Learn strategies for maintaining access to needed resource capacity and see what is forecasted for Parcel, Truckload, LTL and International transportation

Transportation Rates Forecast: Q2 2021

Get the full picture of parcel peak-season, LTL capacity constraints and record truckload rates with our Transportation Rates Forecast Q2 2021

Truckload Transportation Market Conditions

  • Truckload transportation rates forecast to remain high but steady, then increasing during capacity crunch season, which accompanies the produce season and leads up until the July 4 holiday.
  • Fuel prices are part of the conversation again. EIA forecasts predict summer diesel prices will be higher than last year but then reflect a normal dip.
  • Most equipment types (van and reefer) are experiencing a drop in demand, but do not expect a dramatic effect on rates.
  • Short-term contracts will come at premium rates and so will spot market pricing, but tender acceptance will be good.
  • International Road Check may cause disruption May 4-6 and into the following week. Demand may increase due to reduced freight movement during the highway safety inspections.
  • Advice for Q2: Maintain consistency with your carriers, trying to contract where possible to avoid an elevated spot market. Care­ful procurement practices in the months ahead (contract vs. spot market freight) sets the stage to capture downward price trends in the second half of 2021.

Less-than-Load Transportation Market Conditions

  • Demand on LTL capacity is unprecedented, driving some carriers to decline new or expanded business in order protect service to their existing customers.
  • Expect embargoes to continue in lanes affected by volume spikes and capacity constraints.
  • Carriers continue to scrutinize each piece of business, monitoring payables, escalating collections, limiting credit and diverting capacity to “shipper of choice” customers.
  • Pricing renewals are increasing and so are rates sought by LTL carriers, especially those emboldened by aggressive new price “right-sizing” promised by UPS Freight’s new owners, TFI International.
  • Q2 Advice: Rely on analysis – not rates – to achieve savings. There’s no ground to gain in procurement and rate negotiations, but routing decisions and least-cost carrier selection will maximize your transportation dollars.

Small Parcel Transportation Market Conditions

  • Both UPS and FedEx are taking a more intentional approach to pricing.
  • FedEx rebrand from SmartPost to Ground Economy opens opportunity for broad pricing adjustments focused on improving revenue quality of packages delivered.
  • UPS “better not bigger” approach is emerging: evaluation of customer contracts, volume caps and negotiation of mid-term increases to certain customers.
  • Capacity challenges continue for FedEx, UPS and every major regional small pack­age carrier, allowing each to be selective on the volume they accept.
  • Peak surcharges and certain suspended service guarantees spurred by COVID continue – but for how long? UPS and FedEx re-instated guarantees for some services, but we expect many others to be suspended until the country re-opens more fully.
  • The UPS move to zonal pricing for Additional Handling Surcharge and the Large Package Surcharge will have a material impact for many shippers.
  • Fuel surcharges are escalating quickly since the start of 2021.
  • Advice for Q2: Begin planning for Christmas 2021 today. Lessons learned through expert analysis of your 2020 data can help you design a small parcel program that protects your profit margin, controls cost and supports service to your customers.

International Transportation Market Conditions

  • Lingering effects of the Suez Canal disruption will continue for several months.
  • Port congestion has expanded beyond West Coast backlogs to include East Coast ports, and booking availability is sparse after an over-booked April.
  • Ocean rates remain high, capacity is still extremely tight and the challenges in the domestic logistics funnel (drayage and rail) remain high.
  • Tightening ocean capacity is driving up demand and rates for air freight.
  • Advice for Q2: Reassess your inventory strategy. Global supply chain disruptions highlight the weakness of lean, just-in-time practices and may emphasize your need for additional buffer inventory, especially if your e-commerce fulfillment relies on import/export activity. Contingency planning should be part of each strategic planning meeting as we go through 2021.

