"In 30 years, I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This" - Inventory Pileup Sounds Alarm

February 27, 2019

“In 30 years, I’ve never seen anything like this”: CEO of warehouse operator Pacific Mountain Logistics.

Sales at merchant wholesalers (except manufacturers’ sales branches and offices) fell 1% in December 2018, compared to November, to $497.2 billion on a seasonally adjusted basis, and inched up only 1% compared to December 2017, according to the Census Bureau estimates this morning.


But inventories at these wholesalers rose 1.1% from November and jumped 7.3% from December 2017, to $661.8 billion. Over the two-year period through December, inventories have risen 11%. This includes inventories of durable and non-durable goods (we’ll look at them separately in a moment):

This surge of inventories on soft sales caused the inventory-to-sales ratio to spike to 1.33, up from 1.30 in November and up from 1.25 a year earlier.


This is a familiar pattern. As inventories are piling up, and as inventory carrying-costs rise, companies eventually react: They whittle down their inventories by cutting orders. As we have seen in 2015 and 2016, this hammers the goods-based sectors of the economy. In 2016, it dragged GDP growth down to just 1.6%, the worst growth rate since the Great Recession. The overall economy was barely kept out of a recession by the service sector.


The transportation sector tracked this perfectly as it fell into a steep recession in 2015 and 2016. Now a similar pattern is starting to form: A surging inventory-to-sales ratio as inventories are piling up, while shipment volume of goods, as tracked by the Cass Freight Index, have started to decline on a year-over-year basis.


The Cass Freight Index covers consumer and industrial goods shipped by all modes of transportation — truck, rail, barge, and air — but does not cover commodities such as grains.


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