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Sunday, July 21, 2019

What Have The Tariffs Taught us About Supply Chain?

This is not a political or even an economic posting relative to the tariffs and the current "tariff war".  Rather, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what this teaches us about supply chain and specifically global supply chain design. 

First, this topic has been talked about for a long time and it goes under the banner of "supply chain disruption".  We have always thought of these disruptions as either "natural disasters" (think hurricanes and earthquakes) or "man-made" disasters such as wars.  In either case the recommendations have been for supply chain professionals to stay very close to the impact of these and how long a company could survive should one hit.  Perhaps this tariff war is a way for us to practice before something we really cannot control occurs.

In 2011 both the hard drive industry and the auto industry were hit hard and interrupted significantly by flooding in Thailand.  Closer in time, the graph below from EPS news shows the types and number of disruptions just in the 2017 / 2018 timeframe:

You can see this is not an uncommon occurrence so, while the cause of this particular disruption this year (tariffs) may be surprising, what should not be surprising for supply chain professionals is the fact their global supply chains are susceptible to disruption.  What should you do about it:

  1. Plan, Plan, Plan - scenario planning and conducting FMEA's are a must in this environment.  You should not have to make it up as you go along when a disruption hits.
  2. Think about your supply chain as a portfolio.  You likely would not invest your entire life savings in one stock would you?  Why would you do it with your company's supply chain?  Diversity is critical to mitigating risk
  3. Develop early warning indicators - each with a plan of action if it appears it is happening.  As you develop your FMEA you will likely identify a bunch of interruption scenarios along with probability and severity ratings.  You will then want to work diligently on the scenarios with the highest likelihood with very severe outcomes.  But, it is not good enough to just know them.  You then have to determine what the indicators you will begin to look at to determine if something is going to happen.  How can you monitor the global situation and determine the likelihood of an event?

    For example, on tariffs, this was a topic of the election and the US is doing pretty much what it said it would do during the election.  This was a red flag.  While you would never have known for certain what you did know is the "likelihood" of supply chain disruptions due to tariffs increased dramatically on January 20, 2017.  Was it enough to change everything that day?  Probably not.  Was it a good time to pull out your disruption FMEA's off the shelf and update them?  Absolutely.  
In conclusion, I am not sure the tariff situation has taught us anything new but what it has done is reinforced what we already knew and brought it to reality.  This was not a "Blackswan" event.  This was all within the realm of probability knowing what was being discussed.  

Time to get back to the basics.  Conduct FMEA, execute scenario planning and manage your portfolio.  

Sunday, June 23, 2019

How Can The Market Be at An All Time High and There Be A Freight Recession - Part II

In my previous post I outlined why I believe freight is slowing.  Certain signals in the marketplace are telling us employment adds are decreasing, inventories are increasing and the PMI is decreasing.  All of these are signs of a slowing economy.  (For the record, I do not believe by any stretch the economy will contract - it is just we should not get used to GDP growth rates of 3% into the future).  This slowing has resulted in less loads per truck and prices going down.

So, how can the stock market be hitting an all time high?  I believe it is due to 3 reasons (Warning, I know a lot more about freight than I do about investing but here goes):

  1. The alternative investment (10yr as a proxy)
  2. % of the economy which has nothing to do with goods
  3. The Fed.
What is happening:

Let me start off by showing what is actually happening:


This chart compares the Dow Jones Transportation Index to the DJ30 and the S&P500.  This is a one year return graph and ends on June 21.  As of June 21, the DJ30 is up 6.66%, the SPX is up 7.1% and yet the DJT is DOWN 3.91% Bottom line is investors are shunning transports yet still embracing the overall economy.  Why?

The Alternative Investment:

Investors are going to invest.  That is what they do and they have two macro alternatives.  First, they can invest in the "risk" markets (i.e., stocks) or they can invest in what is generally considered the "risk free" or "near risk free" investment.  I will use the 10yr as a proxy for this second grouping.  What we have seen recently is not only a 10 year treasury at multi year lows but we are also hearing the Fed discussing lowering the rates even further.  This will drive investment dollars away from the "risk free" and into the markets. 

