The 25rd Annual State of Logistics Report prepared for the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) was released earlier this week (free for CSCMP members and can be purchased for $295). This report has consistently tracked U.S. logistics metrics since 1988 and is often of high interest to logistics, transportation and procurement professionals.  inventory

The report reflecting 2013 activity again notes a continued trend for increased logistics, transportation and inventory costs.  More than ever, this should be of continued concern to manufacturers and retailers and their associated supply chain and product management teams.  Similar concerning observations were noted by Supply Chain Matters in last year’s annual report.

Highlights and some observations of the latest report numbers are noted below.

The cost of the U.S. business logistics rose 2.3 percent in 2013 to $1.39 trillion, an increase of $31 billion from 2012. Logistics costs as a percent of nominal GDP were reported to have dropped to 8.2 percent, just about the same 8.3 percentage reported for 2012.

Most concerning from our lens, inventory carrying costs in 2013 rose another 2.8 percent, albeit less than the 4.0 percent increase reported for 2012. While interest costs rose slightly, inventory levels inched up leading to increased costs for taxes, insurance, warehousing, depreciation and obsolescence. By our calculation, the former components rose 9.2 percent or $28 billion from that reported in 2012. According to the report authors, the cost of warehousing was up 5.6 percent in 2013, as rates for warehouse space continue to rise. As a wise sage once exclaimed to this author, “warehouses are monuments to inefficient inventory practices.” That sage advice continues to reflect itself.

Overall inventory levels continued to rise despite the advent of advanced inventory management practices and historically low interest rates. The report includes a chart reflecting Total U.S. Business Inventories that visually indicates that total inventories in 2013 now surpass levels recorded in 2008, the peak before the great recession. With relatively low GDP growth levels, these numbers are alarming. With carrying costs increasing, industry supply chain teams need to seriously analyze why more overall inventory is being maintained.  Consider that interest rates remain at historic lows, and what would be the incremental cost if they were not. We suspect that with high levels of global outsourcing and slower global transportation, that larger levels of pipeline inventory are being planned. We further suspect that planning and optimization models are not reflecting up-to-date inventory cost factors.

Another important concern brought out in the report is the current fragile state of the U.S. trucking industry with utilization rates remained close to 100 percent and fleet and driver capacity declining. High costs and regulatory issues are deterring new entrants to the industry.  With the U.S. railroad industry operating at near capacity, reflecting building shortages of available specialty railcars, supply chain teams need to remain concerned about this area.

Data compiled in the 2013 report indicates the revenue growth trajectory of U.S. non-asset based services and Third Party Logistics providers continued in 2013 with revenues pegged at $146.4 Billion, an increase of $4.6 billion over 2012. Revenues broken out for 3PL’s rose 3.2 percent in 2013, lower than the 5.9 percent growth recorded in 2012. The most lucrative segment of 3PL services remains Domestic Transportation Management which grew an additional 7.2 percent in 2013. According to the authors, shippers continue to engage 3PL’s to ensure that they have capacity when required. However, the U.S. 3PL industry is shrinking in numbers as larger players acquire smaller ones, funded by a new wave of private equity interest. We believe that these trends are troubling and imply additional consolidation and structural change in the months to come.  Carriers who own the assets are being economically squeezed and dis-intermediated from shippers, and without assets, transportation as a whole will encounter additional shocks.

Supply Chain Matters submits that the overall takeaways from the 2013 State of Logistics are once again dependent on the reader frame-of-reference. If you reside anywhere in the transportation and 3PL logistics sector, your reaction may be positive. However, that would be in inability to sense a longer-term disturbing trend of pending challenges regarding delivery of services. Distribution center operators and real estate interests are included.  If your frame of reference involves a constant diligence for controlling overall transportation procurement and supply chain related operating costs, we again submit there are troubling areas that should motivate concern and attention.

Thus far in 2014, U.S. manufacturing activity continues to surge. According to the report authors, freight shipments are up 13.1 percent and so are rates.  The global ocean container industry remains in a capacity crisis, and so is the U.S. rail and trucking industry. The State of Logistics, by our view is rather fragile, fueled by private investors looking to cash in on opportunities to make quick money without holding hard assets.  That is not a healthy outlook.

Once again we offer the following insights:

  • Procurement, supply chain planning, B2B and fulfillment teams can no longer assume fixed transport times and logistics costs in fulfillment planning, nor should they assume that contracting all logistics with a third party provider is the singular solution to reducing overall costs.  By our view, the “new normal” is reflected in strategies directed at assuring consistency of service, deeper levels of business process collaboration delivered at a competitive cost.

 

  • Procurement teams who context transportation spend in the singular dimension of cost reduction remains not wise, given the structural and dynamic industry changes that are occurring. There needs to be obvious deeper partnering that includes healthy exchange of expectations and desired outcomes.

 

  • Similarly, S&OP teams must re-double efforts to further analyze and manage overall inventories with a keener eye on the overall stocking point trade-offs and costs of carrying inventory. With more sophisticated tools available to manage and optimize end-to-end supply chain inventories, the open question may be in the quality of the data that is fed into these tools, especially the realities of increased carrying costs. Teams are not fooling anyone by allowing data to remain static.  Today’s global logistics environment is not static, but rather highly dynamic and complex. Decision-making data must reflect this state.

 

  • The recent announcements from both FedEx and UPS regarding the initiation of dimensional pricing on ground shipments in 2015 will have an impact on online B2B and B2C fulfillment trends, in particular whether free shipping as a practice remains a viable strategy. Be watchful of this area.

As was the case in last year’s Supply Chain Matters commentary, the U.S. economy continues to show even more promising signs of manufacturing renewal and export recovery.  All of this is dependent on a business logistics infrastructure that demonstrates world-class competitiveness. If there is a clear learning from the past three to four years, it has been on reality that supply chains exist and are now dependent on a global network of business logistics. The major decisions related to supplier and product manufacturing sourcing is now more vested in the tradeoffs of global logistics and transportation costs and the industry coming to grips with troubling capacity constraint trends.

We again encourage our readers to share their observations regarding the current state of both U.S. and global logistics, its implication toward shifts in global sourcing, and implication on current operations planning and procurement management processes.

Bob Ferrari

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