A friend and I have just completed a 2,300-kilometre car trip from Florida to Toronto.
Not only was it a gruelling drive but it brought home in stark terms the grim reality of the economic impact COVID-19 is having on rural America.
We’ve all seen pictures on TV of the empty streets in cities like New York and Toronto.
I can report that the highways are empty too, apart from commercial transport trucks that are keeping the supply chains open and an occasional Canadian RV heading home. In fact, I saw more private cars on the road between St. Catharines and Toronto than I did on the entire drive through the U.S.
Small rural businesses along the way have either closed or are struggling to keep going. The only operating restaurants were the occasional fast-food places offering drive-through service only.
Most gas stations were still open, although some have closed down or are about to do so. Ellen, a cashier in a convenience store at a filling station in South Carolina, told me she was the only person working and didn’t know how long that would go on, since business was off about 70 per cent.
“If we close, I don’t know where we’ll get the money to live on,” she said.
Some hotels are also closing and the ones that remain open are operating with skeletal staff.
“We plan to stay open as long as the government lets us,” said Jan, the desk clerk at a Hampton Inn in Erie, Pa. “But we’ve had to lay off staff and the ones that remain are working 12-hour shifts.”
She said that many hotels near airports have shut down entirely as air traffic has been slashed. In some cases, they were hosting only one or two guests a night.
The automobile portion of the U.S.-Canada border at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge was almost deserted. There was only one booth open and one car ahead of me. The Border Services Agency officer glanced at my passport, asked how long I had been away, and warned me in stark detail how the law required me to go into mandatory isolation for 14 days and the dire penalties I would face if I failed to comply. He then handed me back the passport with a form outlining ways to protect myself (hand-washing, big surprise!) and recommended supplies (including hand sanitizer, as if anyone can find it).
He asked no questions about what was in the car, even though it was packed with clothes and personal items.
That’s a small sampling of one road trip. Anyone who has travelled by highway recently in the U.S. or Canada would probably have had a similar experience.
But the long hours on the road caused me to think about what is working and where to invest now. One obvious answer was right in front of us as we drove — trucks.
Drivers are working overtime (and perhaps dangerously so from lack of sleep) to keep food, supplies, and medications on our grocery and pharmacy shelves and to supply needed parts to industry. They are among the overlooked heroes in this crisis.
We saw many trucks on the road from J.B. Hunt Transport (NDQ: JBHT). This Arkansas-based firm is one of the largest transportation logistics companies in North America, providing services throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Its services include transportation of full-truckload containerized freight, using company-controlled equipment and either company drivers or independent contractors. Hunt also has arrangements with most of the major North American rail carriers to transport truckload freight.
The company was incorporated in 1961 and went public in 1983. It’s a huge operation and a member of the Fortune 500.
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The stock hit an all-time high of $ 122.29 US in November but then dropped to a low of $ 75.29 in mid-March as the whole market crashed. That was clearly an overreaction by investors. Hunt has become an essential business in these crisis times. The stock has rebounded and was trading in the US $ 90 range at the time of writing.
The stock markets are incredibly volatile these days so big swings up or down in the shares of even the most solid companies are possible. But J.B. Hunt is one firm that should prosper in these troubled times. Ask your financial adviser about it.
Please stay safe. We’ll get through this together!