Truck stocks signal economic growth

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Companies that act as brokers for trucking services are gaining favor with investors as the 20-month-old rebound shifts into a new phase that’s less dependent on inventory restocking.

The so-called asset-lite truckers such as Roadrunner Transportation Systems Inc. and C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. lease vehicles for businesses that need to ship goods, so they have more cost flexibility than companies that own and operate most of their trucks. Shares of these brokers have risen 6.9 percent since July 30, 2010, compared with a 1.5 percent decline for operators including Indianapolis-based Celadon Group Inc., according to two new Bloomberg indexes.

“We are way past the early cycle rally,” and now see “sustainable elements to the recovery,” said Benjamin Hartford, transportation analyst at Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co., who co-wrote Baird’s 2011 freight-outlook report. As the rebound matures, investors will find “greater resiliency” in companies with flexible costs.

Trucking demand varies with the economy, accounting for 71 percent of the value of U.S. goods shipped in 2007, according to the most recent data from the Department of Transportation.

The Baird report shows the recovery spanning 26 months so far, based on the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index, which hit a recession low in December 2008. That’s more than halfway through an average of 40 months, which the current expansion may exceed, Hartford said. The recession that ended in June 2009 was the longest since the 43-month slump during the Great Depression, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The U.S. economy likely will expand at a 3.2 percent rate this year, according to the median estimate of 63 economists surveyed in February by Bloomberg News, with exports and business spending on equipment and software poised to generate most of the growth, said Joseph Carson, director of economic research at AllianceBernstein LP in New York.

When the rebound began in the third quarter of 2009, growth was driven by government spending, along with companies that were building stockpiles and needed truckers to move their products. This made the operators more appealing to investors because their profits rise more quickly in this stage of recovery.

“I tend to favor the asset-based guys” early in the cycle, because they “are able to get rate increases as well as higher volumes,” said Kevin Sterling, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in Richmond, Va.

Celadon’s stock more than tripled to $14.79 at the end of last year from $4.47 on March 9, 2009, as the operator reported net income of $2.86 million in the quarter ended Dec. 31, compared with a loss of $2.08 million in the January-March 2009 period.

Freight volumes peaked in September and have dropped 10 percent since then, as measured by the Cass Freight Shipments Index. Momentum for Celadon stock has slowed as well; it has fallen 2.6 percent since the end of December.

The Bloomberg U.S. Truckload Trucking Index tracks the performance of Celadon, Werner and seven other operators. The Bloomberg U.S. Non-Asset Based Trucking Index tracks Roadrunner, C.H. Robinson and six other brokers. The two indexes show that shares of the operators rose 25 percent between May 30, 2008, and July 31, 2010, compared with a 16 percent decline for the brokers.

The asset-heavy companies also outperformed in 2001 and 2002, coming out of the recession that ended in November 2001. As the recovery matured, the asset-lite truckers outperformed from 2003 to early 2008.

When freight volumes started to cool off in 2007, Roadrunner responded quickly to protect profits, adopting cuts that slashed its vehicle-leasing costs by 17 percent over two years.

“The advantage we have is we don’t run empty miles,” said Peter Armbruster, chief financial officer of the Cudahy, Wis., company. If customers “go from needing to do eight trips instead of 10 between our Milwaukee terminal and southern California, we just do eight. It is more efficient.”

Inventory building aided economic growth for five consecutive quarters through the third period of 2010, when it contributed 1.61 percent to the 2.6 percent gain. When companies stopped adding to their stockpiles in the fourth quarter, the reduction subtracted 3.7 percent from growth, the most since the first quarter of 1988.

John Wiehoff, chief executive officer for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson, said the broker’s lower-cost model allows it to adjust expenditures rapidly in response to demand.

“We’re very proud that we were able to manage through the recession with an earnings increase in each of the past two years,” he said on a Feb. 1 conference call with investors. “We think that’s a pretty visible statement about our business model.”

Brokers like C.H. Robinson “have higher returns, very little debt and a lot of cash on the balance sheet,” along with “more financial flexibility” and fewer capital-expenditure requirements, according to Sterling, who said BB&T Capital Markets is recommending investors purchase the Minnesota company and Roadrunner.

C.H. Robinson announced in December a 16 percent increase in its cash dividend to 29 cents a share. It had $398.6 million in cash at year-end, compared with $11.1 million for Celadon.

“The asset-lite guys can act countercyclically,” said Peter Nesvold, managing director and senior equity research analyst in New York at Jefferies & Co. “As fundamentals start to improve, we have a long way we can ride.”


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. These liberals are out of control. They want to drive our economy into the ground and double and triple our electric bills. Sierra Club, stay out of Indy!

  2. These activist liberal judges have gotten out of control. Thankfully we have a sensible supreme court that overturns their absurd rulings!

  3. Maybe they shouldn't be throwing money at the IRL or whatever they call it now. Probably should save that money for actual operations.

  4. For you central Indiana folks that don't know what a good pizza is, Aurelio's will take care of that. There are some good pizza places in central Indiana but nothing like this!!!

  5. I am troubled with this whole string of comments as I am not sure anyone pointed out that many of the "high paying" positions have been eliminated identified by asterisks as of fiscal year 2012. That indicates to me that the hospitals are making responsible yet difficult decisions and eliminating heavy paying positions. To make this more problematic, we have created a society of "entitlement" where individuals believe they should receive free services at no cost to them. I have yet to get a house repair done at no cost nor have I taken my car that is out of warranty for repair for free repair expecting the government to pay for it even though it is the second largest investment one makes in their life besides purchasing a home. Yet, we continue to hear verbal and aggressive abuse from the consumer who expects free services and have to reward them as a result of HCAHPS surveys which we have no influence over as it is 3rd party required by CMS. Peel the onion and get to the root of the problem...you will find that society has created the problem and our current political landscape and not the people who were fortunate to lead healthcare in the right direction before becoming distorted. As a side note, I had a friend sit in an ED in Canada for nearly two days prior to being evaluated and then finally...3 months later got a CT of the head. You pay for what you get...