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Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- July 22, 2015 -


Supply Chain News: A Look at the LTL Market by John Larkin

Stifel Sees Fairly Rosy Outlook for Beleaguered Sector, As Margins Back to Pre-Recession Levels, Possible Boost from eCommerce Deliveries


SCDigest Editorial Staff


Respected transportation sector analyst John Larkin, head of Stifel's Transportation& Logistics Equity Research - and who provides his transportation weekly analysis on each Monday - recently gave an interesting presentation on the past, current and future of the US less-than-truckload (LTL) transport sector to a conference sponsored by 3PL Ozburn Hessey Logistics.

Here we are going to focus on Larkin's view of the current and future of the LTL group, though we plan to add his summary of the history of the sector to our Supply Chain History Project web site- whenever we get that off the ground.

SCDigest Says:

"LTL has bottomed out in terms of market share lost and is clawing some of it back," Larkin said.
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First, the LTL sector in the US continues to contract a bit relative to other modes, as truckload, rail and/or intermodal are just more cost effective versus the pick-up and delivery intensive LTL mode. Larkin calculates that LTL revenues are down to just 12% or so of the truckload market, for example.

But, absolute gains in LTL freight volumes have been decent, such that tonnage in 2014 passed the pre-recession highs. Larkin expects tonnage to grown in the 3-4% range over the next couple of years, before falling back to about 2.5- 3% annual growth after that.

In parallel, the LTL sector continues to get more concentrated. The top five carriers by revenue (FedEx Freight, YRC Worldwide, Con-way Freight, UPS Freight and Old Dominion) now control almost 55% of the market, as shown in the graphic below. FedEx Freight is the largest LTL provider, with about a 16% overall share.

The LTL market is more concentrated than the full truckload sector, where Larkin says the largest carrier "has only 2%, and depending on how you count it's maybe as little as 1%" market share.

Yet, despite being much more fragmented, in general the truckload carriers have been much more profitable than the LTL group (Old Dominion being a notable exception).

Another chart from Larkin provided below shows the average operating ratio - or operating expense divided by operating revenue, a key metric in the transport sector - for the LTL carriers as a whole dating all the way back to 2002.

Prior to the recession starting in 2008, the LTL sector had an average OR of about 93.5%, meaning an operating margin of about 6.5% before other expenses, such as financing. Even that is certainly not a healthy number.


But things got really ugly during 2009 and 2010, when ORs at LTL surged to almost the 100% level, meaning operating expense equaled operating revenue, before other costs, and led to lots of red ink at many LTL carriers.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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Since then, however, operating ratios have slowly improved, such that they are now on par with those pre-recession levels.


Those improved operating ratios have come as LTL carriers have enjoyed a more favorable pricing environment over the last couple of years, and many if not most have become choosier about what freight moves they will take, declining unprofitable shipments/customers.

In Q1 2015, the LTL sector's revenue per hundredweight - a sort of proxy for pricing power - was up 2.9%, probably down a bit from most quarters in 2014. Prices are still rising even though freight may be flat to a bit lower so far in 2015.

The LTL industry benefited in 2014 from tight truckload capacity in many regions, forcing some shippers to use LTL when they had challenges getting a full truck. Larkin notes that LTL may be further helped in this regard from upcoming regulatory changes, such as requirements for electronic data loggers and speed limiters.

Larkin says these two changes could effectively reduce truckload capacity 5-10%, as they force all truckload carriers to play by the rules, which again may lead to some truckload freight being diverted to LTL.

Future of LTL

Larkin is actually modestly bullish on the future of LTL, believing that eCommerce trends, for example, are in its favor because there are an increasing number of on-line orders that are for products too big for a parcel carrier and yet do not require "white glove" service from a home delivery specialist (think a barbeque grill). Continued reshoring of manufacturing back to the US will also helped LTL, Larkin believes.

"LTL has bottomed out in terms of market share lost and is clawing some of it back," Larkin said.

He concluded his presentation by observing that while "in the early days after deregulation, LTL was "bludgeoned from all directions, the survivors have hit their stride and the future is really quite rosy."

He also said leading LTL carriers have changed their views of 3PLs from being a threat to partners whose expertise and sales channels can be leveraged for mutual benefit - though it seems to SCDigest there are still a lot of 3PLs working to convert separate LTL shipments into multi-stop truckload moves, often across shippers.

Good work by Larkin as always.

Any reaction to this summary of the LTL market? Do you see its future as rosy too? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or section (web form) below.

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