U.S. carriers report poor end to 2019

by Michelle Chapman And David Koenig THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

For major freight carriers dealing with trade wars and slowing global growth, conditions appear to have deteriorated for some as 2019 came to a close.

Expeditors International said Friday that it expects fourth quarter operating income to fall between US$177 million and $183 million.

CEO Jeffrey Musser cited trade disputes and slowing growth for a number of economies. The report comes a day after the railroad CSX reported a seven percent decline in the freight it hauled during the final months of the year.

“We’ve seen impacts throughout the year from these market conditions, but the pace at which these changes occurred accelerated dramatically in the fourth quarter,” Musser said. “We know this environment will change over time, as it always has in the past.”

Shares of Expeditors International of Washington Inc., based in Seattle, slumped almost five percent.

Bruce Chan, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, said ocean-borne volumes and shipping rates have been weak for most of the past year but don’t appear to be getting dramatically worse now.

The drop-off at Expeditors may be isolated, Chan said.

“It’s a soft market and it has been, but I haven’t seen any major negative inflection” on volumes or rates for shipping and airfreight, Chan said. “What’s going on here is mostly related to how the company planned or budgeted for the fourth-quarter market environment and may have made a miscalculation” on how much capacity to lock down.

But there are signs that transportation companies are struggling.

The freight and logistics group contained some of the worst performers across the market in trading Friday. Shares in trucking, railroad and ocean shipping companies sold off.

Expeditors competitor, Danish freight forwarder DSV, fell less than one percent. CH Robinson, a trucking company that has an ocean-shipping division, slid almost three percent.

JB Hunt Transport Services Inc., a trucking company, on Friday reported profits that fell well short of what industry analysts had expected, according to a survey by Zacks Investment Research. Shares in that company are down 3.5 percent.

FedEx reported last month that its profit slid 40 percent, hurt by higher costs, a shorter holiday season and its move to cut ties with Amazon.com. It too, cut its profit expectations.

The Cass Freight Shipments Index report, which monitors truck shipments in North America, showed shipments dropping 6.4 percent in December, and 7.9 percent from the same period the previous year.

“Both the shipments and expenditures components of the Cass Freight Index marked their lowest reading of 2019 and took another step backwards in terms of year-over-year growth,” wrote David G. Ross, also with Stifel.

“There is lots of hope in the stock market and the freight market for a better 2020, but the trends have yet to turn. Maybe with the January index readings? Doubtful, as the index (both shipments and expenditures) normally falls off sequentially from December to January.”

The trade war between the U.S. and China has taken a toll. Government data showed Friday that China’s economy grew by 6.1 percent last year, down from 6.6 percent in 2018, and a multi-decade low. The Trump administration has agreed to cancel planned tariff hikes on additional Chinese imports as part of an interim deal announced this week, and Beijing promised to buy more American farm goods.

Factories have seen less activity in the current economic environment, meaning that they have pulled back on shipments.

The Institute for Supply Management reported this month that its manufacturing index dropped to 47.2 in December, from 48.1 in November. That’s the lowest level in more than a decade.

UPS reports fourth quarter and full-year results at the end of the month. Its shares have been falling over the past month, and are down in Friday trading.