The Atlanta Fed’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council convened in early April in Jacksonville, Florida. Overall, the tone was encouraging compared with last year’s September meeting, when members reported decelerating activity during the summer. This time, a majority reported expanding activity during the fourth quarter and into 2014, despite the impact of unseasonably harsh winter weather. Additionally, the expectation for demand over the short term is for continued growth at a slightly higher pace.
District port contacts were upbeat, citing a rise in energy exports, steel imports, and higher container volumes. Trucking companies reported very strong freight volumes, which appears to them as real demand and not just a rebound from severe winter weather. It is important to note that the industry continues to operate with about 20 percent less capacity than prerecession levels, and capacity constraints are beginning to limit the movement of goods on highways.
Similar to past years, the railroad industry continues to see modest gains in intermodal traffic and shipments of grain and industrial equipment. Construction products were down slightly, along with significant declines in export coal. In air cargo, revenues are reportedly back to 2007 levels, albeit with only slightly higher air freight volumes boosted by international activity and sharp declines in domestic cargo.
Employment and pricing
Council members indicated employment levels remained stable, with no anticipated increase in staffing levels over the short term. In trucking, struggles to find drivers continue, and regulations have eliminated between 2 percent and 4 percent of drivers and have also reduced the number of hours and miles allowed for drivers. Hiring diesel mechanics has also become a challenge.
Besides the trucking industry, which has steadily been increasing driver pay, council members generally reported no significant upward pressure on labor costs, outside of cost increases for health insurance. As a result of capacity constraints, however, trucking companies project carrier rate increases of between 4 percent and 6 percent, on average, in both the near and longer term as supply and demand dictate. These capacity constraints are creating opportunities for rail carriers, who are seeing more pricing power as well.
In terms of growth rates of the value of air cargo, regions that should drive demand for U.S. exports include the Middle East, driven by Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel; Asia (specifically China, Hong Kong, and Singapore); Europe, concentrated in areas in Western and Eastern Europe recovering from or not affected by euro zone issues; and Latin America and the Caribbean (and mostly Brazil). Air trade activity should remain flat.
District ports expect cargo volumes in 2014 to grow by up to 5 percent with strong increases in imports while exports will grow more slowly. Asia will remain a primary market for food exports from the United States, and some regions of Africa (chiefly in the western and southern areas) will be target markets for U.S. exporters as the demand for oil, gas, and food products increases.
Geopolitical concerns present potential downside risks for trade flows, and labor issues at West Coast ports could interrupt trans-Pacific trade. Congested and outdated highways, combined with a shortage of truckers, will eventually hamper the inland movement of goods. For example, the lack of funding for dredging or for antiquated lock systems at District inland ports and seaports could stunt growth.
In the near future
Overall, our Trade and Transportation Advisory Council members were upbeat and see two related tipping points approaching. First, prices are on the verge of increasing more rapidly as businesses are forced to pay more as freight charges, especially for trucking and rail, increase. Second, capacity constraints might suppress growth as demand-side bottlenecks in the movement of goods become more frequent.
By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch