Global freight traffic flows are recovering. U.S. and German manufacturers surveyed in late August reported a ‘jump’ in export orders, “Container traffic is approaching the level reached before the corona crisis”. In the U.S. seasonally adjusted imports (inbound TEU’s) are up significantly on the West Coast, and Domestic North American Intermodal container volumes have fully recovered to pre-pandemic volumes*.  The purchasing manager’s index rose to 54.2 in July from 52.6 in the previous month (which was above expectations of 53.6, and its highest reading since March 2019).  Economically sensitive Rail carload freight (excluding Ag/Petro/Coal) has improved but is expected to be down for the balance of 2020.  

First it was tariffs and trade tensions that impacted freight traffic.  Then the coronavirus lockdowns disrupted domestic and international supply chains.  During the second quarter of 2020, the World’s largest economies experienced the deepest contraction in six decades (record keeping began in 1960).  The previous largest drop in a single quarter had been -2.9% in the first quarter of 2009.  The pandemic exposed the strategic vulnerabilities of reliance on China as a sole source, low cost supplier.  Unnoticed until now China managed to capitalize on our appetite for access to their markets.  It has been a one-way street as China is now ‘adjusting’ their export of pharmaceuticals, laser technology, cryptography, and artificial intelligence, given the ‘rapid development’ of China’s ‘industrial competitiveness’.  National security concerns will impact future trade volumes as the world’s two largest economies drift apart.

Hope for a rapid vaccine deployment is keeping the Dow Jones Transportation Average near a record.  But weakening passenger demand in the US domestic aviation market and continued restrictions on international travel weigh heavily on airline recovery efforts.  The proportion of the global passenger jet fleet in storage has remained at approximately 33% with fewer than 30% of narrow bodies inactive versus more than 40% of widebodies.  This reflects the proportionally higher passenger demand for domestic and intra-regional travel compared with international long haul.  The most popular aircraft in the U.S. fleet remains the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus’ A320/321 (the MAX is now expected to return to service in early 2021). 

The Conference Board’s July economic indicators, both leading and coincident, are pointing to a recovery.  Economists expect a strong rebound in the Third Quarter.  But as long as the pandemic lingers, the economic shock across the aviation and rail equipment leasing sectors will continue.  As the recovery unfolds the big picture question will be how will existing aviation and rail equipment capacity (and supply chains) be efficiently managed while we wait for demand to fully recover?  Despite low interest rates and fiscal stimulus, low utilization of existing fleet assets is likely to continue through 2021.  Demand remains uneven.  A third of the railcar fleet is in storage, railcar lessors are reporting pricing pressure on lease rates, aircraft manufacturers face order deferrals, and aviation lessors are faced with widespread restructuring challenges.  We are better than before,but not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.  The present requires the ability to identify investment opportunities that perform in this uncertain environment.  It’s time to prepare for the rebound.  Call RESIDCO.

Making Sense of What the Economy and Freight Markets are Telling Us, August 27, 2020, FTR + Midwest Association of Rail Shippers.

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