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America’s Downward Spiral in 2017

Posted by on in NAFTA

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We are now four and a half months into the Trump presidency. While the president has not been able to achieve any significant legislative successes, he has been able to accomplish something much more far-reaching. He has managed to undo decades of American policy and dramatically reduce the country’s stature in the world. How do we make sense of Trump’s strange journey so far? These are my thoughts.

Donald Trump received 62 million votes in last year’s election. These votes did not come from a homogeneous base of voters. Rather, they came from the following groups.

Loyal Republican Voters

There are American citizens who vote for the Republican candidate in every election. While Donald Trump may have not been the preferred candidate for all Republican voters, the people who typically support this party voted predominantly for him. They expect him to uphold traditional Republican party values.

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The previous blog looked at the potential Trump Effect (http://www.dantranscon.com/index.php/blog?view=entry&id=258 ) on Freight Transportation in 2017. This blog will focus on some of the other variables that are likely to shape the freight world in the coming year.

Upswing in Economic Growth

While 2016 was a soft year economically and in terms of freight and freight rate pricing, shippers, carriers, and economists are somewhat more optimistic about the New Year. Interest rates are likely to remain low (although there will likely be some increases in 2017). Household balance sheets are expected to remain in good shape. Employment levels in the U.S. are projected to remain strong. Investment in energy development is likely to increase. Inventory levels are predicted to decrease, driving an increase in manufacturing. Donald Trump has committed to increase the number of jobs in the United States in the coming year. The improving U.S. economy will likely help boost the Canadian economy as well.

Increase in Cost of Diesel Fuel

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This week’s visit to Washington by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his family and his Canadian delegation was certainly one of the high points in U.S. – Canada relations in many years. It brought back memories of President Reagan and PM Mulroney singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in Quebec City many years ago.

Watching the leaders toast each other and seeing some concrete agreements come out of the meetings was certainly a sign that Canada-US relations are back on a positive track. The fact that President Obama hosted a state dinner for Mr. Trudeau, the first state dinner for a Canadian Prime Minister in 19 years, was a very positive indicator that Canada is back in the good graces of its most important ally and trading partner.

Unfortunately for Canada, Barack Obama is in the last year of his presidency. At this point, the presidential race is pretty much down to four candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans. As you listen to and study the rhetoric from these candidates, and sense the mood of the American electorate, there is much to worry about.

The Democrats

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As we approach 2016, there are a number of forces that are shaping the economics of Freight Transportation. Here are a few to consider.

The US Economy and the US Dollar

The US economy is providing a number of mixed signals in December of 2015. Unemployment is at only five percent. Economic growth, while sluggish, has been able to generate a consistent 200,000 new jobs a month. But some other indices don’t look so good.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) PMI Index of economic activity in the manufacturing sector contracted in November for the first time in 36 months, since November 2012, while the overall economy grew for the 78th consecutive month. The November PMI® registered 48.6 percent, a decrease of 1.5 percentage points from the October reading of 50.1 percent and below the 50 percent mark that signals growth. The New Orders Index registered 48.9 percent, a decrease of 4 percentage points from the reading of 52.9 percent in October. The Production Index registered 49.2 percent, 3.7 percentage points below the October reading of 52.9 percent. Ten out of 18 manufacturing industries reported contraction in November, with lower new orders, production and raw materials inventories accounting for the overall softness in November.

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A sold out crowd attended the 2014 Surface Transportation Summit at the Mississauga Convention Centre on October 15. This year’s conference had 30 speakers and panelists and two networking tracks. While I was not able to attend all of the tracks, here are some of my key takeaways from this year’s sessions on Trends in the Economy and Trucking.

The 2015 Economic Outlook track featured a leading economist and transportation equity analyst along with two trucking company executives. Despite the recent turbulence in the stock market, Carlos Gomes, Senior Economist with the Bank of Nova Scotia, highlighted that the US economy is trending positively and expects this momentum will carry into 2015. Mr. Gomes stated that U.S. and Canadian household balance sheets are in their best shape in some time as interest rates remain low and energy prices have trended lower. In terms of economic activity, orders for manufactured goods in the U.S. have picked up and the number of backlog orders is at the highest level in years.

In addition, annual automobile sales are above 16 million units and will likely remain at elevated levels due to the average age of cars in the U.S. and Canada. Exports are also trending upwards in Canada and should be sustained by the low Canadian dollar and the fact that the U.S. remains Canada’s largest trading partner. This combination of variables suggests that Canada will benefit from the strong relationship with the United States. Mr. Gomes expects GDP growth in Canada of 3.5% this year and 4% next year.