It is no coincidence towards the end of last year when the Fed was not only raising rates but also calling for 3 rate hikes in 2019 the stock market tanked.  Investors were deciding to move away from risk assets as the risk free was looking pretty good.  Not so much any more as the 10yr is now bouncing around the 2% level.

The graph to the left is the graph of the 10 year treasury rates as of Friday, June 21.  This movement of rates down has caused money to flow back into the risk asset markets and specifically look at the major move down since mid May.  This is when the Fed made it pretty clear the only action they likely will take is a move down in rates. 





% of The Economy Which Does Not Have Anything to Do with Shippable Goods:

This one is a bit nuanced.  Let's just look at 30 years ago and think about what it meant for the economy to be growing at 3%.  It was intuitive that the growth had to have much to do with autos, real hard electronics, housing etc. etc.  These are all very "hard" goods which drove the economy. 

Today, when we the economy grows at 3% more of it has to do with finance, services and the infamous FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google - Alphabet).  Only one of these, Amazon, ships anything.  The rest make their money in the "virtual" world.  Very important to the economy but not so important to trucking.  The graph below illustrates this:

Non Shipment Economy
The inverse of this graph is to ask how much of GDP is due to MFG:


Both of these graphs tell the same story.  GDP can grow at a high rate and not have shippable product tendered to carriers.  - Economy grows yet a freight recession sets in. 

The Fed

What else can I say?  The Fed has made a huge 180 degree turn around in the last few months and whether that is due to political pressure or real economics I will leave it to the real economists to figure out. But, reality is, the Fed has signaled rates are going down and they have somewhat backed themselves into a corner as it would be outright lying if they did not do this.  This means more money will continue to go into inflating the asset bubble and less money will go into bonds. 

I hope I have now explained (sorry for the two part length) why the freight recession likely will continue however the economy, as measured by the markets and GDP, will continue to do quite well.  

Summary:
  1. Economy is slowing
  2. Investors have to invest in the market to get any kind of return due to the "risk free" paying so low.
  3. Investors are shunning the transports
  4. This drives the market to records
  5. Less and less of the GDP has to do with "shippable goods"
This is a link to Part 1 of this posting (for those reading on a reader)




How Can The Market be at All time High and There Be a "Freight Recession"? - PART I

The question posed in the title can be a perplexing problem and I am sure is of interest to both those who make a living running trucking companies as well as those who invest in them.  If the market is a forward looking index (like they teach you on school) then the fact it has bid up stock prices would indicate it believes the economy is "booming" and if the economy is "booming" then there must be a lot of freight moving.  I will attempt to explain why this connection (Market to freight volumes) is no longer true. 

There will be two parts to this posting. The first will be to show the macroeconomic data I look at which tells me the freight market is slowing.  The second part will be to show how the stock market could hit an all time high while the freight market slows.

There are 3 real reasons why the market (i.e., the SP500 and the Dow) is disconnected from what we, the "transporters of freight" see in the market:

  1. The alternative investment (i.e., 10yr).
  2. The % of the economy which has nothing to do with "goods". 
  3. The Fed
Before I address each one, let's look at the data which supports why there is a "freight recession".  For this I look at 3 different indices.  First, my favorite, the "Total Business: Inventory to Sales Ratio" (St. Louis Fed).  This measures how much activity is being used just to build inventories and the assumption is companies will not build inventories forever.  When they stop building, the freight stops.  Here is what the graph looks like back to 2015:

Inventory to Sales Ratio - St. Louis Fed
This graph clearly indicates (looking at the boom and bust cycles) inventories decrease then, in a recession, they increase.  The shaded areas above are key recessions.  You can see leading up to 2016 the economy was slow and it actually was close to the peak of the 2001 recession in 2016.  Then came the "sugar high" of expectations and tax cuts and the inventory was burning down until close to the end of last year.  Since then, the economy has been building inventory.  Not a good sign for the economy overall but more importantly, for this blog, not important for the freight industry.  I feel like I should not have to say this however just to be clear, companies do not build inventory forever.  So, even if freight does not slow immediately there would be a clear expectation from the rational investor that freight will slow.  Freight has slowed. 

