, interest rates and the dramatic reduction in the costs of crude oil in 2014, from our lens, an overall 3.1 percent in the cost of logistics in the United States should remain a concern for industry supply chains. These total costs have now climbed beyond the peak level reached in 2007, prior to the global recession. In theory, U.S. logistics efficiency and productivity should be trending positive.
We first call attention to the report’s references to U.S. GDP values as a point of reference comparison. The report authors have utilized nominal GDP as a consistent baseline as compared to real GDP. Nominal GDP includes all the changes in market prices that have incurred during any year including inflation or deflation, while real GDP is reported as a percentage increase from a specific base year. To provide our readers a sense of the difference for 2014, nominal GDP growth for the U.S. was reported as 3.9 percent while real GDP averaged between 2.6-2.9, percent, depending of which cited source, over the past six quarters. For the 2010-2014 recovery period from the severe economic recession, The World Bank reported annual real GDP growth as averaging 2.2 percent annually. This difference is significant when reporting and charting logistics costs as a percentage of GDP.
Lesson in economics aside, we advise readers to pay close attention to specific logistics and transportation cost increases. As an example, total U.S. logistics costs rose by nearly $43 billion in 2014, compared to a $31 billion increase reported for 2013. For the period 2010-2014, U.S. logistics costs have risen 18.2 percent or $223 billion, almost 7 percentage points higher that real GDP growth in that same period. Factor whatever GDP growth number you want but the takeaway message should be one of concern and diligence to the trends of why such increases are occurring.
Other highlights and some observations of the latest 2014 report are noted below.
- Inventory carrying costs in 2014 rose another 2.1 percent, compared to the 2.8 percent increase reported in 2013 and the 4.0 percent increase reported for 2012. Overall business inventories were reported as rising by $52 billion or 2.1 percent in 2014. The second and third quarters were noted as high water marks for 2014 and that obviously reflects the impact of the U.S. west coast port disruption, as industry supply chain teams increased safety stock levels in anticipation of contract labor talks. Manufacturing inventories were reported as down slightly. Interest costs remained well below 1 percent and thus increased costs for taxes, insurance, warehousing, depreciation and obsolescence occurred. The cost of warehousing rose 4.4 percent, reflecting near capacity utilization rates.
- Overall transportation costs were reported as rising 3.6 percent, with the largest component, trucking, up nearly 3.0 percent. The current fragile state of the U.S. trucking industry was again highlighted. The report cites anecdotal evidence indicating that loads are heavier and more trucks are moving near full capacity. Cited are estimates from the American Trucking Association (ATA) estimating the current truck driver shortage as being between 35,000 and 40,000 drivers, which should remain of concern.
- U.S. rail costs were reported as increasing 6.5 percent on top of a similar percentage increase reported for 2013. Total carloads were up 3.9 percent, the highest since 2006 and overall rail traffic was reported as increasing 4.5 percent. The U.S. railroad industry operating remains operating at near capacity, despite the addition of 1300 new or rebuilt locomotives and nearly 4500 new rail cars put into service.
- Costs for water based transportation rose 8.9 percent in 2014, the second highest reported growth sector. U.S. East Coast ports were noted as experiencing the biggest percentage gains in traffic pick-up because of the West Coast port disruption. Another challenge that manifested itself in 2014 was the impact of the larger, mega container ships calling on U.S. ports, and resultant disruptions related to the availability of container truck chassis, along with the time required for unloading and re-loading. One rather important trend noted was that the monthly average number of containers imported from China was more than 10 percent higher than average monthly shipments for the last four years. From our lens, that seems to be a reflection of even more freight being routed by ocean container vs. air. Air freight revenues were reported as declining 1.2 percent with international air freight down 3.6 percent.
- The revenue growth trajectory of U.S. non-asset based services and Third Party Logistics (3PL) providers continued in 2014. Revenues pegged for the third-party logistics (3PL) sector were reported as $157.2 billion, an increase of $10.8 billion or 7.4 percent over 2013. The most lucrative segment of 3PL services remains Domestic Transportation Management which grew an additional 20.5 percent in 2014, on top of the 7.2 percent growth reported for 2013. According to the authors, shippers continue to engage 3PL’s to ensure that they have capacity when required. However, the U.S. 3PL industry is shrinking in numbers as larger players acquire smaller ones. We continue to believe that these trends are troubling and imply additional consolidation and structural change in the months to come. Carriers who own the assets are being economically squeezed and dis-intermediated from shippers, and without assets, transportation as a whole will encounter additional shocks.
