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The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.



Southeastern Transportation: Tapping the Brakes?


The Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met on October 6 at the Jacksonville Branch to discuss economic conditions in the industry. According to a majority of council members, transportation activity has been affected by slowing of exports resulting from tepid global demand, a stronger dollar, and increased inventory levels. Although the European economy appeared to be doing better, the slowdown in China was having an impact on every key global market.

Council members reported seeing growth in inventory-to-sales, which reduced customers' needs for transportation services, and most members perceived the extra inventory as a result of slower sales rather than from overpurchasing or hedging against future price increases.

Employment and labor markets pose continuing challenges
Finding appropriate labor in logistics at all levels continues to be a challenge. Issues negatively affecting recruiting include failing substance abuse tests, experience and education gaps, and difficulty attracting talented youth into the sector. As these issues continue, domestic trucker and qualified mechanic availability remains a concern.

Costs, prices paint a mixed picture
Driver shortages continued to plague the industry, and persistent increases in driver pay have not alleviated the problem. Demand for talent has been pushing wages up for professional levels as well. However, some reported different types of pressure that are causing turnover and recruitment challenges. For example, younger workers expect flexibility, access to technology, and scheduling autonomy, conditions that are difficult to accommodate in businesses that require a specific work schedule.

Declines in fuel costs were reportedly keeping overall nonlabor costs steady by offsetting increases in other input costs. Increases in insurance premiums and an uptick in equipment costs were examples of upward pressure on costs. Congestion at West Coast ports was cited as a cause for an increase in nonproductive operating costs.

Regarding pricing power, rail continued to see strong pricing power as capacity remains tight across other modes of transportation. For others, the softening of the economy has dampened the ability to raise prices. Therefore, pricing power is limited, and increases engender considerable customer pushback. The majority of council members, however, expect to be able to increase rates one year out and beyond, though opportunities could become limited if the economy does not continue to improve and fuel prices do not rebound.

International trade plays a regional role
The appreciation of the dollar has continued to exert downward pressure on exports. The economic slowdown in China, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America (specifically, the recession in Brazil and ongoing economic turmoil in Venezuela) is substantially affecting air trade. However, these markets have not had a material impact on some transportation businesses such as rail since exports' direct exposure to the Chinese economy is limited.

Over the horizon...
Although the overall message from this council meeting was one of decelerating activity, the majority of council members anticipate the same level of growth during the next three to six months, and they expect the same or higher level of activity during the next two to three years.

Topping the list of challenges for the industry down the road are the lack of drivers, finding and retaining quality/qualified labor, and a tighter regulatory environment, which may exacerbate the driver shortage in the coming years. Council members said long-term strategic planning and capital investments in ports and highway infrastructure will be necessary to continue to meet demand.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

November 19, 2015 in Employment, Florida, Southeast, Trade, Transportation | Permalink


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Trials and Tribulations in Transportation

Members of the Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council convened on April 7 at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch to discuss the Southeast latest developments in this sector.

Just over half of council members reported an expansion of overall activity compared with the same period last year. A few members reported reduced freight activity, citing the primary causes as both a decrease in movement of materials related to oil exploration and the appreciation of the U.S. dollar against the euro. Members noted that severe winter weather affected shipments for railroads and truckers primarily throughout the north and northeast United States, and the West Coast ports situation disrupted supply chains across the country. East Coast port volumes are now over capacity as shippers began diverting cargo away from the West Coast. Council members anticipate that it will be August before the backlog of port cargo will be cleared, a situation that may adversely affect the peak fall shipping season. However, members believed that many of the structural problems of the West Coast ports will remain in place long after the labor situation is resolved.

Employment, wage picture largely mixed
A majority of council members reported that employment levels were flat or slightly higher compared with this time last year, and two-thirds of council members expect higher workforce levels this time next year.

Truck driver shortages remained an almost universal concern for the industry. Technicians (formerly referred to as mechanics) are also in demand and harder to find as new federal emission requirements demand workers with more specialized skills.

Responses regarding wage pressures were mixed. Trucking companies continued to raise driver pay, as finding willing and qualified truck drivers remained difficult. Outside of specific areas of expertise, such as railroad engineers and technicians, employers were easily filling nondriver positions without increasing starting salaries. Logistics firms, however, perceived the labor market as tightening and reported more frequent voluntary turnover with "higher pay" being cited as a reason for leaving. Additionally, candidates were receiving multiple offers and enhanced benefits packages.

