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Carrier Market Outlook – March 2024


March Theme: Holding Steady

Carrier Market Outlook - March 2024

Arrive Insights™

Arrive Logistics VP of Market Intelligence David Spencer Headshot
David Spencer
VP of Market Intelligence
Aryan Shah
Senior Research Analyst

January trends reversed course in February and March, with van and reefer spot rates reaching new cycle lows. Loose conditions indicate the market is trending toward equilibrium. Rates should follow typical seasonality in the coming months, and a sustained inflationary flip is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

As produce season begins and the 100 Days of Summer draw near, we expect more regional volatility than in 2023 but less than in 2021 and 2022. However, as rate movement increases this summer, the market will likely become more vulnerable to disruption. 

Below are the key takeaways from this month’s update:

  • Limited winter weather disruptions and abundant capacity in February helped rates reach a new floor.
  • Temp controlled was the most volatile market and still leads the recovery relative to dry van despite rates hitting new cycle lows.
  • Tender rejections have dropped to 2023 levels, indicating that the market is relatively loose and less vulnerable to smaller disruptions.
  • Capacity continued to exit the market, but increased entrants in February temporarily slowed the rate and could further extend the downcycle.
  • Spot postings continue to decline year-over-year, although slower than in 2023.
  • Fuel prices have leveled out recently but remain elevated compared to early 2024, increasing carriers’ operating expenses.
  • Inflation is still sticky, but multiple rate cuts remain likely in 2024.

Market Indicators

Trucking Capacity

Demand Outlook

Market By Mode

Economic Outlook

Market Indicators

What’s Happening: The market remains loose despite short-lived volatility.

Why It Matters: Looseness indicates the market flip is still a ways off.

The Morgan Stanley Dry Van Freight Index is a good measure of relative supply; the higher the index, the tighter the market conditions. The black line with triangle markers on the chart provides a great view of what directional trends would be in line with normal seasonality based on historical data dating back to 2007. 

The market was loose heading into 2024 but tightened quickly in early January, causing the index to rise above 2023 levels and land close to the 10-year average. However, the index indicates soft conditions have returned over the past six weeks, with five straight readings showing loosening and levels falling close to where they were during the same period last year.

Figure 1: Morgan Stanley Dry Van Truckload Freight Index

Figures 2 & 3: Morgan Stanley Reefer and Flatbed Truckload Freight Indices

The most recent (January) ACT Supply-Demand Index reading was 50.2, down from 54.2 in December. Despite the decline, this marks six straight months of tightening conditions following 17 months of loosening, indicating the market is still down but trending toward equilibrium.  

Figure 4: ACT For-Hire Trucking Survey

Market conditions returned to 2023 levels in February after some volatility in January. Loosening across markets indicates that the downcycle persists and capacity is sufficient to meet demand across all modes. 

The Sonar Outbound Tender Reject Index (OTRI), which measures the rate at which carriers reject freight they are contractually required to take, hovered above 5% for most of February and remains relatively flat year-over-year despite a jump in early 2024. The tender rejection rate decline in February followed typical seasonality as shippers prepare for produce season and the 100 Days of Summer.

Figure 5: Outbound Tender Reject Index (SONAR)

Though dry van tender rejections are slightly below 4% and almost exactly in line with this time last year, they’re still well below March 2021 and 2022 levels. Reefer markets were volatile in late January, but February tender rejection rates fell back in line with 2023 levels and are trending just south of 5% to remain slightly up year-over-year.

Figures 6 & 7: Van & Reefer Outbound Tender Reject Indices

The FreightWaves SONAR Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI), which measures contract tender volumes across all modes, was up 10.1% year-over-year, or 9.7% when measuring accepted volumes. Adjusted accepted volumes were up 3% month-over-month in early March, driven by dry van tender acceptance increasing by 3% despite reefer tender acceptance declining by 1.6%.

