Recession Warning: Freight Volumes Negative YoY for 11th Straight Month

-edited

The Cass Freight Index once again warns again of economic contraction.

Donald Broughton, founder of Broughton Capital and author the Cass Freight Index says the index signals contraction, possibly by the end of the year.

That's just one one month away.

Six Key Points

  1. With the –5.9% decline in October, following the string of declines in May through September (ranging from -3.0% to -6.0%), we repeat our message from the previous five months: the shipments index has gone from “warning of a potential slowdown” to “signaling an economic contraction.”
  2. We acknowledge that: all of these negative percentages were against tough comparisons (some extremely tough), and the Cass Shipments Index has gone negative before without being followed by a negative GDP. However, demand is weaker across almost all modes of transportation, both domestically and internationally.
  3. Several key modes, and key segments of modes, are suffering material increases in the rates of decline, signaling the contraction is getting worse********.**
  4. We know that freight flows are a leading indicator, so by definition there is a lag between what they are predicting and when the outcome is reported. Nevertheless, we see a growing risk that GDP will go negative by year’s end.
  5. The weakness in spot market pricing for many transportation services, especially trucking, along with recent airfreight and railroad volume trends, heightens our concerns about the economy. Weakness in commodity prices, and the ongoing decline in interest rates, have all joined the chorus of signals calling for an economic contraction.
  6. The Index on a 2-year percentage change basis went negative (-0.1%). This suggests that the great surge of 2018, or ‘Trump bump’ as it was characterized by many, has now been completely erased at least from a freight flow perspective, as measured by the volume of freight bills paid by Cass.

Storm Clouds

  • With China, the world’s second largest economy (even though the latest headlines and tweets keep suggesting there will be a resolution). Tariffs have throttled export volumes in many areas of the U.S. economy, most notably agriculture exports and other select raw materials. We maintain hope that there will be a resolution; that there will be a trade deal because both China and the U.S. have to reach one. But the Asian airfreight volumes continue to suggest a growing risk that one or more of the Asian economies (China, South Korea, Singapore) is already sliding into recession. The current civil unrest in Hong Kong only increases the risk of an economic contraction and is consistent with the popular reaction of citizens who are more challenged/not as prosperous as is commonly believed.
  • With Mexico. The threat of tariffs, and then the recension, sent shock waves through many supply chains. Border transit times going Northbound and Southbound have gone from less than 30 minutes to more than two days in some cases. Even before the tweets about tariffs, border inspections had become increasingly more stringent. Mexico is our third biggest trading partner, and over 80% of their exports are to the U.S. Disruptions in trade between our countries are harmful to our economy and capable of producing a recession in Mexico. Risk has gotten worse.
  • Autos and Housing: Consistent with disappointing housing starts (down -1.3% YTD) and lackluster auto sales (down as much as -4.8% in April and -1.6% YTD), spot pricing in transportation has declined dramatically. Especially in trucking, spot pricing has reached levels below contract that will drive weakness in contract pricing and eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, all capital investment other than maintenance cap ex. This puts further downward pressure on growth in coming periods.

Shipments

Eurozone Airfreight

"Airfreight volumes in Europe continue to suggest that the region’s economy continues to cool."

Asia Pacific

Airfreight volumes in Asia suggest that the region is on the verge of, or is already entering, a recession. As we’ve highlighted before, when trade tariffs slow the rate of growth for our global trading partners, it poses a real threat to the U.S. rate of economic growth."

Shanghai

"The inbound volumes for Shanghai plummeted and then stayed weak. This concerns us since it is the inbound shipment of high value/low density parts and pieces that are assembled into the high-value tech devices that are shipped to the rest of the world. Hence, in markets such as Shanghai, the inbound volumes predict the outbound volumes and the strength of the high-tech manufacturing economy."