The Looking Ahead portion of the 2014 report provides another important takeaway for our readers, one that we have already reinforced in our predictions for this year. The report specifically states:
“The capacity problems that emerged in 2014 will continue to worsen for at least the next two years before they begin to improve.”
The report later summarizes:
“To summarize, most of the problems that the freight logistics industry will face in the next three years will boil down to capacity issues.”
Thus, our 2015 Supply Chain Matters Prediction for a turbulent year in global transportation more likely will take on a multi-year context.
Supply Chain Matters submits that the overall takeaways from the 2014 State of Logistics are once again dependent on the reader frame-of-reference.
If you reside anywhere in the transportation and 3PL logistics sector, your reaction is likely positive. Business is very good indeed. However, that would be in inability to sense a longer-term disturbing trend of pending challenges regarding added investments in capacity and delivery of services. Distribution center operators and real estate interests are included, especially in light of the pending shift of more ocean container traffic in favor of U.S. East Coast ports, as well as the dramatic changes in distribution flow-through and drop-ship footprints required by more online customer fulfillment needs.
If your frame of reference involves a constant diligence for controlling overall transportation procurement, 3PL and supply chain related operating costs, we again submit there are troubling areas that should motivate concern, constant analysis and attention.
Once again we offer the following insights:
- Procurement, supply chain planning, B2B business network and fulfillment teams can no longer assume fixed transport times and logistics costs in fulfillment planning, nor should they assume that contracting all logistics with a third party provider is the singular solution to reducing overall costs. By our view, the “new normal” is reflected in strategies directed at assuring consistency of service, deeper levels of business process collaboration delivered at a competitive cost. The renewed message in the light of 2014 data is to insure that the cost, service and inventory benefits derived by contracting services with respective 3PL’s outweighs the continuing pattern of increasing 3PL services costs. As supply chain processes and risk profiles continue to become more complex, especially in light of the demands of online and Omni-channel fulfillment, 3PL’s will have to invest more in technology and services, adding more motivation to increase fees.
- Approaching transportation spend as the singular dimension of cost reduction remains an unwise move, given the structural and dynamic industry changes that are occurring. There needs to be obvious deeper partnering that includes healthy exchange of expectations and desired outcomes. The data for 2014 indicates that more and more supply chain teams are exercising strategies to assure consistent and reliable transportation capacity and logistics services.
- Similarly, we again encourage S&OP teams to re-double efforts to further analyze and manage overall inventories with a keener eye on the overall stocking point and fulfillment center trade-offs and costs of carrying inventory. Today’s global logistics environment remains dynamic and complex. Decision-making data must reflect this state, along with the assumption that overall logistics costs are trending higher.
- In order to reduce overall cost and asset investments, senior supply chain leaders in certain industries have contracted more and more services to 3PL’s and other service providers. Insure that your teams are continually analyzing cost and benefit tradeoffs. Maintain periodic reviews of costs and benefits on a more frequent basis.
- Both FedEx and UPS initiated dimensional-based pricing on ground shipments effective in 2015, and initial financial results from both of these carriers indicates positive impacts in revenues. This area continue to have an impact on online B2B and B2C fulfillment trends, in particular whether free shipping as a practice remains a viable strategy for certain classifications of products. Be watchful of this area.
- Last year’s Supply Chain Matters commentary reflecting on the State of U.S. Logistics observed that the U.S. economy showed more promising signs of manufacturing growth. The latest report of 2014 activity paints a more cautionary picture regarding manufacturing and logistics growth. The logistics industry must tackle troubling capacity and productivity constraint trends along with their impact on customer costs. There has also been too much of a tendency to maintain fuel surcharges and fees to boost revenue and profitability levels even higher.
We again encourage our readers to share their observations regarding the current state of both U.S. and global logistics, its implication on supply chain objectives and needs.
©2015 The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group LLC and the Supply Chain Matters blog. All rights reserved.