Figure 8: Contract Load Accepted Volume (SONAR)

The DAT Load-to-Truck Ratio, which measures the total number of loads relative to the total number of trucks posted on their spot board, changed from previous months due to DAT data correction issues. February dry van and reefer ratios show moderate easing from January and are now similar to a year ago, indicating the market is still oversupplied.

Figure 9: DAT Van Load-to-Truck Ratio

Figure 10: DAT Reefer Load-to-Truck Ratio

Trucking Capacity

What’s Happening: Carriers continue to exit the market, albeit slower than in previous downcycles.

Why It Matters: Slow exits indicate some carriers still have enough capital to invest in their fleets.

According to ACT Research, new Class 8 truck orders remain above replacement levels, with 16,000 orders in February, or 15,100 on a seasonally adjusted basis. This trend is somewhat surprising as spot rates remain low, but it could be due to private fleets preparing for 2027 emission regulations.

Figure 11: ACT Research U.S. Class 8 Tractor Net Orders & Spot Rates

The for-hire carrier population continues to shrink. However, over the past month, revocations decreased as new entrants increased, slowing the exit rate slightly. This may have resulted from recent spot rate increases that made it possible for more carriers to stay in the market.  

Figure 12: FTR’s Net Change in Carrier Population

FTR reported 26,000 new orders in January — an increase of 10.3% month-over-month and more than 44% year-over-year — indicating that some carriers are trying to maintain or expand their fleets. 

February order estimates are around 25,700, a 2.4% month-over-month decrease but an 18.2% year-over-year increase. This trend likely points to the financial strength of larger carriers and private fleets’ ongoing investment in growth. 

While order levels were above the historical average, they did align with seasonal trends. Because freight demand is healthy overall, larger fleets are adding capacity to insource volume back from smaller for-hire fleets and owner-operators.

Figure 13: New Class 8 Truck Orders

Carrier margins continue to shrink due to falling revenues and high operating expenses, with ACT’s “Core Carrier” set showing year-over-year declines for six consecutive quarters. Net margins did rise quarter-over-quarter in Q4 2023 but were still down 2.7% year-over-year. As rates become more volatile in the back half of 2024 and into 2025, the pressure on carriers should ease.

Figure 14: ACT Research, Net Income, Core Carriers

According to ACT Research, the Class 8 backlog-to-build ratio rose to 7.5 months in January, but preliminary readings for February estimate that number could fall to 5.9 months. The backlog has risen by 11,000 units over the past six months and currently sits just north of 100,000.

Figure 15: ACT Research, U.S. Class 8 Tractors: Backlog and Backlog/Build Ratio

ACT’s Driver Availability Index increased by 4.5 points in January after dropping in December, likely due to owner-operators choosing to close rather than pay annual insurance and registration fees while rates are low. Despite loosening conditions, long-term challenges remain as retiring Baby Boomers shrink the U.S. labor force. 

Figure 16: ACT For-Hire Trucking Index: Driver Availability

Demand Outlook

What’s Happening: Demand is steady, and imports are strong.

Why It Matters: Higher import volumes should drive over-the-road freight demand.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported increased imports in January, with nearly two million TEUs entering the U.S., leading to growth of 4.7% month-over-month and 8.6% year-over-year. 

Attacks on vessels by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea are still causing significant maritime disruptions. Shippers continue to reroute shipments around the Cape of Good Hope or across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast to avoid dangerous areas. Despite some impact on costs and transit times, the movement of global goods remains stable overall. 

Figure 17: NRF Monthly Imports

Conditions calmed and followed recent trends in February as winter weather died down across the Northern U.S. February spot load postings were down 28% month-over-month. They were also down 11.9% year-over-year, but that was a significant improvement from the 36% year-over-year decline in January. Ultimately, demand today is weaker than during the pandemic but stronger than in the period preceding it. 

Figure 18: DAT Trendlines

Market by Mode

Cross-Border Canada

What’s Happening: Regional spring thaw restrictions are underway.

Why It Matters: Additional axle requirements could impact costs.

