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The past year started with some solid tailwinds as the economies of the United States and Canada appeared to be in a growth mode. Then a number of unexpected events took place that changed the trajectory of the year. Here is our synopsis of the major freight transportation stories of 2015.

The Collapse in Energy Prices

The rout in oil prices began in late 2014 as Saudi Arabia stood firm in its insistence not to cut production quotas. The downturn in China’s economy produced less demand as oil supply remained at pre-downturn levels, a recipe for low oil prices and other challenges throughout the year. This had a huge impact on Canada’s oil sands companies, producing significant layoffs. There were also spillover effects in other energy sectors such as coal mining. The latter experienced very large price drops and decreased shipping volumes.

The steep decline in fuel and oil prices has, in turn, been a boon to freight transportation and logistics services providers primarily in the form of lower operating costs, while at the same time tremendously aiding carriers and providers serving retail-based customers, as lower fuel prices have dramatically impacted the amount of discretionary income consumers have.

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We live in an ever-changing world. Trucking companies come and go. They are being bought, sold, merged, downsized and resized every day. Under new management, a company may flourish or deteriorate. In this era of driver shortages, carriers are being very deliberate about how they allocate their capacity. As they focus on yield management, this precious capacity is being supplied to the carriers' most profitable customers.

In addition, trucking companies are constantly adding and losing business. A trucking firm may add a new account tomorrow at a higher margin than they are receiving from your business. This may cause them to make their capacity more readily available to another client. The bottom line is that it is always prudent to prepare for a “rainy day.” In other words, there is value in having backup carriers for most of your business.

This means that it is critical during the rounds of bidding, to smooth out the variances in rates between your “low bidders” and the others who were on the short list. By doing this, it reduces the cost differential in making a switch for any of a variety of reasons (e.g. poor service, carrier goes out of business, de-markets certain lanes etc.).

It should also be kept in mind that a carrier will not be too motivated to serve your company if they are a backup carrier in name but receive no freight. To achieve success with freight bids, carefully determine your primary and secondary carriers. This should include both asset and non-asset based providers.  While the temptation is there to give all your freight to the low bidder, to maximize savings, this can be a risky strategy. Where possible, select primary and secondary carriers. Give your backup carriers a reasonable volume of freight so as to keep the primary carriers “honest” and to keep all of your transportation providers engaged in serving your company.

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In a recent Stifel report, it was noted that the “mother” of all capacity shortages is expected to hit the United States in 2017 as a series of government regulations reduce the supply of fleet equipment by five to fifteen percent. Despite the efforts of carriers to raise pay, upgrade facilities and improve the lifestyle of drivers, annual turnover stubbornly remains at close to one hundred percent in many fleets. On the rail side, a huge upswing in the movement of energy products by this mode has had a deleterious effect on intermodal capacity and service. Wise shippers realize that trying to secure carriers on the spot market is a risky endeavor since this leaves them open to capacity shortages and rate volatility.

What can your company do to protect itself if there are capacity shortfalls?

Is your company ready for even tighter freight capacity? Will the integrity of your company’s supply chain be maintained in this ever-changing environment? What can your company do to protect itself if there are capacity shortfalls?

1. Bring your top performing carriers under contract

An important first step is to view your major carriers as business partners. As such, it makes good sense to negotiate formal multi-year contracts with capacity commitments and service guarantees. As you engage in these types of discussions, find out how your business fits within the parameters of their operation. Does your freight move on their primary traffic lanes? Do they have head haul or back haul in the reverse direction? Are you a valued customer?

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As I look at the LTL freight transportation today, it is hard to believe that just a few years ago, this was one of the most battered sectors of the freight industry. The LTL freight industry took a tremendous pounding during the Great Recession as business volumes contracted by about twenty-five percent. As operating margins shrunk, LTL carriers closed or consolidated terminals and cut staff in an effort to right size ether businesses. Shippers took advantage of the situation by conducting multiple freight bids to leverage their volumes to extract rate concessions.

Seven years later, the industry has changed dramatically and the pendulum has swung back in the carriers’ favour. As volumes return to pre-recession levels, LTL carriers are finding their networks full of freight. As the North American economy improves, manufacturing is on the rise. The near shoring movement is also bringing some manufacturing jobs back to America. In addition, the driver shortage is making it difficult to find drivers, particularly for long haul truckload routes. A clogged intermodal system is limiting the opportunities to divert over the road truckload freight to the rail system. The net result is that some of this freight is being diverted to large LTL shipments so it can move with an LTL carrier. In other words, this is creating traffic for an already full LTL system.

