Sunday, August 12, 2012

Operating Cash Flow (OCF) - Should it Be The "King" Metric?

In deference to the great writing at Supply Chain Digest by David Schneider (David K. Schneider and Company) I will not rewrite the premise of the article he wrote over at SCD titled "The One Best Supply Chain Metric". I will only say I highly encourage you to click on the link above and go to the article and read it if you are even remotely interested in a different metric to follow.

Now, on to my opinion (hopefully you have linked over and read the article):  Operating cash flow is a "king" metric or an "outcome" metric as some may call it.  It is the ultimate scorecard.  Are you truly making real money (i.e., Cash) or are you making "paper money" (through income statement shenanigans) and burning through cash?  Remember, the only thing which allows you to reinvest in your business is the generation of cash.  Measure cash in a big way.

I get very nervous when I hear companies want to "push out payables" not because I think it is just wrong to do but also because of the signal it sends which is their cash from operations is probably going down so they are grabbing a one time cash infusion from suppliers.

Ultimately, cash from operations will determine the success or failure of your business because ultimately you will run out of financing (of which pushing out payables is essentially that - you are financing through your suppliers) and investing options.  When that happens, if you are not generating cash from operations, you will find your "Emperor has no clothes".

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Divergence of the Dow Transports and the Dow

As if on queue from my posting yesterday, Mark Hulbert  (read all his stories here) writes on about the divergence between the Dow Industrial index and the Dow Transports.  He shows a graph which is very interesting and may help answer the questions I raised yesterday when I asked how the economy (as measured by the stock market) could be so high yet freight growth appears to be crawling along. His graph (reproduced below) shows for some time now the Dow Transports have lagged the overall Dow.  I suspect if you put in the S&P500 you will see this as well.

Dow Transports (in Red) Versus Dow 

So, what does this tell us?  Mark believes it may signify the leading indicator of an overall slowdown in the economy (which of course does not bode well for the transportation industry).  However an interesting point which I had not followed before is his point around the divergence or the relative performance of the Dow Transports to the Dow overall.

He claims (as apparently it is in Dow Theory) that it is precisely this divergence which indicates the slowdown not specifically the fact that that transports are slowing down.

Perhaps it is best to think about it this way, like a good race horse, the Dow is executing one last gasp then it will stop where as the other race horse (i.e., the transports) already crossed the finish line and is stopped.  I don't know if that is a good analogy or not however I will set a favorite to always compare the Dow transports to the Dow overall now and let's see how his analysis plays out.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Where is The Freight? - Cass Reports a Slowdown

The Cass Freight Index report for July 2012 was somewhat anti-climatic for those of us who follow freight and knew we were in the depth of the great slowdown of 2012.  The "phone bank" report (which measures the direction of phone calls from a fictional transportation manager's desk) reported far more incoming calls from carriers looking for freight than outbound calls searching for trucks and this has been true for at least two months now.

OK, I admit that is not a scientific index however if you are close to the business and have a grasp on that general topic it is a highly effective predictor of freight.

Cass Freight Index - July 2012
We see from this index that essentially expenditures have leveled off really since June of 2011 with just a little bump at the beginning of Q2 in 2012.  I attribute both years' early bumps as price / volume "hype" and not reality.  Each of the last two years has begun with a "great hope" of where rates and the economy is going only to become disappointing by summer and a steadying of rates.  A good and experienced transportation manager will see this trend and ensure they do not buy into the early year hype every year.

At the beginning of every year the transportation company sales people will show up with all sorts of data to tell you "this is the year" where we will hit a massive capacity crunch so you better "pay up now" to be taken care of later.  A great story which makes for great industry journalism however the empirical evidence suggests it is, in fact, all hype and those who remain calm in the face of the story will be better off.

A key question though is how can all these companies (shippers) report great earnings, the market is very high ( Dow at 13,175.64 as of this writing) and yet the shipments and movement of goods is stagnant?  I have a few theories (I freely admit these are theories however the data is showing this to be more and more true).

First, the economy is a more services and financial economy than it is a "things" economy.  While we still consume the manufactured goods we generally do not make them.  This means an entire portion of the former economy shipments is gone and that is inbound to manufacturing.  The outbound is still there however the inbound is gone.  The inbound freight is in China and Mexico and other low cost countries.  Those who say they love being in trucking because their jobs cannot move overseas are wrong.  The inbound jobs have moved overseas along with the inbound freight.

This of course follows the manufacturing base so if manufacturing truly does return to the United States (the jury is out on this) then the inbound will follow back.

Second, the great work on sustainability, minimizing packaging, routing efficiencies etc have all led to being able to move the same amount of goods with lesser number of vehicles.  This movement is good for all of us in the world however it does decrease the raw demand for trucks.  Just think of televisions. If the economy sells a million T.V.s this year (a made up number just to illustrate the point) they are all about 1" thick.  10 years ago if 1 million T.V's were sold they all were about 3 feet deep (packaged).  That is a lot of trucks.  

There is not only minimization of the product size but there is also the elimination of the physical product (think e-books. iTunes for CDs etc.).

So, my conclusion is you cannot compare the GDP numbers of today relative to prior year GDP numbers as if there is a straight correlation between the level of GDP and the amount of goods moving in terms of cube size (which is the driver of number of boxes needed). Clearly there is some kind of correlation but it is not as direct as it would have been 10 - 15 years ago.  The economy can grow with less physical product moving.

Finally, the lesson learned of the last two years is clear: "Be Not Afraid"! at the beginning of the year.  Don't buy the hype, be patient, watch the data and let the economy play out.  You get no credit  (regardless of what the sales person tells you) for being an early mover on rate increases.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Looking at Transportation The Way We Look at China's Economy

I have read a lot recently about how you get the real GDP numbers out of China.  Don't bother with the government statistics rather just go look at the piles of coal at the electric power plants.  As China has said their economy is doing fine, observers of coal piles have seen them grow and grow.  Why is this important?  The growth of the coal piles signifies a massive slow down in the demand for electricity which, in turns, means factories are idling.  When factories idle, you have lower GDP.  Voila!  It may not be scientific however doing econometrics with raw data which is flawed is a waste of time.

So, I thought I would use this way to look at transportation and I did not like what I saw.  Driving through Chicago yesterday passing by the big intermodal yards I saw stacks and stacks of 53' containers which clearly had been "mothballed".  They were not at the yard "in transit" rather they were in the yard and parked.  They were stacked high and tight.  This indicates carriers are parking containers which clearly indicates a massive slowdown in freight pretty close to the time where it should be gearing up for the holidays.

All indications are the economy has softened dramatically and this is just another indicator.  I may patent this methodology, go to Chicago every week and take a picture, compare them against previous weeks like you would a bar graph.  My guess is this would be just as good as some of the other "analysis" I have seen.