  • Rates remain low in an oversupplied market.
  • There was some outbound-Canada correction in February, leading the inbound-outbound volume gap to close slightly.
  • Snowstorms in Western Canada caused some delays for freight moving from Vancouver to Eastern Canada.
  • Canadian flatbed demand continues to grow as construction season approaches.
  • Spring thaw restrictions started in Zone One on March 4th, with additional restrictions likely to begin in Zone Two on March 18th. (See the map below for information on specific zones.)

Cross-Border Mexico

What’s Happening: Capacity is getting tighter as the produce season begins.

Why It Matters: Rates will likely rise as the season ramps up.

  • Carriers with Visa drivers are hesitant to travel North through California due to winter weather, leading to capacity constraints.
  • Produce season is picking up, and rate increases will likely follow.
  • The Bajio region is likely to be most impacted by produce season, with rates potentially ticking up by 10% to 15% as commodities like mangoes, berries and broccoli begin to ship.
  • New CCP layout fees are expected to go live in late March, increasing accountability for correct paperwork.
  • Food and beverage shippers will likely push to fill their inventories, which could result in short-lived demand spikes.
  • The Peso is getting stronger than the U.S. Dollar again, and carriers are reviewing rates to prevent losing the value of their contracts.
  • Capacity is still scarce in the Puebla area due to safety concerns and cargo theft. Over 50% of the country’s theft occurs between the EM-Puebla corridor. (See the map below for high-risk regions.)

LTL Insights

What’s Happening:  eBOLs are gaining momentum in the LTL space.

Why It Matters: Shippers may see increased efficiencies, better ETAs and fewer errors and costs.

  • Omni Logistics and Forward-Air CEOs have left as the companies merge, which could result in some LTL market volatility.
  • LTL operating ratios continue to be monitored for carriers that have taken most of the difficult Yellow freight.
  • eBOLs are gaining momentum in the LTL space, resulting in increased efficiencies, better ETAs and fewer errors and costs.
  • Domestic manufacturing is expanding again, and LTL demand will likely increase.

Temp Controlled

What’s Happening: Capacity could get tight as produce season begins.

Why It Matters: Rates will likely rise as capacity tightens.

East Coast

  • Conditions are softening following some early January volatility.
  • Temporary tightness will likely hit Florida in the spring and then move up the coast into Georgia and the Carolinas as the summer approaches.
  • The Mid-Atlantic market remains loose.


  • The Great Plains continue to ship the same commodities but with reduced weather disruption.
  • Tight conditions of late 2023 and early 2024 are no longer present as capacity remains abundant.
  • Large winter storms in late spring are unlikely but could result in small delays.

South Central

  • Increased produce shipments from Mexico could result in tighter conditions across the border.
  • South Texas continues to tighten, but freight is still easy to cover.
  • Meat products from Arkansas and Oklahoma remain in demand, but capacity is sufficient.


  • Demand is growing in Imperial Valley (produce) and Yuma (leafy greens).
  • Salinas will likely tighten in April as leafy greens start shipping out of the region; Yuma will loosen around the same time.
  • Northern California will likely tighten over the next two months.


  • Rates continue to fall as markets loosen and winter weather subsides.
  • Idaho continues to ship the same commodities but with fewer delays, resulting in relatively loose market conditions.

Open Deck

What’s Happening:  Spring arriving early is causing tightness.

Why It Matters: Rates could spike soon.

  • Open deck capacity is tightening nationwide, about a month earlier than usual, due to spring arriving early in Northern states.
  • Steel markets such as Memphis and Birmingham are tightening; Memphis through the Carolinas remains a steel-driven corridor.
  • Intra and inbound Texas short-hauls are tough, but long-hauls remain relatively loose.
  • Freeze laws in Michigan and the PNW will likely take effect in late March and early April for additional axle vehicles.
  • Demand is increasing for soil and mulch-related shipments.


What’s Happening: Rates have reached new cycle lows.

Why It Matters: Carriers will have to wait longer for any revenue increases.