Cass Shipments vs GDP

"At first glance, the GDP for the 1st through 3rd quarter seems very inconsistent with overall freight volumes. Using the Cass Shipments Index as a predictive proxy, we did not expect the GDP to be as strong as the reported 3.1% in Q1, or 2.0% in Q2, or even 1.9% in Q3. As we have already explained, dissecting the contributing factors explains much of the disparity, and should point out that freight flows are a leading indicator. It often takes two to three quarters for the trends in freight to become reported economic statistics."

"Based on the trend since the beginning of the year, but especially the data over the last six months, the Cass Shipments Index continues to signal that the economy is beginning to contract and that the GDP could go negative, or at least come close to being negative, in Q4’19 and or Q1’20."

Cass vs Jerome Powell's Bernanke Moment (Just Today)

Jerome Powell may have had his "Bernanke Moment" today in Congress.

Powell told Congress "Day of Reckoning" Far Off and "there’s nothing that’s really booming now that would want to bust."

Uh... What about the stock market?

Powell's testimony today sounds exactly like Bernanke's proclamation to Congress right before the Great Recession, "there is no national housing bubble to bust."

Recession Signals

In case you missed it, that is two recession signals today, one from Cass and one from Powell.

Here is a third: Good Reason to Expect Recession: Greenspan Doesn't

Meanwhile, please note, 4th-Quarter GDP Forecasts Off To Weak Start.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

Comments (18)
No. 1-11
Mish
Mish

Editor

I am looking for Bernanke's precise quote. It went something like this: "Frankly, I take exception to your question. I do not believe there is a national housing bubble to burst"

Casual_Observer
Casual_Observer

There wasn't a recession in 2015 or 2016 when Cass went negative nearly for 18 months. There was just meager growth and a slowdown in job growth. This is part of what pushed Trump into office IMO. People just weren't feeling well economically. Only time will tell but we must admit slow growth is possible.

AWC
AWC

Feb 15 2006

"Housing markets are cooling a bit. Our expectation is that the decline in activity or the slowing in activity will be moderate, that house prices will probably continue to rise." Bernanke

Carl_R
Carl_R

I wonder how much freight is moving in small boxes (i.e. amazon), rather than in truckloads being shipped to distributors and retailers? No doubt some, but is it significant?

Mish
Mish

Editor

"There wasn't a recession in 2015 or 2016 when Cass went negative nearly for 18 months."

Yes, but critically Cass did not call for one either!

And It did catch the boom when the slump ended.

Mish
Mish

Editor

Found It - Thanks to Bernie Sanders

CNBC: Tell me, what is the worst-case scenario? We have so many economists coming on our air saying ‘Oh, this is a bubble, and it’s going to burst, and this is going to be a real issue for the economy.’ Some say it could even cause a recession at some point. What is the worst-case scenario if in fact we were to see prices come down substantially across the country?

BERNANKE: Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise. It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis. So, what I think what is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize, might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it’s gonna drive the economy too far from its full employment path, though.

That is much more damning than a simple "We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis."

Realist
Realist

I sense desperation from Mish. He wants a recession so badly, everything he looks at screams “recession” to him. While anything is possible, I still expect slowing growth going forward. A 1% average for the next decade, followed by zero growth on average after that.

A question for you Mish; assuming you are correct, and a recession hits, at what point would you sell your gold and treasuries and reinvest in other areas?

4 Replies

Carl_R
Carl_R

Let's hope your forecast is wrong, as it is by far the gloomiest forecast I have ever seen. Capitalism works when there are periodic recessions that purge out the economic excesses, and then growth resumes. If the economy does indeed stagnate, as you forecast, I don't see how the entire system can't implode, as the hope everyone has for improvement ceases to be possible, and instead attention turns to taking from one another as the only possibility to get ahead.

Realist
Realist

I am neither an optimist, nor a pessimist. Simply a realist.

Just because growth has been the norm for the last few centuries does not means it needs to be the norm going forward. I suspect materialism to be far less important in the coming decades.