Indirect Spend Market Conditions

  • E-Commerce demand is growing faster than capacity and packaging costs continue to climb.
  • Corrugated prices increased 10-12% in March – on top of increases announced in November 2020.
  • Expect stretch film manufacturers to announce another increase in April.
  • Paper board tubes and cores are increasing at least 6%.
  • Lead times are expanding out to 4-8 weeks.
  • Costs are up 17% since November 2020 on recovered paper and old corrugated containers (OCC).
  • Two large office supply providers announced copy paper increases of 6-8% in March.
  • According to the ISM Report on Business, activity in U.S. manufacturing grew for the 10th consecutive month in March, reaching a PMI reading of 64.7 – the highest in 37 years. The U.S. Industrial Production Index registered 104.65 in February – up 13.38% since March 2020.

Economic Conditions: Diesel Fuel Prices Climbing

U.S. diesel fuel prices have climbed 32.1% from a low in November. That is affecting transportation costs. Parcel carriers are escalating fuel surcharges, and fuel costs will be an increasing factor for over-the-road freight. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts summer diesel prices will be higher than last year.

Energy Information Administration’s Diesel Fuel Prices through May 10, 2021.

Average retail price per gallon was $3.18 on May 10, up 4 cents from May 3, but still below the March 22 peak of $3.19, the highest average since Dec. 3, 2018. Diesel fuel prices averaged $2.55/gal in 2020. EIA’s updated 2021 forecast, as of May 10, is an average $2.97/gal., a 3-cent increase compared to last month’s estimate.

Economic Conditions: Transportation Costs Affect Profit

The Producer Price Index (PPI) measures cost trends for everything manufactured in the U.S. This custom performance index reflects the rate of PPI change compared to the rate of change in transportation costs.

Producer Price Index compared to increasing transportation rates from 2007 through Q1 2021.

Performance indices for Parcel, LTL and Truckload increased year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter as capacity constraints persist across all modes. Of note, costs increased 13.85% YOY for truckload. LTL increased 7.85% compared to 2020, and 9.59% compared to Q1. Parcel continues to lead all indices, climbing 5.84% since last year and 6.52% since last quarter.

Economic Conditions: E-Commerce Sales Climb Continues

Total estimated e-commerce sales for 2020 reached $791.7 billion, an increase of 32.4% from 2019.

E-commerce sales in 2020 accounted for 14% of all U.S. retail sales, which increased 3.4% in 2019.

Fourth quarter e-commerce sales reached $245.3 billion, a 23.1% increase over third quarter 2020. Year-over-year, the fourth quarter 2020 e-commerce estimate increased 32.1% compared to the same period in 2019.

E-Commerce Retail Sales as a percentage of retail sales continue to climb, reaching a peak at the start of pandemic in Q2 2020.

U.S. Department of Commerce announces e-commerce retail sales estimates for Q1 2021 on May 18.

Transportation Industry Outlook: Q1 2021

Truckload Forecast: Rate Increases Continue

  • Given ongoing capacity constraints, the truckload market will see rates continue to increase for at least the first half of 2021.
Expect Q1 Truckload rates to increase 3-5% for contracted lanes and 5-7% on spot market bids.

  • More shippers will lock in contractual rates.
  • Expect an uptick in tender acceptance and improved ability to move freight with primary, secondary and tertiary carriers.
  • Stabilization and loosening of West Coast intermodal volume allows shippers with network visibility to seize cost savings. Expect some stabilization after the Chinese New Year.
  • Capacity will improve and alleviate rate pressure following a boom in new equipment purchases.
  • Working with Transportation Insight helps make you a shipper of choice to mitigate rate increases, strengthen service and improve access to capacity.

LTL Forecast: Freight Capacity Shortages, Volume Levels Increase

  • Expect capacity shortages, service charges and elevated rates to continue.
  • LTL volume levels will maintain or increase throughout 2021.
  • Carriers continue to be selective about the new business they accept.
  • Service challenges will continue in California in the foreseeable future
  • Detention and storage charges have become more common.
  • Shippers who continually switch carriers to improve service may find their efforts fruitless. Conversely, “shipper of choice” practices deliver rewards.

