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June 12, 2018 9:45 AM, EDT

Industry Experts: Trucking Booms, but Keep an Eye on Trade Policy

Economic trends Veith (left), Costello and Delco discuss economic trends. (Burney Simpson/Transport Topics)

The economy and trucking are in good shape for the second half of this year despite issues including the driver shortage. But uncertain trade policy is having an impact on future expansion, according to three industry experts who spoke June 7 at American Trucking Associations’ 2018 National Accounting & Finance Council annual conference in Raleigh, N.C.

The panel Economic Trends in Trucking Amidst Policy Changes featured Brad Delco, managing director of investment firm Stephens Inc., and Kenny Vieth, president of industry analyst ACT Research Co. It was moderated by ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello.

Summer is here and the overall economy is strong with three important forces doing well simultaneously, reported Costello. First, the consumer is at work with an unemployment rate at 3.8%.

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“We have more job openings than people looking for work. This year wages could go up 3.5%. There is fast growth and that brings spending,” Costello said.

Then there’s a busy construction industry and factory output possibly growing 3% this year, Costello said.

Specific to trucking, business is growing as “more firms are going to two-day delivery. Inventory is cycled through faster at warehouses, but at the same time they have to have inventory on hand to be delivered,” Costello said.

Another positive is the sales and orders for trucks, Vieth said. “The technology in the new trucks is changing. Automated manual transmissions are huge, the safety technology is becoming a must have, the driver-assist technology such as lane departure, automatic braking, anti-rollover, all of this is wanted now,” Vieth said.

So, Costello asked, what challenges face the industry?

“The only constraint on this industry is a lack of drivers,” Delco said. And many carriers are addressing that by raising compensation to recruit and retain drivers.

RELATED: KLLM announces another pay increase for drivers

The major problem at the moment is uncertainty on U.S. trade policy and the threat of tariffs, Vieth said. Tariffs typically lead to higher prices for steel and other commodities needed to build equipment.

“Policy is not clear. Then we’ve got events like Italy possibly leaving the European Union,” Vieth said. “Is that much ado about nothing? What happens to the EU when you consider Italy is the seventh largest economy in the world?”

Delco believes the economy will slow in 2019. He argues the long bull market in stocks appears to have hit its peak as trading whipsaws up and down. Meanwhile, policy announcements from the White House give investors pause.

“The stock cycle is long in the tooth, there’s greater volatility, the uncertainty is greater and people may pull back capital,” Delco said.

And it’s not clear why the United States is placing tariffs on allies such as Canada and Mexico, especially since it has trade surpluses in key commodities with these countries, Costello said. The renegotiation of the NAFTA trade agreement has become contentious and any deal, if it happens, won’t be signed until 2019.

“NAFTA is very important to trucking,” Costello said. “There are 50,000 full-time trucking jobs needed to support NAFTA, including 31,000 drivers. It means $6.6 billion annually to the trucking industry.”

In sum, trucks this summer have a full load and a relatively open road but be prepared next year for some congestion.

The NAFC conference was held in conjunction with ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council Fleet Data Management & Cybersecurity Conference at the Marriott City Center in Raleigh.