Unlike the truckload sector where even the largest players control only a small (single digit) percent of the total truckload sector, the LTL industry is highly concentrated among a core group of companies. The top 9 LTL carriers in the United States (e.g. FedEx Freight, Con-way, YRC, UPS Freight, Old Dominion, Estes, USF Holland, Reddaway and New Penn, ABF, R & L Carriers and Saia) control almost seventy percent of the LTL market. In Canada, the major players, TransForce (e.g. TST Overland, Canadian Freightways, Kingsway, QuikX, Quiktrax, Clarke Transport and Vitran), the Day and Ross Group and Manitoulin would also control a major share of the LTL market. With limited capacity and pricing discipline, this gives this group of companies considerable pricing power. With high quality costing models, these companies can now seek meaningful rate increases or de-market poor paying accounts. In other words, the “fun” is back in this business.

To further improve yields, FedEx Freight and UPS Freight are introducing density based or dimensional or cube-based pricing. I wrote about the potential of this trend years ago(http://www.dantranscon.com/images/downloads/mtr%20sep_oct%202009.pdf) and it is finally starting to take hold. Just as airlines charge for “bums in seats” and adjust their plane sizes to each route and the potential passenger traffic, LTL freight carriers are going to become much more diligent about charging shippers for the cubic space occupied on their trailers. Shippers with poor packaging, who don’t nest their products effectively or don’t design their products well or load them smartly, will face a nasty surprise. With so much industry consolidation, it won’t take long before dimensional pricing becomes more standard across the industry.

Another reason why LTL carriers are having more “fun” is in their attitudes toward logistics service providers. A few years ago, 3PLs were viewed as the enemy. They were seen as trying to poach LTL customers and replace their carriers by taking control of the direct customer interface. Times have changed. LTL carriers are increasingly viewing 3PLs as business partners. They are forming alliances with companies that have common objectives and customer profiles so they can collectively bring value to the customer. The large LTL carriers are going a step further by creating their own internal logistics or at least freight brokerage arms.

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Freight rate increases are coming this year. The economy is on the upswing. Truck capacity is tightening as driver shortages, government regulations, cost overruns from a very challenging winter and carrier financial prudence all push freight rates in one direction - - - higher What can shippers do to mitigate the impact? A lot. Here is my list.

1. Capture your Freight Costs

Take a look at your freight costs and compare them to prior years. Look for opportunities to fix negative trends (e.g. lack of discipline in moving less than optimum size shipments, too much expedited or air freight etc.) that may have arisen.

2. Benchmark your Freight Costs

Obtain rate quotes from carriers that serve your traffic lanes. Compare their rates to yours. If your company ships high volumes, consider obtaining a benchmark freight rate service on at least your major lanes of traffic. The study will at least tell you if your company is paying market rates or higher and identify carriers that provide the same service at lower rates. There are also companies that provide an ongoing fee-based benchmarking service.

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As the year 2013 winds down, it is time to reflect on the major transportation trends of the past year.  While I saw and read about a wide range of developments, these are the ones that resonated most with me.

1.Technology Comes to Freight Transportation

Last year I predicted that we would see a flurry of new technologies come to freight transportation.  They did and I wrote about some of these new companies on several occasions during the year.  Technology was successfully applied to the freight brokerage business, freight portals, LTL density calculations and to other segments of the industry.  Buytruckload.com, PostBidShip, Freightopolis, QuoteMyTruckload,  and Freightsnap were featured in various blogs during the year.  They are changing the way business is done in freight transportation.  Watch for more of these companies to surface in 2014.

2013 has been called the Year of the Network by numerous supply chain and transportation industry thought leaders.  Companies that built a successful supply chain trading partner network focused on three elements:

Connectivity— unite disparate systems and trading partners

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At the end of each year, I like to take stock of the major freight transportation stories of the past twelve months and look ahead to the trends that will drive the industry in the coming year.  The two blogs that I write are prepared from my perspective as a consultant to shippers and carriers.

This year I would like to hear from you.  Those of you who follow this blog observe trends in your segment of the industry.  Please take a minute to share them with me.  Please post them on this blog or send a private e mail to dan@dantranscon.com

Please feel free to select any major trend or trends that are having or will have a major impact on our industry, whether regulatory, economic, technological, demographic, consumer behavior, environmental, modal shifts or business strategy.

To broaden the range of inputs and perspectives, I will also post this request on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.  In the coming weeks I will be preparing my two lists.  The lists will include a blend of my observations and yours.  Look for these two blogs in mid-December.  Thank you to those of you who take the time to share your observations with me.

 

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Last week the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals released its 24th annual State of Logistics Report. Last year, business logistics costs were once again 8.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the same level they hit in 2011, the new report says. That means freight logistics was growing at about the same rate as the GDP. Inventory carrying costs and transportation costs rose "quite modestly" in 2012, said the report's author Rosalyn Wilson. Year-over-year, inventory carrying costs (interest, taxes/obsolescence/depreciation/insurance, and warehousing) increased 4% y/y as inventory levels climbed to a new peak. Meanwhile, transportation costs were up 3% y/y predominantly from an increase of 2.9% in overall truck transportation costs.