Small Parcel Forecast: Surcharges, Cost Complexity Continue

  • UPS reinstated Pre-Holiday Peak Surcharges until further notice:
    • UPS Ground Residential Service and UPS SurePost, as well as large packages and those that require additional handling.
    • Surcharges on Ground Residential and SurePost packages will apply to any shipper that has shipped more than 25,000 packages in any single week since February 2020.
  • FedEx Peak Surcharges will continue, with new rates implemented for some services until further notice:
    • 75-cent SmartPost surcharge – down from $1-$2 in place for the holiday season, but higher than the 40-cent surcharge in June.
    • $30 surcharge on oversized package – down from current $52.50
    • Additional handling will be reduced from $4.90 to $3.
    • Expect a competitive, but rational parcel shipping landscape to emerge later this year.
  • Look for more parcel competitors to grab opportunities the larger carriers are overlooking. Heightened competition will benefit shippers who can optimize carrier utilization.
  • Make sure you understand how carrier limitations and geographic volume/service trends affect your unique shipments.
  • Coming April 11, UPS changes to zonal pricing for its Additional Handling and Large Package Surcharges.

International Forecast: Record Rates, Equipment Sparse

  • International shipping demand is unseasonably high.
  • Capacity is committed for much of Q1, especially up to and through the Chinese New Year.
  • Equipment availability is sparse in most Asian markets.
  • Expect rates to remain at record levels, even after the Chinese New Year allows the industry a chance to catch up, before looking at any stabilization.
  • New federal administration might eventually bring trade compliance changes, but too early to tell how China 301 will be affected.
  • Port and rail congestion are causing ripples in cost and service across domestic transportation modes.
  • E-commerce demand and vaccine distribution will continue to drive capacity challenges far into 2021.

Indirect Spend Forecast: Packaging Costs Increasing

  • Resin prices continue to push up with major manufacturers Dow, Chevron and Exxon Mobil announcing additional increases in January 2021. Combined with the mid-year 2020 increases, costs of poly-based packaging products are up 20-25%.
  • Linerboard manufacturers pushed through a paper increase of $50 per ton in late November, driving up corrugate prices.
  • The ISM Report on Business closed December at its highest reading for manufacturers in 2.5 years, with a reading of 60.7%. The New Orders Index and Production Index was above 60% for the sixth straight month.
Freight Capacity Shortages and Service Challenges Persist

Freight Capacity Shortages and Service Challenges Persist

The Logistics Manager’s Index (LMI) showed a December 2020 logistics growth rate of 66.7, or about 12.7 points ahead of the 2019 rate. While a small drop from November’s 70.8, this may be more of a breather than a shift. The decline in growth rates are reflected in slight declines across all of the metrics of the LMI (except for the two freight capacity metrics which have increased).

Consumers show no signs of halting online shopping activity. In addition, the ramp-up of vaccine distribution, while it will hasten a return to some sort of normalcy, it will consume capacity. The upshot? Freight capacity shortages and service challenges likely will remain at some level.

LTL Market Bears Weight of Freight Volume Growth

Nearly all – 87.9 percent – survey respondents to a JOC survey in September and October 2020 indicated that longer transit times were a challenge. In addition, 47.2 percent experienced increased shipment loss or damages, and two-thirds had labor shortages.

The sustained growth in shipments across the logistics industry during 2020 contributed to these numbers. Tonnage in the LTL sector in November 2020 showed a 6 percent year-over-year increase in growth, according to the Cass Freight Index.

A few regions were especially hard hit. The Port of Los Angeles processed 889,748 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in November 2020, up 22 percent from a year earlier. During the same time, at least one carrier suspended financial guarantees for time-critical services in California and Portland, Oregon due to spiking COVID-19 cases among its drivers.

The increases in shipment volume also meant many distribution centers were taking longer to accept shipments. That led to backups with carriers. Detention and storage charges, formerly unheard of in the LTL market, have become more common.