Nonlabor input costs and prices
A number of council members reported seeing some upward cost pressures in nonlabor inputs such as commercial insurance, equipment, locomotives and leases, ocean freight rates, and domestic trucking rates. The sharp decline in fuel costs, however, has helped keep overall costs down.

Almost all council members reported better pricing power since the last meeting in October 2014. Members indicated that some customers understand market forces and work to negotiate the best deal possible with their current carrier, but others shop around for the lowest cost. All council members anticipate greater ability to raise prices one year out and beyond, citing constrained capacity and expected higher commodity prices as the principal reasons, along with seeking to recover increased regulatory compliance costs.

International trade rises modestly
Council members with insight into international trade indicated modest growth in imports, related to the strong U.S. dollar against the euro and other foreign currencies and an improved domestic economy. Regions expected to drive demand for U.S. exports are South America and Asia as those economies continue to expand consumer buying power. Near-shoring is expected to become a bigger trend, and the automotive sector's investments in Mexico will drive greater cross-border growth between the United States and Mexico.

Two-thirds of council members expect higher growth in the short term. Over the next two to three years, three-quarters of members expect higher growth. When asked about the most challenging issues facing the transportation sector, responses varied by sub-industry. Driver shortages continued to be the headliner, along with regulatory issues, which continued to drive capacity out of the market and significantly push up operations costs. Broadly, the supply chain has been adversely affected by infrastructure constraints, and this impact could persist: the United States has a great need for well-planned and properly funded hard infrastructure investment in ports and road networks to get goods to market.

The council meets again in October, and SouthPoint will report whether the summer months reflect improving conditions for the movement of goods.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

May 12, 2015 in Florida, Southeast, Trade, Transportation | Permalink


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Southeastern Transportation Continues Rolling

Members of the Atlanta Fed’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met in Atlanta on October 8 to discuss the latest updates on and insights into the industry. Most council members reported expansion continuing into the fourth quarter. Year over year, demand was greater across the majority of industries represented. In rail, shipments of frac sand, which is used in the hydraulic-fracturing process (commonly referred to as fracking) to produce petroleum products such as oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids from rock, and crude oil were up substantially, and intermodal volumes were steadily rising as a result of trucking capacity constraints. Ocean shippers reported a shift in the modes of movement of commodities, which were historically shipped in bulk but are now shipped in containers, causing a shortage of containers for traditional use. Demand in the flatbed trucking market was very strong, with shipments of drywall and bulk cement increasing. Going into the holidays, logistics firms anticipate e-commerce volume to pick up substantially by mid-November.

Reports on current employment levels this year versus last year at this time were mixed. More than half anticipate just slightly higher staffing levels this time next year. Truck driver turnover for the overall industry is quite high. For new drivers, turnover within the first 90 days of employment is very high. Trucking firms reported that only a very small percentage of applicants are hired, as many do not meet driver requirements.

Costs, wages, and prices
Most reported moderate increases in nonlabor input costs. Wages were reported as modestly increasing across most transportation industries with the exception of trucking, where wages continued to increase at a clip of 6 percent to 7 percent annually. Reports on increases in health care premiums for 2015 varied, ranging from less than 1 percent up to 20 percent. Some companies reported anticipated changes to plan structures to mitigate expenses, and others plan to share rate increases with employees. Regarding pricing power, a few reported an ability to raise prices, but others reported significant pushback by clients. Trucking firms plan to continue raising rates amid rising demand, reduced capacity, and continued increases in driver pay.

International trade issues
According to council members, the net impact of the recent strengthening of the dollar had been minimal on international activity when this meeting was held. A slowing trend in world trade was cited by one council member as the biggest factor affecting both imports and exports.

Overall, the sentiment of this group has improved since the last meeting in April, and all council members reported a higher outlook for short- and medium-term growth, with greater confidence in their forecasts. Council members were asked to cite the single most challenging issue facing their industry today. Trucking firms indicated that the lack of truck drivers and increased industry regulations will continue to cause diminished capacity for the foreseeable future. In maritime trade, ongoing ocean carrier consolidations will impact all U.S. container ports and there will be both winners and losers as a result of the carriers’ decisions.

What impact will these challenges have on commerce? The council meets again in April 2015. We’ll watch as conditions play out, and we’ll relay the information here.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

October 27, 2014 in Economic Indicators, Shipping, Southeast, Trade, Transportation | Permalink


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Will 2014 Be a Tipping Point for Logistics?

