There are some companies that serve as economic barometers. Among the most important of these are railroads that haul the goods and raw materials that make the economy run.
A decline in railway revenue can indicate a fall in demand for raw materials and an economic slowdown. Unfortunately, that is exactly what seems to be happening right now. One of the biggest rail success stories, The Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU), reported a year to year TTM revenue growth rate of -.71% on March 31, 2015. As recently as June of 2014 the Kansas City Southern reported a rate of 12.15%.
What’s frightening is that across the board growth rate drops have been reported throughout the railroad industry.
- The Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) reported a revenue growth rate of -.43% on March 31, 2015; in June 2014 the UP reported a revenue growth rate of 9.96%.
- The CSX (NYSE: CSX), which operates rail lines on the East Coast, did a little better; it reported a revenue growth rate of .5%. In June 2014 the CSX reported a revenue growth rate of 6.5%.
- Worst of all was the Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), which reported a revenue growth rate of -4.54% on March 31, 2015. In June 2014 the Norfolk Southern reported a revenue growth rate of 8.57%.
Revenue growth at the railroads has suddenly and dramatically stopped. To make matters worse, it has even begun to reverse. Is this the beginning of a new economic downturn or of deflation?
Deflation, the reverse of inflation, occurs when prices dramatically and suddenly drop, often for no good reason. Deflation could be occurring here because some news articles blame lower commodity prices for this situation.
Commodity Prices Falling
Some commodity prices have fallen dramatically, as anybody who has visited a gas station in the past year knows. The most dramatic drops in price have been in the energy sector:
- The spot price for Brent Crude Oil was $61.33 a barrel on June 12, 2015; on June 12, 2014, it was nearly twice as high—$115.19 a barrel.
- In January 2014 the Henry Hub Spot Price for natural gas in the United States was around $4.50 for one million British Thermal Units of gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. In January 2013 it was $3.50 for the same amount.
Nor was it just in energy; the price index for industrial metals was also down. In June 2014 the average per ton price for industrial metals was $84.36, but in June 2015 it was $74.60, according to YCharts. Iron Prices were even worse. In June 2014 a ton of iron ore was selling for $92.74; in June 2015 the same ton of iron ore was selling for $60.
Industrial Production Down
It looks as if some materials prices are collapsing, which indicates falling demand and a glut on the market. If that’s the case, industrial production could also be slowing, which it is. The U.S. Industrial Production Index for April 2015 was slightly lower than it had been in November 2014. The number for November was 106.27, which fell to 105.18 by April.
Vehicle sales, an indicator of disposable income and economic confidence, also fell. In March 2015 vehicle sales rose to 17.49 million, but by the end of April, they had dropped to 16.88 million. U.S. durable goods orders are also down. In July 2014 durable goods orders reached $299.96 billion; by April 2015 they had fallen to $235.53 billion, which indicates a falling demand for finished products and industrial production.
It looks as if an economic downturn has begun. Only time will tell if this is actual deflation or simply a case of the jitters on the part of consumers. One thing is clear though; the rumors of an economic recovery seem to be greatly exaggerated.