I see the beginnings of it already among younger people. They are not as enamoured with things like large houses, expensive cars, and conspicuous consumption. They value experiences more than things.

Perhaps sustainability, and quality of life will take precedence over accumulating things.

Carl_R
Carl_R

Realist, I'm certainly not trying to call you an optimist, nor a pessimist. It is entirely possible that you are correct. I agree that if there are no recessions, economic growth will diminish until it ceases entirely. My point relates to the consequences of such a prediction.

If your prediction happens, the result of a non-growing economy would be falling standards of living, and which would lead to massive social upheaval, and of course, revolution, and a new form of government. We know from history that Democracies (and Republics) always fail and they always end badly, so this isn't surprising. A revolution will happen, sooner or later, but a period of falling standards of living is very likely to make it happen sooner.

Recessions and depressions are painful, and teach us painful lessons, but they drive the excesses out of the system. People with excess debt learn a lesson, as do companies with excess debt. The most efficient producers survive, and prosper, while the least efficient producers fail. In the end, the economy emerges stronger, and emerges prepared for a new leg of growth.

The depression of the 1930s set the stage for the economic prosperity of the 50's and the 60's. The multiple recessions and other economic turmoil of the 70s and early 80s set the stage for the growth and prosperity of the 80s and 90s. The economic struggles of 2008-10 set the stage for our current extended economic expansion. While recessions and depressions may be uncomfortable, so long as we continue to have them, capitalism can continue to thrive, but if we ever manage to prevent them, growth will peter out, and a revolution will follow.

Realist
Realist

Hi Carl. I agree with everything you just said.

Mish
Mish

Editor

I am not "desperate" for anything. What a joke

If and when I think gold is fully valued I will sell, but I do not have price targets.

ZZR600
ZZR600

We can quibble about timing, but aren't we essentially seeing the end of debt led growth that started post the 2008 recession? Global demographics are mostly pointing in a downwards direction, there is only so much debt a person, corporation or country can sustain, so aren't we witnessing the inevitable reversion to the mean? What money has been created is finding a home in financial assets as it can't find productive 'real' investments anymore.

I think the most telling indictment of the world economy is stagnating or dropping oil prices despite the recent attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. If that couldn't put a rocket (pardon the pun!) underneath oil prices, nothing can.

Ivorin
Ivorin

I've recently come across some very astute articles about just how much China was responsible for pulling the world so swiftly upward from the bout of debt deflation in 2008-09.

Essentially China's massive multiyear spending spree, which probably dipped heavily into their well of foreign currency reserves, prevented the storm of deflation from purging the dead wood from the world economies. This has prevented the destruction of many zombie corporations and organizations.

But over the past 6 months or more, China has shown themselves unwilling or unable to continue such aggressive fiscal spending. The subsequent drop in worldwide demand is the main component behind the sudden fall in many leading indicators we're seeing—especially the CEO survey, the number of CEOs jumping ship, and the freight indices.

The US economy and the world in general is a lot like the bus in the film Speed, as someone here recently pointed out: if the bus slows down, the debt bomb explodes!

In my opinion, a painful period of debt deflation is not only inevitable, but also imminent. I expect it to start by mid-2020, if it hasn't already.

The canaries in the coal mine have stopped chirping. Instead they're croaking in alarming numbers!

Flatlaxity
Flatlaxity

I don’t get it…the bulls are saying that the U.S. consumer, who accounts for two-thirds/70% of GDP is doing the heavy lifting, and more than counterbalances the decline in manufacturing and related transportation (re Cass) and commodity industries which account for some 20% of GDP.

Of course the government data supports this belief.

Yet if we look at non-government data, as it relates to major consumer discretionary items, e.g. auto/trucks, motorcycles (Harley Davidson reports), recreational vehicles (RVIA data), boats/yachts (NMMA data), sales and shipments are decreasing this year.

At least a significant part of these consumption decreases should be reflected in government data, but it’s not.

What’s going on?