Consolidation in the market continues among both larger and regional companies. Among these moves, Cross Country Freight Solutions announced in January the acquisition of Midwestern LTL carriers, Price Truck Lines and Mergenthaler Transportation. In September 2020, Forward Air Corporation, an asset-light freight and logistics company, announced its acquisition of the assets of CLW Delivery, Inc., a privately-held, final-mile provider with annual revenues of about $20 million.

Because capacity constraints show little sign of easing, service challenges likely will continue into early 2021. Expect corresponding impacts on rates in 2021

LTL Solidifies Residential Deliveries, Moves Toward Digitization

Many LTL carriers focused on effectively handling residential deliveries are exploring new methods, such as purchasing smaller trucks that can maneuver in neighborhoods and urban areas.

The LTL sector is steadily digitizing, with the formation in November 2020 of the Digital LTL Council, comprised of 20-plus transportation companies. Its goal is to establish a set of uniform standards that support the scalable automation and digitalization of LTL shipments.

Over the past year, some council members experimented with standards for electronic bill of lading (eBOL) solutions. Carriers that digitize could save up to 1.3 percent of costs. Digitization should also cut errors and allow all parties to quickly locate freight in transit.

Given ongoing tightness in the LTL market, carriers likely will be selective about the shippers with whom they partner. Shippers can make it easier for carriers by improving facilities where needed and facilitating efficient drop-offs and pickups.

Truckload Freight: Volume Up, Service Down

As in the LTL market, the truckload (TL) market is experiencing both sustained growth and service challenges. The American Trucking Association’s For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index rose by 3.7 percent in November, driven in part by robust e-commerce orders and strong single-family housing starts. At the same time, languishing restaurant, manufacturing and energy sectors remained a drag, the ATA noted.

Data from DAT Freight & Analytics shows another bifurcation in the truckload market. Dry van contract volumes were down 10 percent year-over-year, while spot market volumes were up 107 percent. Similarly, refrigerated contract volumes were down 21 percent, while spot market volumes had spiked 116 percent.

About 41 percent of carriers responding to the 22nd COVID-19 survey by Morgan Stanley, published in December 2020, indicated COVID-19 has hampered their ability to operate smoothly. The driver shortage was the most commonly cited reason, with varying emergency restrictions coming in second.

Freight Capacity Constraints Drive Up Truckload Rates

Given ongoing capacity constraints, the truckload market likely will see rates continue to increase for at least the first half of 2021. Transportation Insight expects contract rates to increase 3-5 percent, and spot rates to rise by about 5-7 percent.

However, some good news appears further out on the horizon. A smaller percentage of carriers responding to the Morgan Stanley COVID-19 survey – 36 percent versus the previous 39 percent – indicated the impact of COVID-19 would remain negative a year out.

In addition, truck sales are up nearly 197 percent year-over-year. As these come online, they will boost capacity, helping moderate the upward pressure on rates.

Several unknowns could affect the truckload market. They include the potential for another wave of shutdowns. Transportation has been considered an essential business, which should mitigate any impact.

Potential changes from the new presidential administration, as well as from newly elected state and local officials, are additional unknowns. However, as of early January, no proposed regulations that would significantly impact the truckload market appeared on the horizon.

Challenges to Truckload Digitization

Many shippers in the truckload space are interested in digitization, including electronic bills of lading, which would cut the time required to load trucks and reduce exposure to illness. However, given the thousands of carriers across the country, ranging from national enterprises to operations with a handful of trucks, this shift likely would occur incrementally.

Even as the volatility of 2020 abates, most carriers will continue to focus on contractual rather than spot pricing as a way of gaining further stability.

Shippers of Choice

In both the truckload and LTL markets, capacity constraints appear likely to continue.

Shippers who continually switch carriers to improve service may find their efforts fruitless.

Instead, by taking steps internally to remain shippers of choice and working with logistics providers like Transportation Insight to address challenges, you can mitigate rate increases and strengthen the service your receive and your access to capacity.

