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Understanding Intermodal and Truckload Spot Market Pricing

The law of supply and demand controls freight rates fro shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Understanding Intermodal and Truckload Spot Market Pricing

There is so much that goes into today’s freight rates. In addition to all the variables, there are contract and spot rates. This addresses spot rates.

The classic definition of a freight rate is a “price charged by a transportation carrier for moving an item or items from point A to point B. Actual amount charged varies based on weight, commodity, and distance traveled.”

Based on the above definition, one could easily surmise that freight rates would be consistent on a regular and year round basis, but that would be very wrong.

Most, if not all of us, have heard of Adam Smith, often touted as the world’s first free-market capitalist. He is largely credited with defining and creating the laissez-faire philosophy of an “invisible hand” economy, namely, the law of supply and demand. The law of supply and demand is an economic theory that prices are determined by the interaction of supply and demand: an increase in supply will lower prices if not accompanied by increased demand, and an increase in demand will raise prices unless accompanied by increased supply. In a competitive market, the unit price for particular goods or services, will vary until it settles at a point where the quantity demanded will equal the quantity supplied, resulting in economic equilibrium for price and quantity transacted.

So how does this relate to rates and pricing in the transportation business?

For the last several years, I have been working on the trucking side of the intermodal industry—the drayage side. The drayage business is every bit as competitive as the 3PL side of the business with one notable difference: consistency of rates. For the most part, drayage rates have been fairly predictable and stable. It’s an extremely competitive market and as such, the law of supply and demand is strictly adhered to and one will very seldom see there are wild swings in the rates, either up or down.

This is due to the amount of drayage service providers in the marketplace and the competition for existing business. As a consequence, customers know what the rates are today and pretty much what the rates will be 90 days or so down the road. It offers and affords some sense of economic stability and the opportunity to realistically budget for their drayage spend, not to mention that the drayage carriers are also better positioned to plan and budget for their fiscal year. In this instance rates have settled at the point where the quantity demanded equals the supply which has resulted in economic equilibrium – true Nirvana!

Moving on to spot rates. Spot rates are defined as the price quoted for immediate settlement on a commodity, or in our case a service. The spot rate is based on the value of an asset—in this case, equipment—at the moment of the quote. This value is thus based on how much buyers—purchasers of transportation services—are willing to pay and how much the sellers—owners of the equipment—are willing to accept, which depends on factors such as current market value and expected market value.

As a result, spot rates change frequently and sometimes dramatically. The changing prices become a source of frustration in the full truckload and intermodal industry, as shippers feel very little control in their process as their budgetary prices and available capacity is thrown out the door.

As the intermodal marketing company in the middle of the transaction, I have had difficulty myself in getting my head around the fact that a rate I quoted from Point A to Point B today, may very well be a much different rate (sometimes dramatically) tomorrow. Fewer pieces of equipment with excess demand equals a higher rate and conversely excess equipment with lower demand equals a lower rate, and, as I have discovered, the fluctuation in equipment can happen within days or even hours of an initial rate quotation. A vexing situation indeed and seemingly out of our control.

So, with all the above in mind, is there a way to add some consistency and control regarding pricing and rates in the transportation and intermodal industry? Can we actually break the law of supply and demand in order to make our professional lives more uniform and steady? I submit to you that the answer to the first question is, “Yes, we can,” and that the answer to the second question is, “No, we can’t.”

Here is how we do it. We can’t necessarily break the law, but what we can do is to use it to our advantage. The supplier of equipment is subject to the same dynamics that we’re subject to, namely supply and demand. If we can offer the supplier a consistent demand and offer a fair market rate that can be agreed upon for a specific length of time, then we have come a long way towards regular and stable rates which makes it easier to budget for. It can become a near perfect situation—the supplier is happy as he knows what revenue his equipment is generating for a specified time frame, and the shipper is happy because they now have a known and consistent rate. Slowly but surely I am getting my head around the spot rate situation and I am certainly learning how to live with it. I sincerely hope that we all are, as it is a fact we all must deal with.

Vince Castagno is client solutions manager at Integrated Distribution Services.

