Worsening Inventory Pileup Rattles Goods-Based Economy

Worsening Inventory Pileup Rattles Goods-Based Economy by Wolf Richter for Wolf Street

And how it compares to what happened during the Financial Crisis.

The goods-based segment of the economy is heading for rough waters, and it is further diverging from the path of the services-based segment of the economy that is still growing at a solid rate: that’s what the current inventory pileup tells us.

When inventories pile up, sales by those companies that supply that inventory do well. But companies that sit on that inventory and have trouble selling it will at some point cut their orders to reduce their inventories. When this happens, sales drop all the way up the supply chain.

And the inventory pileup, particularly in durable goods at the wholesale level, just keeps getting worse. In January, these inventories surged 11.7% from January a year ago, and are up 17% from January two years ago, hitting $415 billion, the highest ever, according the Commerce Department this morning.

At the same time, sales of durable goods by these wholesalers rose 4.7% in January year over year, to $245.6 billion. Sales had peaked in September last year.

And the inventory-to-sales ratio for durable goods rose to 1.69 in January, the highest ratio since August 2016, back when the goods-based sector was coming out of the last inventory pileup that had led to the recession in the goods-based sector that had dragged down overall economic growth for 2016 to just 1.6%, the worst since the Financial Crisis. Only the much larger services sector, which was still growing, kept the economy out of an overall recession.

During 2015 and 2016, wholesales of durable goods declined and inventories were whittled down as wholesalers cut orders, which slowed down the whole supply chain. It was a drag on GDP, but eventually the inventory-to-sales ratio was brought into line. Now a similar scenario is building up:

Over the seven years of the chart, sales rose 23%, from $197 billion in January 2012 to $246 billion in January 2019. But inventories surged 41%, from $295 billion to $415 billion. This inventory buildup is considered investment in inventories, and as such is added to GDP growth. When inventories get whittled down, the reduction is subtracted from GDP.

The transportation sector fell into a steep recession in 2015 and 2016, based on the Cass Freight Index for Shipments, which covers consumer and industrial goods shipped by all modes of transportation — truck, rail, barge, and air — but does not cover commodities such as grains.

Now a similar pattern is forming: Inventories have been piling up, and shipment volume of goods, as tracked by the Cass Freight Index, have started to decline on a year-over-year basis.

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Wolf Richter

In his cynical, tongue-in-cheek manner, he muses on WOLF STREET about economic, business, and financial issues, Wall Street shenanigans, complex entanglements, and other things, debacles, and opportunities that catch his eye in the US, Europe, Japan, and occasionally China. WOLF STREET is the successor to his first platform… TP-Title-7-small-200px …whose ghastly name he finally abandoned in July 2014. Here’s the story on that. Wolf lives in San Francisco. He has over twenty years of C-level operations experience, including turnarounds and a VC-funded startup. He earned his BA and MBA in Texas and his MA in Oklahoma, worked in both states for years, including a decade as General Manager and COO of a large Ford dealership and its subsidiaries. But one day, he quit and went to France for seven weeks to open himself up to new possibilities, which degenerated into a life-altering three-year journey across 100 countries on all continents, much of it overland. And it almost swallowed him up.