John Manners-Bell MSc FCILT, CEO of Transport Intelligence, recently spoke at the Motor Transport Directors’ Club lunch at Multimodal 2013, regarding the state of Europe’s road freight industry. In his speech he described the growth of the market and developments and trends such as company bankruptcies and the rising cost of diesel, before reaching some interesting conclusions.
Below is a transcription of the speech John Manners-Bell gave at Multimodal 2013:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to have been invited here to speak on the state of Europe’s road freight industry. I worked for more than 10 years managing a small family freight company and therefore I have a very good idea of the problems and challenges faced by independent operators. At the other end of the scale, I also worked for several years for UPS Logistics Group, which gave me a very different, ‘big company’ perspective.
However big or small, the industry faces some major challenges: congestion, competition, the increasing burden of bureaucracy and a government which has many other priorities. I know this from the time I advised the UK shadow ministerial team on road freight policy, and the great difficulty we had in getting these issues onto the political agenda.
Today, I want to provide an independent analysis of how the sector is performing – and the main drivers of the industry.
Firstly, I’m going to talk about the market growth in terms of revenues and some of the reasons behind the growth; secondly, I want to talk a little about profit margins and what drives them; and thirdly, I’m going to take on the thorny subject of company bankruptcies and the rising cost of diesel, with some conclusions which may surprise you.
How have companies performed?
Firstly, let’s look at how the major European operators performed in terms of revenues. After a stronger 2011, revenue growth came right down in 2012.
If I had been standing here a year ago, I would have characterised the industry as being split between a stronger Northern Europe and a weak Southern Europe. However, in the past few months the economic contagion of Spain, Italy and Greece has spread. Now all the major road freight companies are complaining about difficult markets, including those in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe – previously the growth powerhouses of the industry. Here’s a snapshot of the majors’ company results.
Kuehne + Nagel
Looking at the sector as a whole, if we adjust for inflation, average revenues are where they were in 2007. We are also hearing reports of low and unpredictable consumer demand which may be affecting inventory policy. If so, this would represent a major cause of volatility in the road freight market.
Now you might expect with a flat-lining market, that rates would have been stagnant as well. However, this is not the case. Using a Road Freight Price Index which we at Ti have developed in conjunction with Freightex, it can be seen that European road freight rates have now surpassed the peak seen in 2008, just prior to the first recession.
It may be slightly surprising given that we are now in the second stage of the double-dip recession that rates have not shown renewed weakness. We’ll come onto the reasons for this shortly.
What drives profit margins?
Let’s now turn our attention to the health of the industry and by that I mean its profitability. We’ve been tracking profit margins over the last ten years. For most of that time, they have remained around the 3.5% mark, although they dropped down markedly in the financial crisis of 2008-9 to about 2.5%. So the question that must be asked is ‘what drives profit margins?’
This is an area in which we have done a substantial amount of work. For a start – and perhaps very surprisingly – we found that margins were not particularly influenced by the price of fuel.
It is generally assumed that rising fuel costs are not helpful for road freight operators, as they find it difficult to pass these charges on to customers. Generally the increases are handled better by the larger players, many of whom have agreements in place which result in surcharges being passed on directly. Smaller players either do not have these mechanisms in place or do not have the bargaining power to increase their rates in line with fuel pump costs.
One way in which it is possible to test how well the market as a whole is able to pass on fuel cost increases to their customers is by examining the correlation between fuel costs and rates. If rates rise in line with changes in the price of diesel, it could be concluded that freight operators are successfully passing on these costs to their customers. In fact, from the high correlation (0.85) this does indeed seem to be the case.
This is not to say that freight operators do not bear pain. There are significant cash flow implications (especially for medium-sized or small players) which have to outlay significant sums of money up-front for diesel oil. The greater proportion of their cost base which fuel makes up, the larger the problem, as it can take up to 90 days for a haulier to re-coup from customers the amounts paid out.
Stronger link between margins and sales volume growth
So if profits are not materially impacted by rising fuel costs, what are they affected by? Rather than just looking at input costs, we ran a correlation between volumes and margins, using as our proxy retail sales volume growth. The correlation in this case was much higher than between margins and fuel, suggesting that the most important factor for freight transport companies is freight throughput.
Freight operators are able to make money once a ‘break-even’ point has been reached on each vehicle or on a network. This break even factor is of course influenced by input costs and freight rates. Our research seems to show that operators are good at managing the break-even point by passing on increasing costs (or at least a proportion of them) to customers through higher rates.