Second, let's look at the PMI trends.  As a reminder, the PMI (Purchasing Manager's Index) generally gives you a look at whether the economy is expanding or not.  A reading of 50 or above is generally good and below that is contraction.  The index I like to look at is the MFG PMI:

MFG PMI - Tradingeconomics.com
I do not think I need to explain what is happening here suffice to say the decrease started around December of 2018 and has accelerated since then.  

Since so much of the freight indices are tied up in hauling manufactured goods it is no doubt looking at this chart that there would be far less freight to haul and far fewer loads per truck then we would like.  

The final piece of economic information is our labor force and the net change for employment.  For this, I like to use a 3 month net change from the bureau of labor statistics.  Why 3 months?  Because BLS adjusts the previous two months as they get better data so by going to a 3 month net change you take into account most of the adjustments. 

While employment is incredibly robust and generally "all is good" there are some signs of cracks:

3 Month Net Change in Employment - BLS
While there is still net positive adds what this is showing is the net positive is slowing quite a bit.  Could be we have just run out of workers or it could be, based on the data above, employers are starting to be very cautious about adding any more employees. 

To give you an example of this, the last three months (Mar, Apr, May 2019) readings were 521, 433(p), 452(p) (p - preliminary readings) respectively.  All three of those were below the lowest reading measured in 2018 which was 565 (January 2018).  Another indication of a slowing economy.  

Ok, so, the bottom line for this PART I is clearly the economy is starting to slow.  Not in a recession (yet) but clearly slowing.  I have opinions on why and I will leave those to myself but this is why you are seeing the FED not only not increasing rates but the conversation is now about lowering rates. 

Stay tuned for PART II which will discuss the 3 reasons why the market, even though all these indicators show a slowing, hit new highs. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

J.B. Hunt as NVOCC

I missed this one but I do think it is interesting the intermodal arm of J.B. Hunt is now a licensed NVOCC.  The article from the Journal of Commerce cites this as a decision more about how to get their Chinese 53' containers to the US at a lower cost (perhaps because they now are hit with tariffs). 

Not sure but it will be interesting as J.B. Hunt is a company to dabble, learn then exploit a good business opportunity.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Is "Freight-Tech" the future or Has Uber and Lyft Killed the Dream?

While I personally was unable to attend the annual Freightwaves Transparency19 conference this year I did watch a lot of the clips and I was fascinated by the shear volume of "Freight-tech"(I will abbreviate FT) companies coming out of the woodwork to help shippers ship product.  We are in the "golden age" of FT launches, venture capital money and potentially IPOs.

Or, as the title stated, has Uber and Lyft killed the dream?  More on that later but first, let's remind ourselves "how business works".

An entrepreneur comes up with a great idea and tries to get it to scale with a series of private fundings.  Venture capitalists get in early, generally get seats on the board and hope for an eventual big pay day when the company is either sold or goes public.  The company is built to scale (meaning it is generating cash - hopefully - or has a path to be cash flow positive.  Then, the early owners need to take money out of the company for a variety of reasons by going public or selling. Here are the reasons they may want to extract money:

  1. Family wealth planning - they generally have a lot of their wealth in the company and they need some back.  
  2. Pay Employees - Many early stage company employees are paid with options and they eventually want and need that money.  This is a warning to many employees who get in too late in the game.  If your options are valued right before the IPO then a lot of the time you are under water when it goes public (as are many Uber and Lyft employees).
  3. All the juice is squeezed and the VC people want out. - Venture capitalists do not hold companies and eventually they want their money back.  Once they believe they have "squeezed all the juice out of they idea they will want to exit. 
Now, let's get back to Uber and Lyft and while I did not read the S-1 for the Lyft before it went public I did read the S-1 of Uber (skip the glitz slides and read the words) and it caused me to ask the question: "Who the hell would invest in this company"?  Let's look at what the S-1 (The S-1 is a required SEC filing before the company goes public and it generally is the first time you get to see their financials - it is required reading if you are going to invest in IPOs)  taught us:
  1. Uber has lost over $3Bl in the last three years.  And that is if you count a gain on divestiture and "other investments".  If you look at just operations, in the last three years Uber has lost almost $10bl.  
  2. They continually discuss incentives paid to the drivers and to the customers.  They are paying on both sides of the transaction.  
  3. There is very little path to profitability.  They "sold" the IPO to the retail investor at exactly the right time (for them. 
Now, what are the learnings from e-commerce?  What we are starting to see is the "bricks and clicks" (Especially Wal-Mart) is the model to win.  Unfortunately, Wal-Mart took far too long to "get in the game" and it may be too late.  But, if Wal-Mart had responded back in 2013 as I had suggested when I wrote The Battle for Retail Sales is Really The Battle of Supply Chains, they would have killed it. Once Wal-Mart woke up I welcomed them back in 2017 in the article, "Welcome Back Wal-Mart. We Missed You Over the Last 5 Years". 

