Conditions have moderated slightly in early February as widespread winter weather and elevated COVID case counts are beginning to stabilize, allowing for normal seasonal trends to emerge. Despite the uncertainty and challenges that remain, the data supports a forecast that will show stable, but gradually declining spot rates throughout 2022, driven by slow improvements in the balance between truckload supply and demand.
The FreightWaves SONAR Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI), which measures contract freight volumes across all modes, was down 15.1% year-over-year in early April. However, it is important to note that OTVI includes both accepted and rejected load tenders, so we must factor in the corresponding Outbound Tender Rejection Index (OTRI) to uncover the true measure of accepted tender volumes.
Sonar Outbound Tender Reject Index (OTRI) measures the rate at which carriers reject the freight they are contractually required to take. The index was at 11.07% in early April after experiencing an acceleration over the past month in what had been a fairly consistent decline, from a high of 22.75% in the first week of January and 18.77% in early March. This is the lowest OTRI since pandemic-related disruptions were ramping up in mid-June 2020, nearing levels we would expect to see in an equilibrium market.
Month-to-date in April, easing conditions in the spot market and normal seasonal slowdowns early in the second quarter have resulted in plunging spot rates for Dry Van and Reefer equipment, while flatbed rates continue to rise as building and construction season gets underway.
Economic activity in the manufacturing sector grew in March, with the overall economy hitting 22 consecutive months of growth. LTL volume remains solid as capacity is still being strained by the supply chain struggling to recover from labor force shortages and backlogs caused by the pandemic.
Changes to the capacity landscape as a result of rising fuel costs and shifting market conditions could take several months to play out.
The strong growth in single truck operations since mid-2020 has created downside risk exposure for truckload rates due to the nature of the competition it creates in the spot market. We are unsure of how long the elevated fuel rate environment will last and ultimately how large of an impact this will have on capacity trends, but if small operations begin to close up shop, used equipment and qualified drivers should start to become available to larger fleets.
Forecasting freight demand remains challenging, as COVID-related shutdowns in China and the war in Ukraine both present unknown risks to future availability or demand for certain commodities or materials.
The consumer price index rose to a new 40-year high again in March, and prices have now climbed 8.5% year-over-year. The data indicates that rising prices have not yet had a significant impact on consumer demand, however, it is our belief that decreased consumer spending power will result in declining consumer demand should inflation persist or worsen.
The short-term outlook is clear: Elevated contract rates will continue to support a demand shift away from the spot market, resulting in continued downward pressure on spot rates through at least mid-May when summer peak season commences.
Spot volumes surged in January as continued bouts of severe winter weather and surging COVID case counts made it difficult for capacity networks to find balance. Throughput at the ports and in manufacturing and industrial production continues to act as a bottleneck for freight volumes as there are no signs of a pullback in overall freight movements or demand. We expect to see a slight pullback in spot volumes as a result of improved contract compliance for the remainder of the first quarter, assuming we see stable weather conditions and a continuation of declining COVID case counts.
FreightWaves SONAR Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI), which measures contract freight volumes across all modes, was up 8.7% year-over-year in early February. It is important to note that OTVI includes both accepted and rejected load tenders, so we must discount the index by the corresponding Outbound Tender Rejection Index (OTRI) to uncover the true measure of accepted tender volumes. If we apply this method to the year-over-year OTVI values, the growth in volume increases to 11.4%. Tender rejections are down 8.8% from 21.85% a year ago to 19.92% as of February 1st this year, contributing to the OTRI adjusted measure’s higher growth in actual freight volumes.
When drilling down to specific equipment types, the dry van tender volume index was up 7.2%, and the reefer tender volume index was up 2.8%, year-over-year. This equated to a 10.2% increase and a 10.5% increase in actual volumes for the two modes, respectively. Tender rejections were lower for both equipment types by more than 10% year-over-year on February 1st, resulting in improved growth rates when considering actual volumes.
DAT data indicates that year-over-year spot volumes were up by 104.7% in January, up from 48.4% in December, 41% in November and 35% in October. Month-over-month spot posts were up 37.4% in January, an unusual trend early in the first quarter following peak retail season in Q4. This is indicative of the disruptive nature of the market conditions in January, driven by elevated COVID case counts and repeated bouts of severe winter weather. The 4% week-over-week decrease the first week of February illustrates the market is trying to follow a normal seasonal trend when conditions allow.
