Truckload rates are continuing to increase in Q2 2021

Truckload Rates Pressured by Fuel, Capacity, Wages

Demand for flatbed equipment is high, and while it is declining for dry van and refrigerated, don’t expect truckload rates to follow.]

The news around climbing truckload rates is not all gloom and doom. A combination of factors across the broader domestic transportation marketplace will spur a drop in demand and relief on rates.

You can control some of those costs today by balancing procurement between spot market opportunities with short- and long-term contracts. At the same time, your strategy through the second quarter can position you for cost and service gains heading into 2022.

Let’s examine factors affecting truckload rates during the months ahead, and I will share some of the ways we help Transportation Insight clients respond in the current environment.

Truckload Demand Varies, Rates Remain High

Coming into 2021, truckload rates were at a peak. High, steady pricing will likely continue without many dips as we head through the growing season. Tighter capacity for produce and beverages coincides with increased summer highway travel, and we will see upward rate pressure until the July 4 holiday period when demand traditionally tapers off.

Average Truckload Rates, according to Morgan Stanley Research’s Freight Transportation Report on April 28, 2021.
National average spot and contract rates through April 27, 2021. Year-to-year comparisons (2021 in red) for reefer, dry van and flatbed. Source: Morgan Stanley Research, DAT Solutions.

That demand has not really decreased since the nation started coming out of pandemic lockdowns last summer. Retailers and manufacturers rushed to restock depleted inventories, and the holiday peak season added strain on capacity not just in the truckload marketplace, but also less-than-load and parcel.

Service issues and disruptions in LTL, intermodal and parcel are pushing more freight into the over-the-road world. Shippers facing accessorials (i.e. excessive length charges) or delivery delays with LTL can find benefit in multi-stop truckload shipments. We have customers where modal conversion to rail is usually worth considering, but not in this environment. That freight, too, is also competing for truckload capacity.

Until some of the capacity challenges in other modes work out, capacity pressure will continue, likely until July, when I expect rates will recede. Even if demand declines before that, as it has recently for refrigerated and dry van transportation, do not expect costs to drop. Flatbed demand is still going strong, and while it is down for those other equipment types, prices have not yet followed.

Truckload Freight Indices for Dry Van, Reefer and Flatbed, according to Morgan Stanley Research’s Freight Transportation Report on April 28, 2021
Truckload Freight Index measuring demand for services compared to supply through April 27, 2021. Year-to-year comparisons (2021 in red) for reefer, dry van and flatbed. Source: Morgan Stanley Research.

There are a few factors keeping these truckload rates elevated.

Truckload Carrier Costs, Fuel Prices Drive Up Rate-Per-Mile

Truckload rates have not dropped for dry van and refrigerated due, in part, to the capital expenses some carriers are enduring with new equipment purchases. Insurance premiums continue to go up for operators. Driver retention and training add new costs, and we have seen some dramatic increases in driver wages announced lately.

This all creates upward rate pressure from carriers who are trying to stay profitable.

Now fuel prices are returning to the conversation after a relatively quiet past couple of years. The average price of diesel fuel climbed 34.6 percent between November 2020 and May 10, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). We expect prices to plateau, but look for them to increase as the summer months bring more travel for produce growers, beverage producers and North America’s vacationing public. As of May 10, EIA predicts the 2021 average will be about $2.97 per gallon – a 3-cent increase compared to the April forecast. To put that in perspective, in 2020, the average was $2.55 per gallon.

National average diesel fuel prices through May 10, 2021 and forecast through December 2021. Average retail price per gallon was $3.18, up 4 cents from May 3, but still below the March 22 peak of $3.19. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

This uptick will have a cost impact, even if it may not be readily apparent. If you are in the contract-pricing world, you will generally see the added fuel charges broken out, so you can report off of it. When you are in the spot market, however, all of that is lumped into one charge. That makes it hard to specify the fuel impact on spot rates, which are climbing to a higher premium than last year.

Relief is in Sight for Shipping Costs, Truckload Rates

As I mentioned, I think the broader transportation marketplace should experience some rate relief after the July 4 holiday. My colleagues in LTL and International transportation both expect conditions to steady somewhat in their modes by then. That will alleviate some of the added capacity pressure on full truckload transportation.

New equipment and drivers coming online will help, too. We saw Class 8 truck sales increase month-over-month and building throughout the second half of last year.

Orders for Class 8 Trucks spiked at the end of 2020 according to Morgan Stanley Research.
Total Class 8 Net Orders, reflecting a significant upturn in late 2020 into 2021. Source: ACT, Morgan Stanley Research.

Those vehicles should start hitting the road soon – even with many of those orders being delayed up to 60 Days. Driver training programs restarted after pandemic closures will fill more seats. The current rate environment will likely draw out-of-work drivers back into the job market, as well.

All these things coinciding with a demand drop should create a dip in truckload rates. That opens the door for you to explore strategic procurement opportunities, utilizing the benefits of the spot and contract markets.

Balancing Truckload Rates with Spot and Contract Procurement

In the current rate environment, especially with spot rates at a premium, we look strategically at truckload options for our clients.

For instance, we identify freight volume that can be moved from the less predictable spot market into a short-term contract. Even while short-term rates are elevated, they are still below spot rates. There is a chance to capture savings, and, more importantly, lock in rate consistency and capacity for our customers.

It also sets the stage for you to take advantage of the downward trend coming later in the year.

I am a big believer in maintaining your carrier partnerships – and not just when the conditions are in your favor as a shipper. Now is the time to work with your carriers to try to lock in pricing and capacity. Be flexible in accepting lane-by-lane increases in the current tight market. Short-term contracts can help – and they help solidify your relationship. When demand and rates decline, you are positioned to leverage your future volume for savings.

