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The previous blog looked at the potential Trump Effect (http://www.dantranscon.com/index.php/blog?view=entry&id=258 ) on Freight Transportation in 2017. This blog will focus on some of the other variables that are likely to shape the freight world in the coming year.

Upswing in Economic Growth

While 2016 was a soft year economically and in terms of freight and freight rate pricing, shippers, carriers, and economists are somewhat more optimistic about the New Year. Interest rates are likely to remain low (although there will likely be some increases in 2017). Household balance sheets are expected to remain in good shape. Employment levels in the U.S. are projected to remain strong. Investment in energy development is likely to increase. Inventory levels are predicted to decrease, driving an increase in manufacturing. Donald Trump has committed to increase the number of jobs in the United States in the coming year. The improving U.S. economy will likely help boost the Canadian economy as well.

Increase in Cost of Diesel Fuel

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This will likely be an eventful year in Freight Transportation. As I look ahead to the coming year, there will be two sets of forces at play. The President-Elect of the United States, Donald Trump, has made some bold promises. This blog will look at the potential impacts of his presidency. The next blog will examine some of the other major forces at play.

Infrastructure

Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly about improving America’s highways, bridges, and airports. The Transportation industry has bemoaned the lack of investment in infrastructure for several years. It is likely that at least some elements of whatever plan President Trump’s team puts forth will receive bi-partisan support from the other branches of government. 

It typically takes time to plan significant infrastructure projects so they reach “shovel ready” status. In addition to improving the nation’s infrastructure, these projects also create jobs, albeit over a specific timeline. Watch for some infrastructure projects to be launched in 2017 with the balance moving forward in the coming years. These projects should be a net positive for the transportation industry. However, keep in mind that some of these projects, such as toll roads, may receive some funding from private industry (if permitted by congress) and may result in higher costs for shippers and transport companies.

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Here are the top stories in freight transportation that caught my attention over the past year.

The Tepid Economy

The North American economies underperformed the global economy and the economies of emerging markets in 2016. Business investment, a key driver of the economy, was down in 2016, driven in large part by the big drop in fortunes of the oil and gas industry. Consumer spending and employment levels remained solid in the United States and somewhat less so in Canada. US manufacturing activity increased.

US imports began an uptick as did US imports of Canadian goods, driven in part by the strong US dollar and drop in the value of the Canadian dollar. Auto manufacturing remained strong in Canada but resource and activity in other sectors remained weak. The strong US dollar depressed export activity. Overall it was a sub-par year for the American and Canadian economies. As a result, demand for over the road truckload, intermodal and LTL service was soft in 2016.

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As we approach 2016, there are a number of forces that are shaping the economics of Freight Transportation. Here are a few to consider.

The US Economy and the US Dollar

The US economy is providing a number of mixed signals in December of 2015. Unemployment is at only five percent. Economic growth, while sluggish, has been able to generate a consistent 200,000 new jobs a month. But some other indices don’t look so good.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) PMI Index of economic activity in the manufacturing sector contracted in November for the first time in 36 months, since November 2012, while the overall economy grew for the 78th consecutive month. The November PMI® registered 48.6 percent, a decrease of 1.5 percentage points from the October reading of 50.1 percent and below the 50 percent mark that signals growth. The New Orders Index registered 48.9 percent, a decrease of 4 percentage points from the reading of 52.9 percent in October. The Production Index registered 49.2 percent, 3.7 percentage points below the October reading of 52.9 percent. Ten out of 18 manufacturing industries reported contraction in November, with lower new orders, production and raw materials inventories accounting for the overall softness in November.

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The past year started with some solid tailwinds as the economies of the United States and Canada appeared to be in a growth mode. Then a number of unexpected events took place that changed the trajectory of the year. Here is our synopsis of the major freight transportation stories of 2015.

The Collapse in Energy Prices

The rout in oil prices began in late 2014 as Saudi Arabia stood firm in its insistence not to cut production quotas. The downturn in China’s economy produced less demand as oil supply remained at pre-downturn levels, a recipe for low oil prices and other challenges throughout the year. This had a huge impact on Canada’s oil sands companies, producing significant layoffs. There were also spillover effects in other energy sectors such as coal mining. The latter experienced very large price drops and decreased shipping volumes.

The steep decline in fuel and oil prices has, in turn, been a boon to freight transportation and logistics services providers primarily in the form of lower operating costs, while at the same time tremendously aiding carriers and providers serving retail-based customers, as lower fuel prices have dramatically impacted the amount of discretionary income consumers have.

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