This week was quiet in terms of economic indicators. Wholesale inventories held steady versus sales. Exports and imports of goods rose modestly. Mortgage rates barely changed. Diesel prices rose for a second straight week, which had not happened since September.
International trade in goods
Inflation-adjusted U.S. exports and imports of goods increased m/m in December and were up y/y.
Real exports of goods rose 3.7% for the strongest m/m gain since July 2022. Automotive vehicles and parts as well as – to a much less degree – capital goods declined, but all other major commodity categories rose m/m. The strongest increase was in industrial supplies at an 8.7% increase. Real exports were up 3.1% y/y.
Real imports of goods increased 1.8%, led by consumer goods at a 5.5% increase. Imports of vehicles and capital goods declined. Real imports were up 1.3% y/y.
Wholesale inventories and sales
In December, inventories for merchant wholesalers increased for the first time since November 2022, but an increase in sales meant that inventories relative to sales were basically unchanged. Wholesale inventories moved up 0.4% m/m, seasonally adjusted, after falling by the same degree in November.
Although inventories have been flat m/m a couple of times during the period, they had not risen since the 0.6% increase in November 2022, which had ended 29 straight months of inventory gains. However, the Census Bureau data is not adjusted for pricing, so a considerable portion of the increases during that period were due to inflation.
Sales in the wholesale sector increased 0.7%, seasonally adjusted, after holding barely below flat in the previous month. Sales were much stronger a few months ago, but that was almost totally a function of rising fuel prices. In the latest month, however, sales increased despite a 1.8% decrease in petroleum products, which was the second largest category of non-durable wholesale goods in December based on sales volume.
Total wholesale sales were up 1.6% y/y in December while total wholesale inventories were down 2.7%. Sales of both durable and non-durable goods were up 1.6% y/y. Inventories of durable goods were up 1.0% while inventories of non-durable goods were down 8.4%.
Broker-posted spot rates in the Truckstop system declined for all equipment types during the week ended February 2 (week 5) as dry van and refrigerated rates have fallen back to about where they were during the week before Christmas. Flatbed rates fell for the first time in five weeks.
Total spot rates have fallen in three of the year’s five weeks, but they were still less negative y/y than they were during any week between mid-August 2022 and the third week of this year.
The total broker-posted rate declined more than 4 cents after decreasing just under 4 cents in the prior week. Rates were about 6% below the same 2023 week and about 4% below the five-year average.
Dry van spot rates declined nearly 5 cents and were down more than 1% from the same 2023 week. Refrigerated spot rates fell more than 12 cents and were nearly 3% below the same 2023 week. Flatbed spot rates decreased 3.5 cents and were nearly 8% below the same 2023 week.
Total load activity declined 5.7% after easing more than 2% during the previous week. Total volume was down nearly 10% compared to the same 2023 week and about 30% below the five-year average.
For more on week 5 spot metrics for truck freight, visit https://freight.ftrintel.com/spotmarketinsights.
North American rail carload and intermodal saw both sequential and y/y gains in the latest week, although comparisons with the same 2023 week in many cases were bolstered by weak performance last year.
Intermodal added to the volume surge that occurred following the weather impact in the third week of the year. Intermodal loadings were up more than 15% compared to the same week last year and were significantly above the five-year average.
Total rail carload and economically sensitive carloadings moved higher week-over-week, and both were nearly 5% higher than the same 2023 week.
Through the first five weeks of 2024, North American intermodal traffic is up 4.1% y/y while rail carload volume is down 6.4%. The only two carload commodity groups posting positive y/y volume through five weeks are chemicals and petroleum/petroleum products.