However, they are less able to control volumes, especially when the industry is impacted by wider economic crisis. This seems to be the major reason behind fluctuations in profit margins.
Let’s now turn our attention to company failures and we can see a complicated picture emerging. As we have seen, an endemic lack of profitability characterises the European haulage industry. The logical conclusion of this is that there is a high probability of companies going out of business when faced by any economic headwind. After all, from the operating profit, the company has to pay:
If all the fleet is on operating leases and there are no assets this might be sustainable, but on most models a 3.5% margin would not be enough to sustain an asset based trucking business in the long term.
Now anecdotal evidence suggests that, at the bottom of the market – if you can call it that – there is a continual churn of self-employed owner-drivers who work for and are, in some cases, ‘burnt out’ by larger companies.
These owner-drivers have very little idea of depreciating their assets, in order to be able to replace them at the end of their life. In fact, the market is so competitive that even if they did, there is little likelihood that they could work beyond hand-to-mouth.
It is very difficult to measure company births and deaths in the market at this level; we have to rely on what we are hearing. However, for larger companies, we are able to measure what is happening as we are able to use government statistics. And here, again perhaps surprisingly, there is a very different story. Company failures are at a five year low, after reaching a peak back in 2008. So why the difference between what is happening at the top and bottom end of the market?
No evidence of link between fuel and company failures
Now you might expect the rising cost of fuel to be a major causal factor in company failures. The rising cost of fuel is one of the biggest political issues which transport operators and governments face. In the UK, it was the reason for a wave of fuel strikes in the early 2000s, with operators making the point that increases in the oil price through market forces and taxation were driving companies out of the market.
However, in actual fact there seems to be little evidence for this. Using official company failure statistics and a diesel pump price index, there does not seem to be a link between fuel costs and company failures.
A strong positive correlation would have been expected if indeed the price of oil was a major factor in transport company bankruptcies; that is to say an increase of diesel would be expected to result in an increase in company failures. So again, if not the cost of fuel, what does influence whether a company goes bust or not?
Company failures and interest rates
Having lived through the early 1990s recession, when interest rates spiralled to the mid-teens, and having seen the catastrophic impact that that could have on over-leveraged companies, we decided to test out any potential link between interest rates and company failures.
Of course, many road freight operators are highly leveraged, leasing road transport assets or borrowing finance to buy them outright. Hence, they are exposed to fluctuations in interest rates. Having run the figures, this resulted in strong positive correlation– suggesting that a rise in interest rates does indeed result in higher company failures. A low interest rate environment may well be one of the key reasons why company failures are around half of what they were four years ago.
Freight volumes and company failures
Rather than solely concentrate on the link between cost pressures and company failures, we also tested the relationship between fluctuating freight volumes and bankruptcies using retail sales as our proxy indicator. The logic of this was that the higher the throughput of goods through retail outlets the greater demand for freight transport throughout the entire supply chain as goods are replenished. This tested overwhelmingly positive and the conclusion of this evidence is that road freight transport company health can be directly linked to volumes.
Although the economy has been stagnant, retail sales have continued to grow, and hence freight operators have seen low levels of failure. They have coped with higher oil prices by passing these on through higher rates and a low interest rate environment has proved benign.
Looking forward, when economic activity picks up, we can see a scenario when interest rates may well rise to control inflationary pressures (such as created by quantitative easing). If this impacts on shoppers’ spend, this could create a hostile environment for freight operators i.e. falling volumes and increasing cost of finance.
A ‘catastrophic rate of failure’ amongst smaller providers was not reached in the last downturn. However, this is not to say that economic conditions could not create the environment in which this meltdown could take place.
Thank you very much for your attention.
For more information on the European road freight market or if you would like Ti to undertake bespoke research in the sector, contact Ti’s Consultancy team: [email protected]. Alternatively, you can purchase Ti’s market report, European Road Freight Transport 2012, for just £1,095 online by clicking the report title.
About the Speaker
John Manners-Bell MSc FCILT is the CEO of Transport Intelligence. John started his working life as an operations manager in a freight forwarding and road haulage company based in the UK. Prior to establishing Transport Intelligence, he worked as an analyst in consultancies specialising in international trade, transport and logistics. He also spent a number of years as European marketing manager for UPS Supply Chain Solutions working at locations across Europe including France, Netherlands and Germany.He holds an MSc in Transport Planning and Management from University of Westminster and is an Associate of King’s College London. He is a Fellow of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport and a Member of the Logistics Global Advisory Council of the World Economic Forum.