* Q4 loss of 44 cents per share
* Slashes 1,100 jobs in Q4
* CEO: Worst freight recession I’ve seen in 37 years
* Shares down 3 percent (Adds background, stock action, CHICAGO dateline)
CHICAGO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - U.S. trucking company Arkansas Best Corp ABFS.O swung to a surprise fourth-quarter loss and said it slashed about 1,100 jobs in the period as the U.S recession brought "unprecedented weakness" to its business, pushing down both freight volumes and prices.
“We are now over 27 months into a freight recession that is the worst I have seen during my 37 years in this industry,” Chief Executive Robert Davidson said in a release.
The Ft. Smith, Arkansas-based company reported a quarterly net loss of $11 million, or 44 cents per share, compared with net income of $13.5 million, or 54 cents per share, in the year-ago period.
Conditions have been tough for U.S. trucking companies since the third quarter of 2006. Falling auto sales, lackluster retail sales and a slumping housing market have choked off demand for trucking services.
According to investment banking firm Avondale Partners, 3,065 trucking firms filed for bankruptcy in 2008, compared with less than 2,000 in 2007. The highest annual bankruptcy rate so far came during the last U.S. recession in 2001, when 3,990 truck firms went under.
Arkansas Best also said it cut about 350 jobs in January 2009. The company had a total headcount of 11,895, according to Reuters data.
It also said it has closed some facilities across its network, plus eliminated pay increases and annual incentive payments for company executives.
Operating revenue fell 14 percent to $391.2 million.
Analysts, on average, expected profit of 19 cents a share in the fourth quarter, before items, on revenue of $410.3 million, according to Reuters Estimates.
Arkansas Best is a less-than-truckload company (LTL), which consolidates smaller loads into a single truck.
It is an asset-intensive business within the trucking sector, as LTLs require a network of facilities where trucks can be loaded and unloaded as the smaller loads make their way across the country.
Analysts say while the entire trucking sector is hurting as a result of the recession, LTL companies are feeling the pain more because of the need to run these large networks.
On Nasdaq, Arkansas Best shares were down 75 cents, or 3.1 percent at $23.14. (Reporting by Nick Carey and Bijoy Koyitty, editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)
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