A A truck-buying binge three to four years ago by big transporters like Celadon Group Inc. has created a glut of used trucks today – a surfeit that is depressing the price of used equipment as much as 22 percent, analysts say.
Many fleets bought scores of new trucks when transportation demand was booming a few years ago. Then U.S. manufacturing activity flagged and import growth slowed as retailers rang up disappointing sales. Freight volumes started stalling out in late 2015, leaving too many trucks competing for cargo.
Large long-haul trucking companies typically run a truck for three to five years, then trade it before the warranty expires. Repair and maintenance costs tend to skyrocket after about 500,000 miles.
Now, trucking companies are trying to trade in vehicles following one of the steepest plunges in used-truck prices since the recession. Some carriers are “upside down’’ on trucks in their fleets, meaning they owe more on a vehicle than it is worth.
Large carriers such as Swift Transportation Co., Knight Transportation Inc. and Werner Enterprises have said the soft market for used trucks has put a dent in their businesses, even though cargo volumes have begun to recover. Last year, some fleets wrote down the value of trucks that are many companies’ main assets.
Demand for new trucks stemmed from companies like Celadon, an Indianapolis, Ind.-based carrier that expanded its truck-leasing division from 750 vehicles under management in 2013 to 11,300 trucks in 2016.
Over the past two years, the average retail price for a used Class 8 sleeper, the heavy-duty tractor used for long-haul routes, has plunged about 22 percent to about $49,000 in March, according to J.D. Power Valuation Services. That translates into a decrease of some $140 million across a fleet of 10,000 trucks.
“A lot of these fleets are upside down at the time of trade. It’s forcing companies to keep their equipment longer,’’ said Trevor Pasmann, corporate used-truck manager at Kenworth Sales Co., a commercial-truck dealer based outside Salt Lake City, Utah.
Some carriers that expanded their fleets now are cutting the number of trucks they run. That feeds more vehicles into the market and works to keep used-truck values down.
Last month, Ryder System Inc., a commercial-truck operator with a large leasing and commercial-rental division, reported first-quarter earnings fell 32 percent from a year earlier. The company blamed in part the soft used-vehicle market, as well as weaker-than-expected demand for commercial-vehicle rentals.
While used-vehicle prices are showing signs of bottoming out, the supply of used big rigs is expected to remain substantial into 2020, said Chris Visser, senior commercial-truck analyst at J.D. Power. If freight demand fails to improve, he said, pricing will remain depressed.
As vehicle prices fell, some trucking companies adjusted their books to reflect lower resale values for their equipment. Carriers that were making money during the boom by trading in used vehicles found themselves ringing up smaller gains on the sale of those assets.
For many publicly traded carriers, those hits to the bottom line represented “the biggest such headwinds in more than 20 years,’’ according to a February research note from transportation analysts at Stephens Inc., an investment bank and private-equity firm.
On May 1, Celadon said it had hired Stephens as an adviser and its chief operating officer had resigned, amid an examination by the company’s audit committee of transactions involving the purchase and sale of equipment between June and December of 2016. Celadon’s auditor, BKD LLP, has withdrawn its reports for fiscal 2016, which ended June 30, and the two subsequent quarters.
Celadon has been accused by two short sellers, Prescience Point Research Group and Jay Yoon, of attempting to hide mounting losses tied to its bet on the truck resale market. Celadon declined to comment.