Truckstop’s Weekly National Average Spot Rates provide a detailed view of week-to-week movements and a real-time look into the current environment. The index showed new cycle lows for van and reefer spot rates over the last two weeks, mirroring load-to-truck ratio and tender rejection trends during the same period; this is likely the bottom for rates as the produce season begins and summer approaches. Conversely, the flatbed market has grown stronger as construction-related seasonal demand increases.

Figure 21: Truckstop Weekly National Spot Rate Average

National diesel prices remain volatile, with moderate increases over the past couple of months despite some recent pullbacks. The average price through the first two weeks of March was $4.01, just a few cents below the February average. As a result, fuel surcharges across all three modes have been relatively flat but are still higher than at the end of 2023.

Figure 22: DAT Fuel Trends

DAT shows that dry van spot rates continue to decline from January and currently sit at $1.55 per mile, which aligns with cycle lows in October 2023. Contract rates stayed flat month-over-month and currently sit at $2.03 per mile. The spot-contract spread has increased by $0.05 to $0.48 per mile. This year’s outlook for potential price increases could result in more shippers locking in rates at current cycle lows.

Figure 23: DAT Dry Van National Average RPM Spot vs. Contract

Reefer rates continue to follow the same trend as dry van but at a more magnified level. Linehaul spot rates sit at $1.84 per mile in March, a 12% decline from January and a 4% decline from February. Contract rates have declined by $0.02 per mile, excluding fuel, and continue to get downward pressure from lower spot rates. However, increased volatility means the reefer market recovery is still outpacing dry van.

Figure 24: DAT Temp Control National Average RPM Spot vs. Contract

Normal seasonal tightness in the flatbed market continued in early March, but rates remain down year-over-year. Unlike the dry van and reefer markets, flatbed contract rates continue to slowly tick upwards and mitigate downward pressure from spot rates. Spot rates are currently $1.93 excluding fuel, and contract rates are $2.60 excluding fuel. 

Figure 25: DAT Flatbed National Average RPM Spot vs. Contract

Economic Outlook

What’s Happening: Sticky inflation persists, but the Fed will likely cut rates later this year.

Why It Matters: Lower interest rates could increase consumer spending and drive freight demand.

February CPI data came in at 3.2%, a slight increase from 3.1% in January. The inflation rate, excluding food and energy, was 3.8%. While this was slightly higher than expected, it is unlikely to deter the Fed from cutting interest rates later this year. It is still unclear when the Fed will start to cut rates, but Jerome Powell, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, announced there is almost enough evidence to begin the process. Rate cuts are likely to drive increased spending and, in turn, freight demand.

Figure 26: New York Times Inflation Data

January Bank of America card data showed spending rose 2.9% year-over-year on a non-seasonally adjusted basis. One of the key drivers was the strong recovery of service-based spending, which rebounded from a winter-impacted January. However, this was offset by weaker spending in February compared to January. Overall, consumer spending remains stable despite elevated interest rates.

Figure 27: Bank of America, Total Card Spending per Household


In February, the market returned to the loose conditions observed throughout most of 2023. Dry van and temp controlled spot rates recently reached new cycle lows, indicating the downcycle continues as capacity is still sufficient to support demand. 

Demand remains steady overall, and imports continue to tick up. As produce season begins, rates and tightness will likely follow typical seasonality and be more pronounced than last year. Capacity continues to exit the market slower than in previous down cycles. 

Ultimately, our 2024 outlook remains the same, with normal seasonality expected in the near term and increased rate volatility in the back half of the year.


About the Carrier Market Update

The Arrive Carrier Market Outlook, created by Arrive Insights™, is a report that analyzes data from multiple sources, including but not limited to FreightWaves SONAR, DAT, FTR Transportation Intelligence, Morgan Stanley Research, Bank of America Internal Data, ACT Research, Journal of Commerce, Stephens Research, National Retail Federation and FRED Economic Data from the past month as well as year-over-year. We know market data is vital in making real-time business decisions. At Arrive Logistics, we are committed to giving you the data and insights you need to better manage your freight.

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