Watch Now

Daseke, responding to Moody’s report, says rates steady to rising

Flatbed operator’s debt rating and outlook hold steady, partly based on prospect of higher rates

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

(Editor’s note: this story was edited April 15 to reflect comments supplied by Moody’s after the initial publication.)

Daseke is seeing higher flatbed rates even as dry van numbers are coming down, a significant issue on the heels of a ratings agency’s review of the company and its view of the company’s figures.

The flatbed rates that Daseke is seeing are stable to higher, according to CEO Jonathan Shepko, who spoke to FreightWaves in response to questions about a recent report by the Moody’s debt rating agency.

Moody’s recently said the outlook for Daseke (NASDAQ: DSKE) was “stable.” The opinion does not impact the company’s debt rating of B2, which is considered noninvestment grade and is the fifth step down on the noninvestment table. 

The stable outlook, according to Moody’s, “reflects our expectation that Daseke will grow its revenue primarily through rate growth as opposed to volume during the next 12-18 months.”

That statement was issued as broad indices of truck rates are falling. However, the decline in dry van rates is far more than that of flatbed, which has seen a relatively small decline after several weeks of higher rates, according to the seven-day flatbed rate per mile in the TSTOPFRPM.USA data series in SONAR.

Shepko challenged interpreting the Moody’s statement on the company’s dependence on higher rates as suggesting a possible risk or dependency. 

The CEO’s interpretation of the Moody’s statement on the link between Daseke’s future and higher rates was that the agency believes “future organic growth (at Daseke) will be driven by rate improvement.” Shepko added, “That is different from (suggesting) financial conditions are predicated on improving rates.” 

An email sent to Moody’s analysts was not returned.

The decline in truckload rates, Shepko said, is not being seen in flatbed. “It’s been disproportionately borne by those who have exposure to spot rates,” he said. “We are mostly flatbed.”

Comparisons that are “month to month, week to week and even sequentially over the last week or few weeks, we’ve actually gotten price increases from shippers,” Shepko added.

Between 60% and 65% of Daseke’s business is in what he called “specialized” freight, such as hazardous materials. Shepko added that those businesses are “anti-recessionary.”

Daseke recorded an operating ratio of 95.2% in the fourth quarter of 2021 and 92.8% for the year. 

Moody’s said its own estimate of Daseke’s margin saw it declining to the mid-6% range over the next 12-18 months “unless prospects for U.S. industrial production and construction activities materially weaken from current levels.” It estimated a margin of 6.9% in 2021, which is roughly in line with the difference between 100% and the full-year OR the company reported for last year. 

That margin was “notably higher than the 2% to 5% in the prior three years,” the Moody’s report said. 

The report acknowledges that Daseke will face “several inflationary headwinds relating to driver pay, salaries, recruiting and operating costs [that] are unlikely to abate in the near-term.” But it said “much” of that can be offset with pricing growth, “albeit it less so in 2022 than … in 2021.”

A review by Moody’s is focused on a company’s ability to pay debt; it does not forecast earnings, the way a Wall Street analyst would.

Without being too explicit, Shepko appeared to be somewhat critical or disappointed that Daseke’s debt rating stayed steady. He said he believed part of it was concern over macroeconomic conditions, such as a possible recession or the Russia-Ukraine war, rather than any issues with Daseke’s operations. 

He said the debt-to-EBITDA multiples at Daseke are in line with industry standards. The company does not have any near-term debt maturations, has no covenants that it might breach and has more than adequate liquidity.

Many of Daseke’s costs are variable, “and even if there is a decline in the rate environment, the cost structure would flex down with that,” Shepko said. 

In an email to FreightWaves, received after the initial publication of this article, Moody’s analysts Jonathan Kanarek’s comments seemed to agree with Shepko’s view that macroeconomic factors were a key factor in Moody’s failure to increase the company’s debt rating.

“Obviously, there is a fair amount of uncertainty still out there ranging from the ongoing Russia/Ukraine conflict to continued supply chain congestion,” he wrote in an email. “And the decline in spot pricing for dry van transportation also caught our attention. That said, I’m not sure that Daseke’s rates would move in lockstep with those of dry van.”

Daseke is judged according to Moody’s Surface Transportation & Logistics rating methodology scorecard. Based on that methodology, Kanarek said, “on a forward-looking basis, the scorecard-indicated outcome is higher, at Ba3.”

But he echoed comments in the report that said that while the B2 rating remains in place, the fact that it is not Ba3 “reflects the high capital investment that limits prospects for positive free cash flow, the cyclicality and competitive nature of the flatbed trucking industry, and management’s public indications that the firm will look to resume acquisition activity in 2022.” 

Daseke’s publicly traded debt is atypical in the trucking sector; a search of the websites of both Moody’s and S&P Global finds few other long-haul trucking companies with a public debt rating. J.B. Hunt carries a Moody’s rating of Baa1, which is investment grade and is seven notches above Daseke’s. 

Several LTL carriers, such as XPO Logistics, also have publicly traded debt. Shepko said there are other trucking companies with traded debt in secondary markets, which he said are less liquid than the public markets where Daseke debt trades, which brings them a rating from agencies such as Moody’s or S&P Global.

S&P Global carries a debt rating of Daseke at B, which is roughly equivalent to a B2 rating at Moody’s. 

With the focus on debt, the key number for a company such as Moody’s is debt to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. According to the Moody’s review, that stood at 3X for Daseke at the end of December, down significantly from 4.1X at the close of 2020.

“This improvement will provide Daseke with greater financial flexibility as it contemplates potential acquisitions,” Moody’s said in its report, noting that it expects the company to return to a more aggressive acquisition strategy this year. Shepko said on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call that “the team would be pretty disappointed if we did not do at least a few … acquisitions this year.”

Moody’s said it expected Daseke acquisition activity to be limited to about $100 million this year, “although its existing credit metrics could accommodate larger opportunities.”

In its 10-K filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission for 2021, Daseke said that since its inception in 2008 through 2018, the company had acquired 20 flatbed companies. In the last two years of that buying spree, it spent $412 million on acquisitions. But as Moody’s, said, Daseke “has been quiet since that point, in favor of improving operating performance.”

Ratings agencies are now also viewing companies through an environmental, social and governance (ESG) lens. Daseke, as a company with extensive control by former Chairman Don Daseke, who the 10-K says controls roughly 29% of the company’s voting stock, will always be under particular focus on the “G” prong of ESG.

Moody’s gave recent changes at the company, including the appointment of Shepko as CEO last year, a thumbs-up. “The company’s new management team, with its CEO, CFO and COO all joining in 2020-2021, has quickly established a credible track record as it’s overseen noticeable operating improvements,” Moody’s said in its section under “ESG Considerations.” “The company’s financial policy is focused on increasing free cash flow, balanced against requisite fleet investments, and maintaining moderate financial leverage.”

More articles by John Kingston

E2open’s junk debt rating remains but logistics software provider’s outlook improving

Perry at TIA: Excess trucking demand hit 26%, returning to normal

Key logistics index hits all time high but market peak may be past

John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.