Consumer Brands to Face Increased Costs as Pressure Builds on Trucking Industry

The U.S. trucking market, which represents about 70% of all U.S. freight by tonnage, has tightened significantly as a strong economy, new trucking industry regulations and a limited driver supply put pressure on the space, Macquarie Research analyst Caroline Levy wrote in a Feb. 28 note.

That could mean a long road ahead for consumer-packaged goods brands as the cost of getting product to market spikes.

Trucking is in the tightest market seen since 2004, with U.S. truck capacity utilization at 100% in the first half of this year. According to Macquarie, any utilization above 95% is considered a tight market. As a result, truckload rates such as fuel surcharges are expected to rise 10% to 11% in the first half of the year, while diesel prices could gain 20% to 23%.

There exists a limited supply of able drivers, too, Levy wrote. The average age of a truck driver is 55 years, plus the industry is facing increasing competition from construction in attracting young, drug-free workers. Construction typically requires fewer long nights and often pays better, though the two draw from the same pool of workers. That will likely result in the necessity of increasing wages, which will be passed through to shippers through higher rates.

The labor shortage is expected to top 250,000 drivers in the first half of 2018, creating the worst shortage on record. The driver supply is expected to grow a little in the back half of the year, though, as hurricane-related construction projects begin to slow.

Margins find another "leg down," Levy said, in that consumer-packaged goods companies are already facing rising input costs and worsening transport costs, which can be 3% to 15% of sales for BEV/HPC companies.

According to Levy, the most directly impacted names are Action Alerts Plus holding PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. (DPS) , while Monster Beverage Corp. (MNST) and Estee Lauder Cos. Inc. (EL) are likely the least affected.

PepsiCo is most exposed to transport costs at 15% of sales, but the bigger impact could be at Dr Pepper Snapple, which is more U.S.-focused. However, Pepsi is protected from surging third-party rates as it owns its direct store delivery. It's also worth noting that about 50% of Dr Pepper Snapple sales are done via Pepsi or Coca-Cola distribution, plus it owns some of its fleet.

Colgate-Palmolive Co. (CL) , Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) , Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB) and Coca-Cola Co. (KO) also have "sizeable" 5% to 8% exposure, Levy noted, but costs for those companies are spread globally.

Pressure in the first half of this year is likely to manifest at Constellation Brands Inc. (STZ) , Boston Beer Co.  (SAM) and Monster, Levy said. Constellation Brands could perhaps turn to railway transport instead of trucking, too.

As the marketplace fragments further and competition from Inc. (AMZN) adds increased stress, many companies may have no choice but to accept higher shipping costs.

"It seems most likely that our companies will need to absorb the increase, putting further pressure on them to drive efficiency programs," Levy said.