The Atlanta Fed’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council convened in early April in Jacksonville, Florida. Overall, the tone was encouraging compared with last year’s September meeting, when members reported decelerating activity during the summer. This time, a majority reported expanding activity during the fourth quarter and into 2014, despite the impact of unseasonably harsh winter weather. Additionally, the expectation for demand over the short term is for continued growth at a slightly higher pace.

District port contacts were upbeat, citing a rise in energy exports, steel imports, and higher container volumes. Trucking companies reported very strong freight volumes, which appears to them as real demand and not just a rebound from severe winter weather. It is important to note that the industry continues to operate with about 20 percent less capacity than prerecession levels, and capacity constraints are beginning to limit the movement of goods on highways.

Similar to past years, the railroad industry continues to see modest gains in intermodal traffic and shipments of grain and industrial equipment. Construction products were down slightly, along with significant declines in export coal. In air cargo, revenues are reportedly back to 2007 levels, albeit with only slightly higher air freight volumes boosted by international activity and sharp declines in domestic cargo.

Employment and pricing
Council members indicated employment levels remained stable, with no anticipated increase in staffing levels over the short term. In trucking, struggles to find drivers continue, and regulations have eliminated between 2 percent and 4 percent of drivers and have also reduced the number of hours and miles allowed for drivers. Hiring diesel mechanics has also become a challenge.

Besides the trucking industry, which has steadily been increasing driver pay, council members generally reported no significant upward pressure on labor costs, outside of cost increases for health insurance. As a result of capacity constraints, however, trucking companies project carrier rate increases of between 4 percent and 6 percent, on average, in both the near and longer term as supply and demand dictate. These capacity constraints are creating opportunities for rail carriers, who are seeing more pricing power as well.

International trade
In terms of growth rates of the value of air cargo, regions that should drive demand for U.S. exports include the Middle East, driven by Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel; Asia (specifically China, Hong Kong, and Singapore); Europe, concentrated in areas in Western and Eastern Europe recovering from or not affected by euro zone issues; and Latin America and the Caribbean (and mostly Brazil). Air trade activity should remain flat.

District ports expect cargo volumes in 2014 to grow by up to 5 percent with strong increases in imports while exports will grow more slowly. Asia will remain a primary market for food exports from the United States, and some regions of Africa (chiefly in the western and southern areas) will be target markets for U.S. exporters as the demand for oil, gas, and food products increases.

Geopolitical concerns present potential downside risks for trade flows, and labor issues at West Coast ports could interrupt trans-Pacific trade. Congested and outdated highways, combined with a shortage of truckers, will eventually hamper the inland movement of goods. For example, the lack of funding for dredging or for antiquated lock systems at District inland ports and seaports could stunt growth.

In the near future
Overall, our Trade and Transportation Advisory Council members were upbeat and see two related tipping points approaching. First, prices are on the verge of increasing more rapidly as businesses are forced to pay more as freight charges, especially for trucking and rail, increase. Second, capacity constraints might suppress growth as demand-side bottlenecks in the movement of goods become more frequent.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

May 1, 2014 in Economic conditions, Employment, Exports, International, Logistics, Shipping, Southeast, Trade, Transportation | Permalink


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More on the Sixth District's exposure to Europe

Europe remains in the news as 2012 begins. Developments there continue to influence global financial markets and might be pushing the euro area's economy into recession. Many forecasters have identified contagion from the European financial crisis and recession as a significant risk to U.S. economic growth in 2012.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart noted this in his November 29, 2011, remarks during the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business 2012 Economic Outlook conference:

"My baseline forecast for 2012 builds on the picture I've just painted of the second half of 2011. I'm expecting continued moderate growth, decently behaved inflation, continuing net job creation, but slow progress on unemployment. You will note I used the word ‘baseline.' I need to emphasize that at this juncture I perceive considerable downside risk to this baseline forecast. The most prominent source of risk is Europe. "

Steven B. Kamin, the director of the Division of International Finance at the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, discussed the economic situation in Europe and its impact on the U.S. economy in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives on December 16, 2011:

"Here at home, the financial stresses in Europe are undoubtedly spilling over to the United States by restraining our exports, helping to push down business and consumer confidence, and adding to pressures on U.S. financial markets and institutions."