FTR and Truckstop’s Total All Mode Spot Volume Index started February down 24% from the peak in January. The All Mode index remains up 54% year-over-year. Last year, spot volumes took off in February following the ice storms that crippled southern states. As of late, spot volumes have followed a more normal seasonal trend and as a result, we expect year-over-year spot volume comps to potentially trend negatively in the next few weeks.
Sonar Outbound Tender Reject Index (OTRI) measures the rate at which carriers are rejecting the freight they are contractually required to take. The index is currently at 19.74%, down from a high of 22.75% seen in the first week of January. It is a welcome sign for shippers to see normal seasonal trends after a bumpy start to the year. The gradual nature of the decline, however, provides context for the year ahead. Elevated contract rates are resulting in improvements to tender rejections, but only as conditions allow. When capacity is disrupted or driver shortages are exacerbated by surging COVID cases, we expect to see volatility followed by a return to the downward trend once stability is seen. With demand expected to remain strong, easing pressures will only come as fast as capacity can enter the market. In the short term, we expect the next opportunity for surges in market volatility, excluding weather events or other unforeseen events, will be in the back half of March as we approach the end of the first quarter.
OTRI has trended down from a peak seen in the first week of January. This indicates a return to more normal seasonal patterns as a downward trend is expected this time of year.
Dry van and Reefer tender rejections followed a similar trend to the all mode index, trending lower from highs in early January.
The DAT Load to Truck Ratio measures the total number of loads compared to the total number of trucks posted on their load board. In January, the Dry Van Load to Truck Ratio increased to 9.34, up 43.5% month-over-month and 119.8% year-over-year. Load to truck ratios surged in early January, but have trended back down as of late. Based on early February conditions, we expect to see load to truck ratios on the decline once full month results are in.
The Reefer Load to Truck Ratio increased to 20.43, up 45.7% month-over-month and 150.7% year-over-year. The data illustrates that extreme cold temperatures resulted in surging demand for temperature-controlled capacity in January, driving up the load to truck ratios. Recent trends indicate easing conditions in early February for reefer equipment types.
The weekly load to truck ratios help illustrate that even though conditions are easing over the past few weeks, load to truck ratios remain highly elevated compared to historical norms. Any additional easing in the first quarter is expected to be gradual.
The Morgan Stanley Dry Van Freight Index is another measure of relative supply. The higher the index, the tighter the market conditions. According to the index, conditions followed a similar trend to what was seen in DAT and Freightwaves SONAR data, easing into February after seeing a tightness surge in January. Although their straight-line forecast is hard to trust, the consistency seen year-over-year of the seasonality throughout the year is highly informative about what directional trends to expect on a go-forward basis. Looking forward, normal seasonality would indicate a continuation of the easing conditions before seeing demand pick back up in March.
Dry van spot rates continued their staggering climb, reaching a new all-time high of $3.11 per mile, including fuel, in January. Although rates appear to have increased again into early February, quickly rising fuel costs are behind this trend. When excluding fuel, dry van spot rates are flat month to date. Reefer spot rates increased $0.12 to $3.59 per mile in January, but have pulled back slightly to $3.58 in early February. When excluding fuel, reefer linehaul rates are down $0.05 per mile from their all-time high in January. Normal seasonality indicates that we should expect to see spot rates plateau or decline further in February. Assuming stable weather patterns and a continuation of declining COVID case counts, we believe normal seasonal trends will persist as we progress into March.
Although spot van rates stalled out in early February, contract rates have continued to climb as new awards went live throughout January.
Dry van contract rates, which are now trending to see an increase in twenty out of the last twenty-one months, have reached a new all-time high in early February at $2.65 per mile, excluding fuel. Reefer contract rates, which have also seen consistent growth over the last twenty-one months, have continued to increase in early February, currently at $2.76 per mile, excluding fuel. The flatbed market has seen flat contract rates in early February, currently at $2.86 per mile, excluding fuel.
Laredo, TX works as a strong proxy for cross-border freight movement, as it sees by far the highest cross-border truck traffic at the Mexico border.