A Brexit recession could slow shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Brexit, Stage Right: The Effects on the Transportation Industry

Under normal circumstances I very seldom concern myself with things that happen across the pond in Europe or even in Great Britain. However, what transpired on June 23, 2016 cannot in any way, shape, or form be considered normal circumstances.

On that day Britain voted to extricate themselves from the European Union, and in doing so, may have they set off a global firestorm. Before I highlight the possible Brexit consequences, allow me to identify the two major arguments that were critical for the initial creation of the European Union in the first place.

It was an agreement that was designed and implemented that created a single borderless market among its members in Europe and the United Kingdom.

It is also an agreement that creates a single currency among 19 of its members. (The United Kingdom and eight other EU members did not joint the eurozone.)

So what are the consequences and immediate effects of Brexit? To get a handle on this let’s first take a look-see at what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted at their last meeting, which took place on June 1 of this year. Note that this was a mere three weeks before Brexit became a reality, a reality that must now be dealt with.

So, their crystal ball predicted the following: that the global economy would grow at three-percent clip, that the UK would grow at a 1.7-percent rate, and that the remaining EU countries (using the euro currency) would grow at an even lower rate of 1.6 percent. Whatever the long-term consequences of Brexit may be the immediate effects of Brexit have been adverse, at least in the short term.

An initial downturn in the European stock markets has harmed consumer spending. Multinational companies are taking a delayed approach to new investment opportunities as they analyze whether or not the UK remains a viable export/import partner because of Brexit. Multinational banks are also re-evaluating their London operations, which has become Europe’s financial center. Several banks and lending institutions have already announced that they may be shifting future expansion to cities other than London, and indeed, there have been reports that some companies have announced plans to shut down London operations. This leads to employment reductions, higher unemployment, etc.

And our friends and economists at Morgan Stanley are “pessimistic about the immediate outlook.” Brexit will “likely trigger a downturn, if not a recession, in Europe,” they write.

Concerns about the euro breakup could possibly cause financial conditions to tighten which could lead to higher interest rates and to slower than predicted growth.

With this as a backdrop, what will Brexit might mean for the transportation industry in the United States? Economists argue that the United States will not be able to escape the negative fallout from Brexit. They believe that the most likely scenario would be a sort of double whammy of export/import ramifications, and not in a good way. If because of Brexit, Europe finds itself in recession mode, experts believe that it would weaken as an export market. As the Brexit recession continues to manifest itself, it would stand to reason that there would be a reduction in demand for imported goods from the United States. As a consequence to this, our country would realize a decrease in imports from Europe as well as decreased exports to Europe as demand will be repressed due to the Brexit recession. If this occurs, it will most definitely have a negative impact on our transportation industry, both the international market, and the domestic market as well.

Not to be all doom and gloom, Neal Shearing of the Capital Economics consulting firm did observe that there were no signs of panic capital outflows from emerging markets. As he stated, “Following the initial shock of the Brexit vote, financial markets in (emerging markets) are starting to stabilize.” A very good sign indeed.

There are two main risks from Brexit for U.S. transportation market, according to a report from FTR Transportation Intelligence. “First, Brexit increases the risk of a recession in Europe above the worrying 50-percent probability. A European recession is worth about -1-percent growth in the U.S. economy through a variety of levers. Since the forecast for GDP growth this year is only 1.8 percent, Brexit could lower that growth by more than half.

“We know from history that GDP growth below one percent causes a shrinkage of truck freight,” the report went one to say.

The second risk is that Brexit could kick off a banking crisis in Europe that would increase interest rates in the U.S. “That would clearly push us into a sharp recession with truck freight shrinking by five percent or more,” said the report. “Some economists put the chance of recession in the U.S. over the next 12 months at 35 percent. Brexit clearly ups that to near 50 percent.”

Vince Castagno is client solutions manager at Integrated Distribution Services.

Companies should consider intermodal as part of their distribution of shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Declare Your Transportation Independence!

Over the past several months, we have been bombarded day in and day out with political news, events, and even non-events related to the upcoming presidential election taking place this coming November. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you find yourself, I would submit that we can agree on one thing, and that is that the federal government continues to add rules, regulations and new requirements on the transportation industry.