A few weeks ago, SouthPoint looked at trade connections between Europe and the Southeast, noting that

"While there is concern about the financial impact of instability in Europe, a souring of economic activity across the Atlantic would also affect international trade. In either case, the region is not immune."

We thought we'd dig a little deeper into the issue and look more closely at which parts of the Southeast economy are vulnerable to the crisis in Europe.

Clearly, U.S. companies that depend on sales of their products to the euro area are likely to see the weakening of demand for their Europe-bound products as the euro area's economy contracts and if the euro continues to depreciate. According to the U.S. International Trade Administration, the exposure of Southeast's exporters—as measured by the share of goods sold in the euro area as percent of total goods exports—is relatively low, but the share varies significantly across the Southeast states.

Alabama's exporters appear to be the most vulnerable to changes in European demand—almost a fifth of the state's merchandise exports are shipped to the euro area. About half of those exports are sold in Germany, mainly autos. The good news is that Germany seems to be one of the more resilient European economies, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, and France—the other large euro area markets for Southeast's exporters. The economically weakest countries in the euro area—Greece, Ireland, and Portugal—account for a small fraction of the region's exports.

While Florida's exporters appear to be least exposed to the euro area compared to other states in the Southeast (most of Florida's exported goods go to Latin America), the state's large tourism industry may feel some impact if a recession and a weakening euro keep Europeans from traveling to the United States. Based on data from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries and VISIT FLORIDA, an estimated 1.2 million residents of the euro area visited Florida in 2010. Fortunately, this number represents less than 2 percent of all the visitors to the state.

Another important part of Florida's economy that to some extent depends on European spending is residential real estate. In Florida, sales to nonresident foreigners account for about 25 percent of total residential sales (compared with only 3 percent nationally). For the state as a whole, Western Europeans (excluding U.K. residents) account for about 11 percent of all nonresident foreign buyers. While the number is relatively low, some parts of the state are much more dependent on Europeans. For example, in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach market residents of Germany accounted for nearly a quarter of all nonresident foreign buyers in the 12 months ending in June 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors.

In general, whether through exports, tourism or real estate, the Sixth District's exposure to Europe appears relatively small. The bigger concerns are the possibilities of severe financial contagion (via the banking system and financial markets) and a hit to business and consumer confidence, which apply as much to the District as to the nation overall.

Photo of Galina Alexeenko By Galina Alexeenko, director of the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network



Photo of Michael Chriszt Mike Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department

January 6, 2012 in International, Outlook, Trade | Permalink


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Exploring trade connections between Europe and the Southeast

Thanksgiving. What a great holiday. Family, friends, turkey, stuffing, apple pie (not a big pumpkin pie fan). And perhaps, if we are true to the spirit of the holiday, a time to pause and remember all there is to be thankful for. My list contains the usual suspects—wife, kids, parents, friends, and others that no doubt would be on your list as well. One item that's on my list that would surprise me to find on yours would be Europe.

There's a little more to it than just "Europe." In 1985, my parents sent me to study in Europe for my junior year of college. Miami University (the one in Ohio) has a small campus in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and I studied there from September to May of 1986. I still don't know how my parents did it on their wages—but they did, and I'm ever thankful because my year in Europe did as much to mold me as any other experience.

Of course today, not many people are feeling particularly thankful for the European debt situation, which is causing much-discussed pain and uncertainty in the global economy. It's a topic that's been on Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart's mind. He shared this concern last month in a speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., when he noted that the U.S. fiscal situation and "financial instability from developments in Europe" were the most significant risk factors facing the U.S. economic outlook. As more news has come out of Europe in the weeks since then, many have discussed the risk of possible financial contagion from the situation there spreading "across the pond" to the United States.

Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen mentioned the issue in her November 11 speech in Chicago:

"We are monitoring European developments very closely, and we will continue to do all that we can to mitigate the consequence of any adverse developments abroad on the U.S. financial system."

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered some thoughts about the European situation in response to a question at his press conference following the FOMC meeting on November 2:

"...what we can do, really, is only a couple of things. One is that we can look at our own financial institutions and try to assess the exposures and the linkages between our institutions and those in Europe and the sovereign debt in Europe, and we've been doing that on a consistent basis. We've looked also, of course, with other regulators at money market mutual funds and other types of financial institutions that have connections to Europe...