We are still expecting continued challenges with capacity throughout 2022. It is difficult to tell whether or not we will see equipment and/or driver issues begin to improve as the year progresses, but no clear improvements are expected in the short term. Arrive’s tracked metrics and January survey of core carriers indicate truck, trailer and driver availability issues continue to be the main factors for this trend. Responses were remarkably similar to the October survey, indicating not much has changed, for better or worse, in any of the segments. In all three categories, 20% or less indicated strength in being able to find drivers or equipment, with between 40%-47% indicating limited availability across the three categories.
In the same survey, we polled carriers on their expectations for rate increases in 2022. Similar to what we saw in the assessment of driver and equipment availability, the January responses closely mirrored the October responses. Less than 16% of carriers are expecting rate decreases in 2022. Nearly 69% expect rate increases, which includes 27% of respondents indicating rate increases of 4% or more.
FTR is reporting that Class 8 truck production improved 53% per day as OEM’s finished up many previous semi-completed units to boost year-end figures. Build rates are expected to fall in January as semiconductor and other part shortages continue to impede production levels. This increase in production levels, however, led to a decrease in the average time from order to delivery from 13.1 months in November to 9.3 months in December. FTR continues to reiterate that new truck orders are not a good indicator of demand as OEM’s continue to meter new orders in an attempt to control backlogs, and the new truck lead time is expected to rise again next month as more orders are entered and production levels return to November levels.
New truck lead time decreased from 13.1 months in November to just 9.3 months in December as production levels improved in the month.
New trailer production levels remained flat in December. Backlogs eased as new orders declined, but similar to what we are seeing in truck backlogs, trailer OEMs are carefully adding to orders to control backlogs. New orders are not a good indicator of trailer demand. Trailer production levels are expected to improve gradually as supply chain constraints ease.
FTR’s forecast for truck utilization, the share of seated trucks actively engaged in freight hauling, is mostly unchanged from last month’s update, with the expectation that it is to remain above 96% through 2023 due to strong demand expectations with only limited gains in capacity.
As we think about what the key themes will be regarding the domestic truckload market in 2022, it is easy to point to backlogs as being a primary driver of continued demand strength. Backlogs at the ports. Backlogs in manufacturing orders. Backlogs in auto and other industrial production. In each of these cases, it’s clear there is still plenty of freight that will need to move.
Congestion at the ports remains, indicating there is still a healthy amount of backlogged volume to work through. High import volumes are expected to continue throughout 2022, supplying not only more retail imports but much-needed raw materials to support backlogged orders in manufacturing, auto and other industrial production. Nearly two years of reduced production levels due to labor and supply chain constraints have resulted in low inventories and backlogged manufacturing orders in excess of pre-pandemic levels. As supply chain constraints ease, the upside risk for manufacturing-driven demand strength grows.
The new White House dashboard illustrates the surging demand for imports, up 13% from the prior peak in 2018, and slightly lower on-the-shelf availability of products, down just 2% from pre-pandemic levels.
December and January economic data is impacted by surging COVID case counts, but a rebound is expected as infections seem to have peaked. Inflation remains a major concern as it relates to consumer sentiment, but backlogged orders in manufacturing and industrial production should support demand strength even if inflation results in declines in consumer retail spending.
FTR’s latest truck loadings forecast shows little change in outlook for 2022 compared to last month’s forecast, coming in at 3.8% for the full year, down from 3.9% last month.
Increases in the full 2022 forecast were seen month-over-month for Dry Van, but decreases were seen in Refrigerated and Flatbed equipment types. With volumes forecasted to continue to grow in 2022, we must note that easing pressures in the market will require improvements in capacity conditions as the anticipated growth in demand will continue to stress carrier networks and keep upward pressure on rates until capacity can be added to the road.
The Bank of America (BofA) consumer spending data provides visibility into changing consumer behaviors and spending patterns. Total card spending is up 12.3% year-over-year and 20.2% compared to 2019 for the 7-day period ending February 5th. These numbers indicate consumer spending has improved from early January levels as we move into February.
Total card spending growth has been on the rise as COVID case counts have retreated. When Omicron first began to surge, there was a sharp reduction in spending on leisure services, including airline, lodging, entertainment and restaurants, and a rise in durable goods spending, including furniture, home improvement and electronics. This is a trend we have seen throughout the pandemic. In recent weeks we have seen a strong rebound in leisure services spending alongside continued strength in durable goods. As case counts continue to fall and mask mandates ease in cities around the country, we expect pent-up demand for leisure services to result in moderated spending on durable goods.
