Cass Information Systems’ (NASDAQ: CASS) August report showed further sequential gains in the freight markets with shipments increasing 8% and expenditures climbing 9.9% from July.
Data for the month echoes other recent bullish trends and commentary from the trucking sector, showing that April was the bottom for volumes with continual improvement in freight demand since. Cass’ expenditures index shows freight payments troughed in May, improving each month after.
“This supports what we have heard from public carriers across all modes, and we believe the trend of ‘better’ has continued here in September. Expect the Cass Index to move back closer to year-ago levels in the coming months, although we think it will stay in negative territory until 2021,” commented the report’s author, Stifel Financial (NYSE: SF) equity research analyst David Ross.
Shipments up in August but still below 2019
The company’s shipment index declined 7.6% year-over-year in August with expenditures down 5.1%. Both indexes are recovering slower than the broader market as intra-quarter updates from truckload (TL) carriers indicate they have more freight than they can handle. Further, most less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers reported a positive year-over-year inflection in tonnage during August, the first since the pandemic began.
The freight data used in the indexes is 75% weighted to TL and LTL.
Outbound tender volumes (SONAR: OTVI.USA) inflected positively year-over-year in mid-May. Many public carriers noted demand being on par or better than 2019 beginning in July.
The shipments index is 19% higher than the April trough and the highest level since November. Ross expects continued sequential improvement for the rest of 2020 as inventories are in need of replenishment. The report called attention to rail shipments, which Ross says have been growing faster than the index.
Container imports in the West and tight truck capacity have resulted in a surge in intermodal traffic in recent weeks. Total intermodal shipments on the railroads were up 3% year-over-year during August, according to the Association of American Railroads. Intermodal volumes are up 7% on average over the last four weeks compared to the year-ago period.
Ross pointed to low consumer confidence and high unemployment as the current headwinds to demand, noting “government stimulus may or may not continue to help.”
Expenditures continue to rise from May trough
The expenditures index continues to see improvement, up 20% since the May bottom and at the highest level since December. The result is even better when considering the index includes fuel surcharges, which remain depressed as diesel prices are off roughly 20% compared to 2019.
Ross said carriers are seeing improving revenue per shipment as truck pricing climbs due to driver and capacity tightness. He doesn’t see any change to the current truck market dynamics in the near term. “We don’t see much capacity entering or returning the rest of the year, so as supply/demand remains tight, expect continued growth in the average freight bill.”
The truckload linehaul index, which measures linehaul rates on a per-mile basis excluding fuel, fell 4.3% year-over-year during August. The index did improve 1.8% from July and provided the highest reading of the year.
“Even as contract rates are only starting to move higher, shippers are having to pay more to get their freight moved, as carriers are turning away load requests with high frequency,” Ross said. “The pricing outlook remains bullish for carriers, as spot rates are tracking much higher y/y (including fuel surcharges) in the dry van, flatbed and reefer markets, with dry van actually above 2018 peak levels.”
The linehaul index has a high correlation with pricing metrics provided by the public TL carriers. As such, Ross sees the August update as “evidence of a turn for the better for asset-based carriers.”
The intermodal price index, which includes fuel surcharges, plummeted 18.9% year-over-year. Changes in intermodal pricing historically lag fluctuations in TL rates, meaning recovery in intermodal rates may be a 2021 event.
“The Cass Freight Index showed accelerated progress in August, and we expect this to continue to improve as we finish the third quarter. Pricing is moving up faster than volumes, and volumes are expected to remain healthy (at/above current levels) for the next few months,” concluded Ross.
The data used in the Cass indexes is derived from freight bills paid by Cass, a provider of payment management solutions, which processes $28 billion in freight payables on behalf of more than 8,000 subscribers annually.