Bracing for a transportation recession

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Airlines are expecting their worst year since 2014, the auto industry has laid off more people than it has in a decade and manufacturing is starting to contract across the globe.

Why it matters: Transportation can be a doubly important signal about the health of the economy. More planes, ships and trains transporting cargo mean companies are selling products and business is growing. More passengers on planes, trains and ships also means more people feel economically confident to travel.

Why you'll hear about this again: While economists are increasingly warning of a recession in 2020, the global slowdown in transportation and trade is upon the world right now.

What's happening: Freight and passenger transportation is slowing across the board.

  • Orders for consumer goods-hauling Class-8 trucks last month fell 52% year over year to the lowest since April 2016 when the industry went through a transportation recession. It was also the 4th consecutive month orders were below the 20,000 mark.
  • Dry van truckload spot rates fell nearly 19% year-over-year in April, and more than twice the historical average month-over-month, the latest ACT Freight Forecast showed.
  • The Cass Freight Index for shipments dropped 3.2% in April, the 5th straight month in negative territory.

The big picture: Air cargo shipments also are solidly negative. April was the first month in which every region on Earth, without exception, showed lower outgoing and incoming changes in weight, year over year, according to cargo market database WorldACD.

  • Worse, every region saw reduced demand from an unimpressive first quarter.

What they're saying:

  • "We are still facing considerable uncertainties," Søren Skou, CEO of Maersk, the world's largest container shipping company, said in May, noting "the risk from trade tensions."
  • "The business environment for airlines has deteriorated with rising fuel prices and a substantial weakening of world trade," the International Air Transport Association said in a release Sunday announcing a downgrade of its 2019 outlook for the global air transport industry.
  • "The environment is really uncertain," Allison Landry, a transportation analyst with Credit Suisse AG, told WSJ. "The common phrases I hear over and over were, 'We're going to wait and see what happens' and 'I hope we don't talk ourselves into a recession.'"

What to watch: The probability of an economic downturn in 2020 is at least 40% due to a falloff in auto sales, an increase in unsold inventory and weakness in government spending, Noel Perry, principal and economist for Transport Futures, told a transportation industry conference in April.

Go deeper: The yield curve inversion is beginning to look a lot like 2006

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