The impact from Omicron in January can be seen in the spending by major category. On a month-over-month basis, we saw continued declines in airlines and department stores spending and gains in spending on furniture and general merchandise.
The personal savings rate saw a slight rebound in December, but still remains below February 2020 levels, indicating consumers are not saving as much as they were earlier in the pandemic, and that current spending levels may not be sustainable. The personal savings rate trended up slightly last month, most likely as a result of seasonal slowdowns in Q1 and surging Omicron cases leading to a pullback in leisure services spending. If the personal savings rate remains low, it provides continued support that at some point we could see the economy begin to slow down.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a measure of the average change in prices paid by consumers and acts as a strong indicator of inflation. Over the past year, the CPI has increased by 7.5%, the largest annual increase in 40 years (February 1982). The government pumped a lot of cash into the US economy, which is undoubtedly the key driver of this strong inflation, but at some point, consumer spending power will be reduced to a point where we see meaningful reductions in consumer spending. Strong inflation rates, rising prices and lower savings all could play a part in leading to declining consumer demand and declining truckload demand in the months and years ahead.
Over the past year, we have seen a general downward trajectory for contract tender rejections that have coincided with increases in contract rates. Aside from the widespread capacity event that was the ice storm last February, the localized surges in tightness mostly fell in line with normal seasonality around holidays and EoQs. Improved contract compliance as of late is providing us with confidence that weather and COVID-related disruptions from early January are just a continuation of these short-lived periods of volatility. As conditions remain stable, we expect to see normal seasonal trends and elevated contract rates continue to lead to gradual improvements in contract compliance. Any disruptions, however, will continue to expose how sensitive the capacity networks are to even brief shake-ups. Shippers cannot prepare for every scenario, but at the very least should be looking toward the holidays and other predictable time periods where volatility popped up last year as potential risk points for rate volatility again this year. Next up will be the end-of-quarter push at the end of March.
The outlook for conditions, as we look ahead in 2022, will continue to largely depend on what we see from truckload demand. Congestion at the ports and backlogged orders in manufacturing and industrial production indicate that we should expect demand strength to continue. Inflation and the expiration of government stimulus will continue to result in a reduction in consumer spending power, likely leading to pullbacks in consumer demand. There has been little to no improvement in capacity conditions, which continued to see challenges with driver and equipment availability. COVID case counts have improved, but new surges have shown the potential to be highly disruptive to both domestic and overseas labor availability, and influence the balance of spending between durable goods and services.
Despite the uncertainty and challenges that remain, we believe the data is supporting a forecast that sees stable, but declining spot rates throughout 2022. These rate declines will be gradual as we expect improvements in the truckload supply and demand balance to take place slowly. On a year-over-year basis, we now expect to see spot rates up in the high single digits due to the rapid, unseasonal rate surge in January, with year-over-year comps turning negative by early in the third quarter.
The Arrive Monthly Market Update, 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, Journal of Commerce, Stephens Research, National Retail Federation and FRED Economic Data from the past month as well as year-over-year.
We know that market data is vital to making real-time business decisions, and at Arrive Logistics, we are committed to giving you the data you need to better manage your freight.
SONAR TICKER: OTVI.USA
Tender Volumes are representative of nationwide contract volumes and act as an indicator of Truckload Demand.
SONAR TICKER: OTRI.USA
Tender Rejections indicate the rate at which carriers reject loads they are contractually required to take and acts as an indicator of the balance between Truckload Supply and Demand.
SONAR TICKER: ORDERS.CL8
New Truck Orders is an indicator of the trucking industry’s health and carrier sentiment, as carriers typically invest in new trucks when demand and optimism are high.
SONAR TICKER: IPRO.USA
Industrial Production measures the output of the industrial sector, including mining, manufacturing and utilities.
SONAR TICKER: CSTM.CHNUSA
US Customs Maritime Import Shipments, China to the United States measures the total number of import shipments being cleared for entry to the U.S. from China.
Rate Spread measures the difference between the national average contract rate per mile and the national average spot rate per mile and is closely inversely correlated to movements in tender rejections and spot market volumes.
WEEKLY JOBLESS CLAIMS
Weekly Jobless Claims are used as a barometer for the pace of layoffs in the general economy.
Unemployment Rate is the number of people who are unemployed that are actively seeking work.