This "new normal" is characterized by slow growth (GDP growth of 2.5% to 4.0%), higher unemployment, slower job creation (which will primarily be filled by part-time workers due to higher healthcare costs), increased productivity of the current workforce from investment in machinery/technology (and not human capital), and a less reliable or predictable freight service (as volumes rise but capacity does not increase fast enough to meet demand). Wilson noted that slow growth and lackluster job creation has caused the global economy to wallow in mixed levels of recovery. "This month will mark the fourth year of recovery after the Great Recession, and you're probably thinking that here has not been much to celebrate," said Wilson. "Is it time to ask, 'Is this the new normal?'"

For logisticians, the "new normal" means less predictable and less reliable freight services as volumes rise but capacity does not. In areas such as ocean transport, Wilson said, this can mean slower transit times. "I do believe the economy and logistics sector will slowly regain sustainable momentum, but that we'll still experience unevenness in growth rates," Wilson predicted.

For cutting-edge logistics managers, however, the current environment also means great opportunities to secure increasingly tight capacity in an era of shrewd rate bargaining. This is partly because the trucking industry, in particular, is facing a lid on capacity because of higher qualifications for drivers while top carriers are becoming increasingly selective in their choice of customers and in the allocation of their assets.

"Truck capacity is still walking a fine line—few shortages, but industry-high utilization rates," Wilson explained. Truckload capacity continues to remain stagnant (with the majority of new equipment orders for replacement or dedicated fleets and the copious amount of truckload capacity sapping regulations coming down the pipeline) and the assumption that freight demand will continue to modestly increase (as the economy continues to muddle along at low single digit GDP growth in combination with population growth), a less predictable and less reliable freight market is developing (as described in the "new normal").

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Freight Transportation Adjusts to a Resetting World Economy

The year 2011 was another momentous one that was shaped by events on all continents of the world.  Uprisings in the Middle East and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gadhafi, the European debt crisis, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and the premature passing of Steve Jobs were just a few of the signature events of another action-packed year. 

Closer to home, the three countries in North America all faced significant challenges.  The powerful drug cartels in Mexico are threatening its very existence as a democracy as the country gears up for elections in 2012.  The untimely death of Jack Layton, the very popular leader of the New Democratic party and the demise of Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party have given Steven Harper a majority government and a free hand at steering the Canadian economy over the next four years.  The U.S. situation is exactly the opposite as Democrats and Republicans cannot reach agreement on almost anything and as a result the country is in gridlock on most economic initiatives to spark its economy. 

Against a background of 8.6 percent unemployment in the U.S., millions more underemployed, one in four homes is worth less than the value of the mortgage, tight credit, anxiety over job security and a possible relapse into another recession, the economy is resetting.  Americans are saving more.  As various generations of families live together to better withstand the current economic uncertainties, home builders are erecting homes with two master bedrooms to address the social consequences of these challenging times.   Smartphones, tablets and the internet are reshaping so many of our day to day activities.  The economies of North America and around the world are being reset by this confluence of forces and by the rise of China and other developing nations around the world.

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On several occasions I have commented in this blog about a looming truck capacity shortage.  A soft North American economy coupled with political uncertainty and concerns about Europe and China, are discouraging carriers from making investments in their fleets.  Truckers are seeking to maximize the utilization of their existing assets and improve yields, particularly with rising equipment costs, increasingly burdensome government regulations, and a shrinking pool of qualified drivers. However, the on demand truckload model creates uncertainty as truckers wait for shippers to book a load and/or to balance a lane.   

Shippers are becoming increasingly concerned about finding the capacity they need to move their freight.  They are also concerned that tight capacity will lead to rising freight costs.   Capacity shortages in various North American markets this year have caused shippers to seek out options to current transportation processes.

A “Mutually Beneficial Antidote” to Securing Capacity and Rate Stability

One solution to these problems is dedicated contract carriage—the practice whereby, as the name implies, a trucker dedicates equipment and drivers to serving an individual shipper, allowing that customer to lock in rates and capacity with that carrier for a multi-year period.  John G. Larkin, lead transport analyst for investment firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., calls dedicated trucking the "mutually beneficial antidote" for carriers that want to get paid for capacity and shippers that want to know it's available.

"Both shippers and carriers are increasingly realizing that dedicated trucking may be just the solution that meets both their needs," Larkin wrote in early October.  He stated that shippers who own and operate private fleets could "see 10-percent savings right off the bat" from switching to dedicated service. That's because specialized operators can usually manage fuel, insurance, maintenance, equipment utilization, and driver schedules more efficiently than a shipper that operates its own trucks can, Larkin notes.  What's more, companies that outsource their fleet needs can free up their balance sheet capacity and reinvest more of their cash into their core business, which is generally not transportation, Larkin says.

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