While these rules, regulations and mandates, (RRM’s) etc. are not inherently bad or evil, the cumulative effect of these government dictates by faceless, unelected bureaucrats has often times led to decreased profitability, increased costs and decreased efficiencies in the transportation industry. While their intentions should never be disparaged or necessarily ridiculed, the continued flow of new requirements, regulations, and whatever else, will continue to add costs not only to the trucking industry, but also to the cost of shipping goods from one point to another. And will also increase the landed per unit cost of your garden variety type widget.

So, as a division of the U. S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulates nearly ALL aspects of the trucking industry. For example, truck drivers are limited by the number of daily and weekly hours they can drive, and even the roads and highways they may drive upon. It is of paramount importance that collectively we know and understand the following standards and regulatory changes currently taking place in our industry. Below are but a few of the new requirements that have either been implemented this year or are due to be implemented in the very near future.

Compliance, Safety and Accounting Initiative (CSA). This initiative was designed to reduce accidents and risk throughout the industry, however the actual rules of CSA vary quite a bit and manipulation of these rules does indeed take place. Despite this, the FMCSA is set to continue using these rules and possibly even expanding them. While the goal is lofty, implementation and utilization of the rules needs to be consistent with fewer loopholes which can be exploited for unfair advantage.

Hours-of-Service (HOS). This will continue to be a focal point during the balance of this year and beyond. In a nutshell, drivers will be required to include at least two, four-hour breaks in a 34-hour restart period. It has been speculated that this requirement could lead to a growing driver shortage, affecting primarily over the road drivers and over the road trucking companies along with the shippers that rely primarily on an over the road distribution model.

Electronic Logging Devices (ELD’s). This mandate, when fully implemented will have a bifurcated purpose; to reduce driver fatigue and workload concurrently. Drivers no longer have to take the time or worry about documenting their hours of service manually, since it is done electronically. From a personal perspective I can attest that ELD implementation is easier said than done, especially when trying to program the device with the Hours of Service requirements so that the ELD properly identifies and keeps track of the correct hours based on the HOS regulation.

Driver Coercion. Traditional methods of operation in the transportation and logistics industry have focused on departure to delivery times, driver anti-coercion measures will make it risky, if not illegal, to require drivers to deliver a given shipment within a specific time frame. Imposition of such on drivers could lead to penalties and monetary fines.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards. The EPA will continue to monitor and recommend changes to the emission standards of commercial vehicles. Their excuse/reason for this apparent overreach of power is to force standards on commercial vehicles which are supposed to be designed for better operating efficiency which will lower the cost of fuel.

So, what can we make of all this? If you recall, last month we identified five major points that are extremely relevant to the transportation industry this year. If you analyze the five (and only the five that I identified above) government mandates for this year and for the near future, the following begins to make more sense.

Bankruptcies doubled in Q1 2016 as compared to Q1 last year. These bankruptcies took 3500 tractor-trailers out of the market. Expect more bankruptcies as the second half of the year unfolds.

And finally, expect to find a disturbing trend of a decrease in new tractor orders along with cancellations of existing tractor orders. Along with this we are finding that there are fewer new trailers and containers being manufactured as well.

I know that I probably sound like a broken record (do they still make those these days?) regarding the need for implementing a “Balanced Transportation Program.” But with increased regulations continuing to squeeze the trucking industry, over-the-road capacity will soon begin to tighten and the pool of qualified over-the-road truck drivers will also begin to decrease. There couldn’t be a better time to begin looking at diversifying an over-the-road distribution program to one that includes intermodal options as well.

The continued threat of additional rules and regulations is always just around the corner, and these dynamics will more than likely continue to add cost and inefficiency to an already capacity constrained segment of the industry. Being aware, and cognizant, of what is currently transpiring in the transportation market is one aspect of what is needed in order to make the right adjustments for you and your company. Another aspect is of course working with knowledgeable and trusted partners that can offer ideas and solutions that will work best for you and for your customer’s needs.

Vince Castagno is client solutions manager at Integrated Distribution Services.