"And the other thing that we can do is stand ready, if necessary, to provide whatever support the broader economy needs and the financial system needs, should things worsen. I mean, we are hopeful that the latest measures, vigorously implemented, will indeed ultimately reduce these stresses, but in the case that things do get worse, both monetary policy and our policies of lender of last resort are available to insulate the U.S. economy from the effects."

The other channel where problems in Europe can affect the United States is through international trade. The members of the European Union have accounted for roughly 20 percent of U.S. exports over the last decade. Thus, any slowdown or decline in economic activity in Europe would most likely lead to a decline in demand for U.S. goods there, which in turn would lead to a decline in U.S. exports to Europe.

How would such developments affect the Southeast? Over the past decade, the states of the Sixth District have shipped an average of nearly $22 billion worth of goods per year to the European Union member countries. The dollar value of these goods accounts for almost 19 percent of total exports from the six states in the region—a number similar to the United States as a whole.

The importance of Europe as an export market varies by state, as the table below shows. Complete data are available through 2009, but by using the 10-year average we can see the longer-term pattern.

Exports to Europe (2000-09 average)

Based on these figures, Florida ships the most goods in terms of value to Europe, but Alabama is more dependent on exports to Europe than any other state in the region. Georgia also sends a significant portion of its total exports to Europe. While there is concern about the financial impact of instability in Europe, a souring of economic activity across the Atlantic would also affect international trade. In either case, the region is not immune.

I'll be thankful when Europe's debt issue is resolved.

Photo of Michael Chriszt By Mike Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department

November 22, 2011 in Economic Growth and Development, Exports, Southeast, Trade | Permalink


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Beige Book: Southeast economy improved through March; but what about April?

On April 13, the Sixth District's most recent Beige Book was released. The opening paragraph, which summarizes the entire report, said, "Sixth District business contacts described economic activity as advancing modestly from mid-February through March. Retailers cited that consumer spending improved while auto dealers reported strong sales growth. Tourism activity remained positive as occupancy rates and air travel mostly increased. Residential brokers and builders indicated that sales growth of new and existing homes were mixed, but generally remained weak, while commercial contractors mentioned improving conditions as development increased slightly. District manufacturers experienced increasing levels of new orders and production. Transportation firms noted modest advances in shipments and tonnage. Banking contacts reported soft but improving loan demand. Labor markets continued to recover at a gradual pace. Cost pressures grew for most District firms, but the ability to pass through price increases continued to vary by industry."

The report discusses economic activity that took place from mid-February through March, but the official release date lagged by a couple of weeks. In a time when data and information are so easily available, this type of lag can make the information seem dated. The Atlanta Fed is continuously gathering information via meetings with our Regional Economic Information Network contacts. Recently, we held two advisory council meetings, which gave us more insight into their particular sectors. On April 12 our Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met in Atlanta, and on April 14 our Travel and Tourism Advisory Council met in Miami. What follows is some of the anecdotal information collected from these meetings.

Trade and transportation
Demand is up for almost all industries in the transportation sector, especially for those involved in export activity. The trucking industry is seeing a return to pricing power but is challenged with finding qualified drivers and mechanics and faces a shortage of drivers amid new regulations. Increases in the cost of fuel are challenging all modes of transportation, but fuel surcharges remain intact. Intermodal volume is benefiting from increased fuel costs as customers move certain types of goods from truck to rail. Inventories remain very low and inventory turns are high; slow steaming in maritime shipments is creating floating inventories. All industries reported increases in capital expenditures for replacement and new equipment, information technology, and infrastructure and buildings. Hiring is taking place at some level in most industries, and wage pressures are just beginning to surface in parts of the sector. Events in Japan have not caused major disruptions but lags in shipments of certain goods and equipment have been reported.

Travel and tourism
Activity is up in almost all industries of the sector. Occupancy, room rates, and cruise and convention bookings are increasing. A modest level of pricing power has returned; however, increasing fuel and commodity costs are challenging all segments of the sector. Restaurant activity is mixed, and price increases are being passed through. Capital expenditure is increasing in most of the sector, and the overall tone was one of optimism with a cautious eye toward rising commodity costs. The areas and locations adversely affected by last year's BP oil spill have regained business, and many are back to normal levels.

Based on these meetings, it appears that the Sixth District's economy is still moving in a positive direction.

By Shalini Patel, a senior economic analyst in the research department, Sarah Arteaga, a senior REIN analyst, and Lon Lazzeri, a REIN director

April 26, 2011 in Beige Book, Tourism, Trade, Transportation, Travel | Permalink


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