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Industry Analysis: Trucking
The Trucking Industry is a cyclical sector comprised of companies that provide shipping services, using tractor-trailers, to customers, which are usually commercial businesses. Most trucking outfits own and operate the vehicles in their fleets, though some do rely on leasing. The vast majority of revenue is generated domestically, since overseas shipments require either air- or sea-based transportation. Thus, these companies have little exposure to foreign currency fluctuations. The industry tends to be a leading indicator for the overall economy. During the early stages of an economic upswing, customers begin to ship more goods in anticipation of stronger business conditions. Conversely, a decrease in trucking demand may signal the beginning of an economic slump.
The Operating Basics
This industry is competitive. Customers have numerous operators to choose from, including privately held carriers and companies outside the industry, such as air-transporters. As a result, day-to-day operations tend to be relationship-oriented. Companies strive to build close ties with customers in order to generate repeat business. Providing excellent service is a necessity, since customers can easily find an alternative shipper. Price competition is fierce, and the companies in this group generally operate with narrow margins.
To adequately serve the needs of its customers, a trucking company has to have a large collection of tractors and trailers, often numbering in the thousands. Furthermore, the fleet has to be upgraded often (every five years for tractors). Frequent upgrades help to keep maintenance expense in check, since older vehicles require more upkeep. Also, a young fleet may attract better-qualified drivers, especially when the supply of labor is thin. Too, increasingly stringent U.S. environmental standards compel trucking companies to purchase newer, more-efficient vehicles. Fleet sizes are also often adjusted in accordance with the prevailing economic situation. During downturns, truckers will decrease the number of vehicles in operation to avoid holding excess capacity. When the supply of tractors exceeds demand, this results in less revenue generated per vehicle and other inefficiencies.
There are two primary segments within the Trucking Industry: truckload and less-than-truckload (LTL). Truckload carriers fill a trailer with large amounts of cargo from one customer, usually with a single destination in mind. LTL operators fill a trailer with small amounts of cargo from several different customers, requiring various delivery destinations. Goods shipped via LTL carriers may stop at numerous terminals and be transferred between several different vehicles before reaching the final destination. Truckload freight, on the other hand, usually remains in the same vehicle along the entire shipping route. Both types of trucking companies maintain a network of terminals and distribution centers across the country.
The industry is affected by seasonal factors. Generally, all trucking companies enjoy increased demand in the calendar fourth quarter, when retailers stock their shelves for the major holiday shopping season. In the middle of the year, LTL companies may experience high demand, relative to that of truckload operators, since there is less need to transport large amounts of homogenous freight. During the first quarter, business is usually slack for both truckload and LTL carriers – a good circumstance, since this period typically involves weather-related disruptions.
There are several important expenses that affect the profitability of trucking companies. Labor costs have a considerable impact on earnings. Trucking companies require a deep roster of qualified drivers and freight handlers. The supply of available drivers often tends to be slim, resulting in intense competition for qualified talent. Companies need to offer competitive wages and benefits to attract the best employees. Some trucking outfits employ workers that belong to powerful labor unions. These employees possess strong negotiating leverage, and the possibility of labor strife is a risk. Nonunion workers offer lower labor costs, but they might not be as dependable. Other significant labor-related costs include pension expense and workers’ compensation.
Fuel is one other expense that must be managed carefully. Lengthy trips, heavy loads and large engines keep tractor-trailer fuel consumption high. Most of the cost of diesel fuel is passed on to customers through surcharges. But, if fuel prices rise quickly, there may be a lag in recouping all of the related outlays, thus hurting a trucker’s short-term profitability. Most companies prefer to rely on surcharges rather than long-term fuel-contract hedging.
Operating expansion and fleet improvement may be financed with cash flow, common equity and/or debt, depending on the cost of each source. At times, a heavy debt burden might be assumed in the completion of a merger that may offer greater market coverage. Generally, these companies possess average stock market risk. Over a business cycle, cash reserves can build, and barring any pressing needs for capital investment, these companies will reward investors with a big one-time dividend or stock buybacks. For the most part, though, managements are more interested in building stockholder value via operating network enhancements and expansion.
This industry is best suited to nimble investors, able to discern market bottoms and peaks. At the bottom of the business cycle, truckers’ price-earnings ratios will reach historic highs because of sharply lower share earnings. Those buying at the bottom often enjoy price gains during long, multiyear recoveries. It’s true that most of these equities pay dividends, but the average yield is below that of all dividend-paying stocks reviewed by Value Line. Conservative income-oriented investors would do better elsewhere.
At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.