Danger Around the Bend

Danger Around the Bend

Some analysts are upgrading truckload stocks, and transport analysts warn that sometime next year there may be such a colossal squeeze on trucking capacity that some freight may not be able to move, period, irrespective of price. Their actions aren’t based on anticipated freight volumes. They fear the mother of all driver shortages looms.

Put aside 9.5 percent unemployment that’s likely to remain high for some time, that consumers may take a long-term hiatus from spending, and that base truckload commodities such as paper products are in a systemic decline because of the rise of e-commerce. In the face of a slew of federal and state regulations and a trucking industry whose professional ranks have been so decimated by the recession that it may not be able to recruit new drivers at a rate necessary to meet demand, red flags for shippers are flapping in the wind.

“During the downturn, you had a significant amount of capacity leaving the trucking industry, particularly on the truckload side. At the same time, you had motor carriers who were struggling to survive, taking a hatchet to all of their fixed costs . . . and among those were recruiting and training departments,” said Larry Gross, senior consultant with research analyst FTR Associates, noting driver turnover can run as high as 100 percent.

“Now we’re in a scenario where capacity has been cut pretty significantly, and even though the recovery is quite modest, you are starting to bump into a constraint on the availability of existing experienced drivers. So then there is a need to recruit new drivers, but before you can recruit the drivers, you have to hire the driver hirers, so to speak,” Gross said. “And the truckers are not eager to add that fixed cost back until they are quite secure in the durability of this recovery.”

The recession-driven tight capacity in trucking and the potential driver shortage could push trucking capacity into a full-blown crisis next year. Shippers would be hit with higher costs, and there would be a further shift to intermodal and less-than-truckload transport.

The CSA 2010 regulations, which score drivers in several areas of safety, such as moving violations, accidents, DWI and the working order of trucks, will certainly have an effect on driver numbers. The question is, how much impact would the regulations have?

Add to this the possibility of a change in hours-of-service rules, possibly reducing the current 11 hours of driving time per 24-hour period to 10 or less if the Teamsters union gets its way. Reductions in hours on the road are intended to have a positive safety effect, but it would be another hit on driver productivity and, thus, systemwide capacity.

“The big unknown is the potential change in hours of service, where current rumor has everybody expecting a reduction,” Gross said.

Other regulatory moves also could figure in. Legislation in Congress would mandate onboard trip recorders to eliminate falsified paper logs, ensuring compliance with hours-of-service limits that some claim to be widely ignored.

“Those three steps alone (CSA 2010, hours of service and onboard recorders) could take 10 percent of capacity away, on top of the 20 percent lost during the downturn,” said John Larkin, managing director and transportation analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.

Other legislative changes also could impact driver rolls, including whether states will continue to issue commercial licenses to non-citizens or decide to use hair samples to achieve more accurate drug testing.

In early September, Larkin upgraded several truckload stocks, including Werner Enterprises, Celadon Group, Landstar System, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Hub Group. “It is a longer term upgrade based on this severe capacity crisis that could hit in the second quarter of 2011 and beyond,” he said.

The potential capacity shortage provides a powerful talking point for truckers seeking higher rates in 2011 negotiations.

“It seems that truck contractual pricing is finally rising in 2010 because of a combination of an improved economy and less truck supply. At this point, we believe shippers are already budgeting for truckload increases in 2011, and rates for the large truckload carriers should be up at least 2 to 3 percent in 2011, even in a weakened economy,” said Edward M. Wolfe, founder of transport research firm Wolfe Trahan & Co.

He believes any severe driver shortage won’t hit until 2012 because of a continuing weak economy.

Others believe the storm will come sooner. “We had thought it would hit right now, but the soft patch moved the day of reckoning out,” Gross said. “But we think it’s still out there.”

Peter Tirschwell is senior vice president for strategy at UBM Global Trade. Contact him at ptirschwell@joc.com and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PeterTirschwell.