Download our First Quarter ChainLink 2021 for more forecasts and cost impact analysis from our freight capacity experts. Read this quarterly industry forecast for a multi-modal look at the trends that will affect your business in the months ahead.

International Shipping Rates Challenge: New Year, Same Capacity Challenges

In the international shipping marketplace, that translates to equipment availability issues, ongoing capacity pressure and motivation for the major shipping alliances to maintain record-high rates.

Although the Chinese New Year February 11-26 offers promise of a breather for vessel, port and intermodal operations, events of 2020 created enough congestion and imbalance that volatility will continue to affect supply chains reliant on international transportation.

Let’s explore factors that will affect price, capacity and service in the first half of 2021 and continue to contribute to international shipping rates challenges.

No International Shipping Relief in Sight

Signs of a unique year are already emerging. Capacity demands are at levels unlike we’ve ever experienced for this season. Bookings are at capacity through January and into February.

As a result, international shipping rates are not going down any time soon. Since the 3 major shipping alliances control about 85 percent of international shipping capacity, operators leverage their power more than in the past. A General Rate Increase has not been announced since September, but we are not seeing the typical drop in costs that normally accompanies a loosening of capacity that follows peak season. That will keep rates elevated.

Additional loaders are being deployed to keep up with demand. Some of those come online to send empty containers back to Asia. There, ports wait for a hundreds of thousands of containers to move slowly back into the flow from the congested U.S. West Coast.

Optimism is high that the Chinese New Year will afford two weeks of breathing room for the international shipping industry to catch up. Unfortunately, 16 days will not likely be enough time to alleviate several months’ worth of challenges that continue to affect services and cost across your end-to-end network.

Ripples Across Transportation Spend Clogs International and Domestic Supply Chain

The ripple of demand, capacity and equipment availability is felt across all transportation modes. Congestion on the rail stalls movement of freight. Full inbound containers detained by the rail are being stored off-site, requiring additional moves. When there is disruption to intermodal, expect it to occur across truckload and LTL and pressure cost management and service times as a result.

In this environment, global distribution of COVID-19 vaccine creates additional demand spikes, especially for the Air Freight mode that will fill a key role in the transportation of temperature sensitive materials. Likewise, expect to see impact across other domestic modes as medical supplies are prioritized, and, in the process, pushing transportation pricing up and capacity down.

On the trade compliance front, a new administration in Washington, D.C., has promised to bring regulation changes that will likely develop more slowly. Efforts to rollback tariffs, like China 301, get a lot of attention, and while the policy changes of a new president may not move quickly, expect some ripple in the complex rules for importing and exporting goods into the United States.

Consumer Behaviors Drive “Forever Peak” with Overseas Shipping

Problems challenging the international supply chain emanate from ongoing shifts in consumer behavior. E-commerce continues to fill buying voids left open by vacations and visits to the mall. Disposable income drives the online purchase of goods and the volume of consumable goods moving through transportation networks is creating an extended peak season across all modes.

Buyers are quickly becoming accustomed to the immediate purchase satisfaction that comes from an online order, and that is not ever going to revert. Raw material, component and finished good sourcing strategies as well as inventory management practices become increasingly complicated when buyers know they can take their cart elsewhere if you do not have the desired quantity available to fill their online order.

To make sure you protect that experience and secure every sale, it is critical to understand how every piece of the end-to-end supply chain puzzle – from foreign production site and overseas shipping, to trade compliance, domestic transportation and last mile delivery – fits together into a total landed cost of goods.

An expert partner can help you assemble the big picture perspective so you can control your international and domestic spend and turn your focus toward achieving strategic goals for your business.

For more insight on multi-modal transportation trends that will affect your cost and service in 2021, download our Q1 Industry Forecast. It features a look at things to come for shippers relying on Truckload, LTL and Parcel transportation, as well as our international transportation forecasts.

Freight Rates: 2021 Truckload Outlook

Even within the past six months, many 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 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 rate increases 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 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.