David Newman Equity Research Analyst, Cormark Securities, noted that regulatory changes in the U.S. and driver shortages are leading to pricing improvements in the trucking and rail sectors. These shortages are pushing spot and contract rates upward. Looking at the PMI (Purchasing Manager’s Index) and ISM (Institute of Supply Management) indices, there is momentum in freight volumes. This could support healthy freight activity through the first six months of 2015. Truck orders are back to 2006 levels that reflect the confidence in the economy. Truckload carriers are consolidating with TransForce and Celadon making major acquisitions. Mr. Newman expects more consolidation in the Canadian market but he also expects the truckload division of TransForce to be spun off.

Mark Seymour, President, Kriska Holdings Limited, talked about the “discipline” and technology that Kriska employed to drive improved pricing and profits. This discipline has allowed his company to have a good “run rate” over the past few years. Driver wages and the treatment of drivers are keys to future growth at Kriska. Mark highlighted the requirement for short term (one year) pricing with long term commitments (“annual pricing conversations”).

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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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The economic forecast for this year and for the balance of the decade is rather glum.  Many economists have projected a two percent growth in GDP will become the norm for the next several years.  This scenario is supported by the fact that 24 million Americans are out of work and millions more are underemployed or have given up looking for a job, corporations are reluctant to invest in their businesses until there is a more visible sign that a sustainable recovery is under way and the US government seems incapable of reaching far-ranging agreements on the financial management of the country.  Real gross domestic product -- the output of goods and services produced by labour and property located in the United States -- decreased at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, certainly not a number that would instill confidence that America is turning the corner. Looking at the past several years, it is easy to support the thesis that we should expect to see more of the same in the future.

But America doesn’t seem to be buying into the low growth scenario.  Here is why.

  • The stock market, a leading indicator of economic activity, has almost doubled since March 2009.  Investors poured $11 billion into U.S. equities in the first two weeks of 2013, the biggest gain since 2000.  The market is telling us that there are better days ahead.
  • Over the next 5 to 7 years, America is expected to achieve energy independence and will no longer be dependent on foreign energy sources.
  • A strong housing market gained momentum in November, 2012 and is expected to continue through 2013, especially with low mortgage rates, which will keep affordability high, according to the BBVA Compass. The Housing Market Index rose to 46 compared to 41 October, which is the highest level since 2006. The jump is a result of homebuilder’s confidence in the housing market.  New home sales and construction are expected to continue on a strong trend throughout the remainder of the year.
  • A healthier economy and more model introductions should push U.S. auto sales above the 15 million mark this year, predicts the Polk research firm.  Auto sales should continue to lead the country's economic recovery, rising nearly 7 per cent over 2012 to 15.3 million new vehicle registrations.
  • Another tech boom is under way with consumers migrating to tablets, smartphones and social media.  America is strong in these areas and Apple, a key player, has recently signaled that it plans to perform some if its manufacturing in the United States.
  • The United States may be in the early stages of recapturing a significant piece of the manufacturing production that fled to Asia over the previous couple of decades.  This is being driven by three factors.  Wage rates in the U.S. are depressed, while labour costs in China are rising.   The surge in oil prices is making it more expensive to move goods across oceans and the shale gas boom in the U.S. has dramatically lowered the cost of powering a plant.   U.S. productivity rates are among the best in the world.  According to the Boston Consulting Group, the U.S. economy is poised to add between 2.5 million and 5 million jobs over the next decade as result of increased factory production (700,000 to 1.3 million actual factory workers and the rest from supporting services).
  • U.S. employers added 157,000 jobs in January 2013.

Jeffrey Saut, the chief investment strategist at Raymond James, has suggested that if we look at the combined impact of all of these developments, we may be witnessing the early signs of a new long-term bull market.  Time will tell.  Low interest rates will not last forever.

One thing has been strangely missing during the first five weeks of 2013.  While President Obama has been pushing hard for immigration reform and new gun laws, two very important initiatives, he has said very little about any legislation aimed directly at economic growth.  Perhaps we will hear some of his plans during this week’s State of the Union report.  Certainly the President’s leadership in areas such as infrastructure development, education and training (retraining), debt reduction and a sound budget would go a long way towards powering America in this direction.  This was one of the key elements of his election campaign.  Now is the time for the President to step up and lead his country and the free world to a strong and sustained economic recovery.  Based on the trends above, he has the option of being a leader or a follower.  Let’s see which path he chooses to take.

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