There is a natural temptation to flip everything back into spot procurement and catch rapid savings when the truckload rate swing occurs. Instead, consider putting a lower volume in the spot market, but also prepare for a larger network RFQ to capture a long-term contract at a price point lower than the short-term contracts yielded.

We help our customers achieve consistency with their carrier partners by locking in pricing where possible now. Then, as rate pressure alleviates, we support strategic conversations with your carriers to help you get market-competitive rates while maintaining the capacity commitments that support the service levels you need.

Control Costs in any Rate Environment

Our transportation management team constantly monitors market conditions to keep our customers informed about trends that affect their cost and service.

This proactive approach empowers shippers to quickly deploy strategic adjustments and control budget impacts of a volatile rate environment. For more transportation industry analysis, download our Q2 Industry Forecast.

Read it for actionable guidance that will support timely adjustments to your transportation management and keep your freight moving.

Freight Rates: 2021 Truckload Outlook

Even within the past six months, many freight rates have spiked. For instance, in May, national dry van rates averaged $1.60. By October, they had shot up to $2.42 – a jump of more than 50 percent in five months. Similarly, flatbed rates rose from an average of $1.90 in May to $2.46 by October. So, while many rates appear to be holding steady, they’re doing so at high levels. 

In addition, aside from a potential increase in demand for vans leading into the holidays, the typical seasonality in demand and rates appears to have taken a hiatus. Instead, pockets of higher demand are driving rates even higher in some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest and southern California. 

Demand for flatbed trucks remains strong across the country. Demand for refrigerated truckloads is loosening but remains high in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. 

Driving the Freight Rates Market

One reason for the rate increases is a drop in capacity. While overall shipping tonnage is down, the number of available drivers is as well. Many smaller trucking shops may have left the market, driven out by a challenging mix of COVID-19 and rising insurance premiums, some resulting from high jury verdicts awarded in the aftermath of accidents. And mid-sized carriers have been reluctant to add equipment and drivers in this turbulent time.

In some cases, drivers face prohibitions stemming from violations logged in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. While the shipping and carrier community support safety in trucking, this does represent a significant decrease in available drivers. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA) as of Oct. 1, As of Oct. 1, more than 34,000 drivers were prohibited from getting back on the road because they had registered a violation. Of those, close to 27,000 had not started the process required before returning to their jobs. 

In total, about 74,000 transportation industry jobs have been lost or furloughed, or about 5 percent of the base, between late 2019 and late 2020.

Moving Into 2021

It might appear that the rise in Class 8 truck sales would offset the drop in drivers. According to J.D. Power’s October 2020 Commercial Truck Guidelines Industry Review, sales of the three most common sleeper tractors – those three to seven years old – has been generally rising throughout 2020, and then spiked in July. However, new truck sales equipment may not be available until mid- to late-2021. Moreover, many of these sales are for replacement equipment, rather than expansion. As a result, they are unlikely to add significantly to capacity. 

The conclusion of the presidential and other elections, assuming they occur in a relatively straightforward manner, may spark consumer confidence. In turn, that might drive shipping volumes – a generally positive outcome, but one that may further constrain capacity.

The disruption in the small package market may mean some of those shipments move to the LTL market, and a percentage of those then head to the truckload market. Similarly, ongoing challenges and chaos in the international and intermodal market may lead to more shipments moving to truckload. All of these will, of course, further constrain capacity.

In light of the factors affecting the truckload market, Transportation Insight (TI) forecasts freight rates increase of 3-5 percent for our clients that contract with carriers. Rate increases in the spot market likely will be 5-7 percent. 

In working on behalf of our clients to negotiate rates, we take a lane-by-lane and market-by-market approach. This targets those carriers whose rates appear out of alignment with the market, focused on our goal of leveraging relationships to help bring them into alignment. Shippers gain some protection from the overall increases that might not be available without those relationships.

More Truckload Change Coming

A couple of changes in the truckload sector may have a positive impact on shipments. One is the shift from some national carriers growing their regional presence to rejuvenating their long-haul network. Regional focus is an attempt to entice drivers with more time at home, but with specific market disruptions caused by COVID-19, some carriers are looking to diversify their lane mix. The flipside: this could pull additional congestion off the rail to feed these long haul fleets and add pressure to over-the-road capacity.

Another shift is the increasing use of data, such as score-carding and monitoring, by both carriers and shippers. Early in this shift to monitoring and managing, some carriers worried that data would replace the relationships they cultivated with their customers. 

The opposite appears to be occurring. The data tends to allow for more dialogue and planning, helping to strengthen relationships. In addition, it allows quality carriers to quantitatively demonstrate they can provide the reliability and service shippers require. 

Navigating a Changed Market

In the current truckload market, shippers that have taken steps to become shippers of choice tend to benefit with greater commitment by the carriers with whom they partner. This can mean, for instance, shippers provide longer lead-times and some flexibility on pickup times. Both enable carriers to schedule their routes more efficiently.

It also helps to keep in mind that the rate increases happening now will not last forever. The truckload market tends to self-correct; as freight rates increase, more drivers enter the field and supply and demand start to balance out. In the meantime, however, it helps to expect some volatility to continue. 

To help you navigate that volatility across all transportation modes in your supply chain, we created the Rate Outlook 2021. It provides a forecast for transportation rates in Parcel, LTL and International, as well as truckload. Read it today for information that will help you mitigate risk and control cost across your network. Watch the webinar with our freight rate experts for more guidance on brokerage and carrier capacity planning in 2021.