Which brings me to J.B. Hunt and their work with Box and J.B. HUNT360.  That is the winning formula!  It is the "Bricks and Clicks" of the freight world.  Like retail, eventually everything gets down to assets.  Someone needs to build stores and warehouses in retail and in freight someone needs to own the boxes, trucks and have drivers.  J.B. Hunt is showing they learned the lesson of Wal-Mart (Don't cede any ground to the tech guys), they jumped in early, they disrupted their own business and they are now the leader in this space for the asset players.  

What will come of all this?  I believe J.B. Hunt will continue to drive their leadership position further and the asset guys, to catch up, will have to buy a number of these FT companies.  Which means the VC population will get what they want but the asset guys will pay a huge premium for not getting in early.  

So, let me summarize:
  1. Too much money chasing too few ideas... the "new" ideas are starting to be "me too's" (How many apps can have a competitive algorithm just to find an available truck)?
  2. The FT VC population will want to sell.
  3. The Asset guys will find out they are getting killed by the "trucks and clicks" model of J.B. Hunt and this will drive them to pay exorbitant prices to get the tech quick to catch up. 
  4. JBHunt, by innovating early and fast will win this game big just like they did with intermodal. 
Finally, in the UBER S-1 we get our first public glance of UBER Freight and I am amazed at how small it is.  Now that UBER is public we will get to see more and more of their financials.  They believe the industry is moving to an "On-Demand" industry.  I find this hard to believe as big shippers need predictable freight and solutions like the J.B. HUNT 360Box where you get access to trailer pools.  I could be wrong, but I do not see a huge future for this.  

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Provide Ritz-Carlton Service to Your Customers - It is Mostly Free

I had such a great experience this weekend I had to, as always, relate it back to customer value chain fulfillment.  We decided to spend the weekend at a beautiful resort owned by the Ritz-Carlton company and it was fabulous.  So, how does this relate to order fulfillment - the business all logisticians are truly engaged in?  It is called service.

Many of you may be saying "well of course it was a great time because it cost a lot and you were in a beautiful setting".  True and I will certainly say I am not naive of the fact the Ritz gets paid for all it does.  However, I do have to wonder which came first?  Are people willing to pay higher prices because the service is so incredibly better than the competitors or do they charge more because it costs more?  My hypothesis is it is the former rather than the latter.  Lesson 1:  People are willing to pay more if your service is significantly better than the competition.  Not just a little bit better and not just sometimes but consistently and significantly better than the competition. 

Now, the good news is most of what differentiated the company from the competition was free or very low cost!  I never walked by an associate at any level of the organization without them smiling and greeting me.  If they had a work cart in the aisle they immediately moved it so I did not have to muscle around things.  The place was spotless - every employee was part of the cleaning staff because everyone picked up even the slightest thing which may not belong where it was.  The bottled water was free!  Small bottles of water free!  It likely cost them almost nothing to provide that but rather than leave a bad taste in your mouth about the overall experience by ripping you off on $5 for water they just gave it to you!

My wife needed contact lens solution and the front desk offered to drive her to CVS to get it.  They did not say "I can call you a cab".  They just offered to fix that little problem for us.  Lesson 2: Don't make your customers feel they had a bad experience over some very small petty thing.  Just fix the problem and move on.

