Tuesday, March 28, 2006

U.S. trucking industry reports reduced shipments for first time in five months

U.S. trucking industry shipments declined in February for the first time in five months, a trade group said Tuesday.

The American Trucking Associations said in a monthly report that its seasonally adjusted truck tonnage index fell by 2.5 percent in February versus the previous month.

Also on Tuesday, shares of trucker Marten Transport Ltd. of Mondovi, Wis., plummeted 15 percent after the company said it expects to earn between 19 cents and 22 cents a share in the first quarter, below the forecast of 25 cents per share by analysts polled by Thomson Financial. The company, which earned 22 cents per share in the year-ago period, blamed "a slowdown in customer demand compared to expectations, particularly late in the quarter."

Because more than two-thirds of all manufactured and retail goods in the U.S. are carried by truck, the industry is considered an important economic bellwether.

The Alexandria, Va.-based trucking group said its tonnage index stood at 115.1 in February, the lowest level since September and 0.2 percent below year ago levels. The index, which stood at 100 in 2000, measures the weight of freight hauled by U.S. truckers, based on surveys from its membership.

"We continue to believe that motor carriers should expect modest growth in volumes going forward and that the latest decrease should not alarm the industry," Bob Costello, the association's chief economist, said in a prepared statement.

Last Wednesday, trucking company YRC Worldwide Inc. of Overland, Kan., reduced its first-quarter earnings expectations, saying smaller volumes and cost overruns were crimping its bottom line. The company said it anticipates earnings of 65 cents to 70 cents per share, instead of previous estimates calling for $1 to $1.05 per share.

YRC's CEO Bill Zollars explained last week that "some of our large retail customers have made significant inventory adjustments in the quarter, which have impacted our business levels."

On Tuesday, shares of YRC fell 57 cents, or 1.5 percent, to end at $37.41 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, at the bottom of its 52-week range. Marten Transport's Nasdaq-traded shares fell $3.43, to close at $19.90, still near the top of its 52-week trading range.

Shares of trucking concern CNF Inc. slid $1.45, or 2.8 percent, to end at $51.09, in the middle of its 52-week trading range on the New York Stock Exchange.

Truckers have seen their fuel costs surge in the past few years, though unlike airlines they have been able to pass most of those extra expenses through to customers.

In an interview, Costello said of industrywide conditions: "Essentially what I'm hearing from members is that it's not gangbusters, and it's not real bad. It sort of fits with the rest of the economy."

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