I could go on and on about the Ritz-Carlton and its great customer service but I think you get the idea.  So, here are a few lessons for supply chain / 3PL companies:

  • Most actions which drive very high customer experience ratings are not very costly.  They are the basics.  Make your customer feel human again!
  • Train everyone to be a customer experience evangelist.  The driver, the customer service agent, the building and grounds people.. everyone.  One thing you will find is not only will your customers be wildly excited and promote your company but it will also have the positive effect of making your workplace a desired location for recruits.  Want to recruit top talent and retain them?  Treat them as customers and not machines. 
  • Fix the little stuff and move on. How many times do you find your company arguing with a customer over some petty thing (Think free bottled water).  At a company I worked we provided surveys on the delivery experience and I reviewed those surveys.  One customer had rated us all 10's (great) and put in the comment field "please bring donuts next time".  I went ahead and had the driver deliver donuts on the next delivery.  Nike had the right approach - Just Do It.
  • Finally, when you do make a mistake, own up to it with your associates and your customers.  No one is perfect and no one expects you to be perfect.  They expect you to own up to it and solve it.  
Well, another great weekend in the books and wow did I learn and in a lot of cases re-learn a lot.  Your customer experience will definitely differentiate you and now, in the Nike fashion go JUST DO IT!.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kraft, ZBB and the Art of Designing Supply Chains

A lot has been written this weekend about what is happening at Kraft Heinz (KHC) and why they suddenly had to write down a huge portion of their brand portfolio.  Many articles are calling out the zero based budgeting (ZBB) program 3G installed after buying Heinz.  I disagree.  I think it is something far more basic: They lost sight of their customers.

First, a quick definition of ZBB.  ZBB was the darling of the consultant community many years ago as a way to wring costs out of bloated companies. Consultants loved it because it allowed for a lot of business ("I am a ZBB certified...), companies loved it because it had the promise of driving out costs and Wall Street loved it because they generally love all things that are short term profit boosters.  And, in my opinion, it is a good program.  It forces you to reevaluate your costs every year.  Just because you did "x" last year does not mean you need to do it again next year yet the standard budget process assumes programs and positions continue forever.  ZBB does not.  ZBB picks the arbitrary time of one year and says every year every cost needs to be justified.

The reason for this however may be what KHC and 3G totally missed.  The reason you do this is so you can reinvest savings generated from non value added (non competitive) functions of the company to value added functions or better said, programs which make your company more competitive in the market place.  Pocketing the savings or paying it out in dividends is a short term strategy which ultimately ends.  And that is what happened to 3G.  They did not appear to invest the money but rather they pocketed it.

This is also why KHZ and the 3G model relied on acquisitions.  The only way this method of ZBB works is if you keep acquiring bloated companies and implement the program with them.  It is somewhat of a Ponzi scheme.

So, what should they have done differently?  Many of you have read my writings on the customer centered supply chain and outside-in thinking.  This is the fundamental miss of KHC.  They were inside-out in their thinking as they were so focused on the drug of cutting costs then keeping the money they forgot to invest in the future.  Perhaps they felt they would have an endless stream of acquisitions so the music would never stop (Remember, they tried to buy Unilever but were rebuffed and they tried to buy Campbell's but they claim the price was too high)? What they did not anticipate is many of the acquisition targets had implemented their own ZBB and thus the opportunity to wring costs out after acquisition diminished dramatically.

There are lessons for supply chain design and management:

  1. Always work and design using outside-in thinking.  Start with the customer and work your way back in.  Never start in and work out. 
  2. Not all costs are bad.  You can break costs into competitive and non-competitive costs.  Competitive costs are this which deliver competitive advantage in the market place.  Those are good and necessary.  Non-competitive are those which are either excess or just "cost of doing business" and those you want to minimize.  
  3. Your mother taught you this lesson:  Anything taken to the extreme can, and likely will, be bad.   Just because you have a hammer does not mean everything is a nail.  
  4. Don't lose sight of your business.  Sears did this and perhaps KHC is doing some of this.  They are in the business of lightening up people's day by selling great food products.  The business is not "how can I cut costs the fastest".  The ultimate tail wagging the dog.  
Lots of lessons here and I just hope a great budgeting tool is not thrown out due to very poor execution.