Transportation rates forecast for Q3 2021

Transportation Rates Forecast: Q3 2021

Transportation rates forecast for Q3 of 2021

With capacity constraints at the beginning of the year, on the heels of pandemic, transportation rates challenges from the first half of 2021 should continue into the second half.

  • Capacity demands drive up rates across full truckload’s spot and contract markets.
  • Costs increase in less-than-truckload lanes, even while service declines.
  • Small parcel carriers look ahead to another holiday peak, even though consumers’ e-commerce appetite has gobbled up capacity since the last peak.
  • International shipping still bears the weight of global pandemic, exacerbating global supply chain disruption.
  • And fuel prices are driving up costs everywhere.

Serving your customers in this environment depends on your consistent visibility to transportation activities and costs. Moving freight requires strong partnerships with reliable providers, contingency plans – and patience. Controlling costs relies on ongoing analysis of strategy, compliance and performance, as well as agile course correction supported by experts.

Read on to understand the Q3 transportation rates trends that will affect your transportation management and get advice to help protect your performance.

Economic Conditions: Diesel Fuel Prices Increasing

U.S. diesel fuel prices have climbed 38.5% 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, especially during the traditional summer travel and shipping season.

U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Diesel Fuel Prices through June 21, 2021
U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Diesel Fuel Prices through June 21, 2021

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast shows that the average diesel retail price per gallon is $3.29 as of June 21, the highest average since May 28, 2018. Diesel fuel prices averaged $2.55/gal in 2020. EIA’s updated 2021 forecast is an average $3.07/gal., an increase of 13 cents since Q2 estimates. 

Economic Conditions: How Do Transportation Rates Affect Revenue for Goods Produced?

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.   

Transportation costs compared to producer prices reflects sharp gains in the price of moving freight.

Performance indices for Parcel, LTL and Truckload increased year-over-year and quarter-over-quarter as capacity constraints persist across all modes. Of note, the Truckload index increased 28.5% YOY and 12.8% since January 2021. LTL increased 9.1% compared to 2020, and 4.1% compared to January 2021. Parcel continues climb as well, rising 7.8% YOY. 

Economic Conditions: E-Commerce Sales Climb Continuing

First quarter 2021 e-commerce sales reached $215 billion, a 7.7% increase over Q4 2020. Year-over-year, the Q1 2021 e-commerce estimate increased 39.1%. While consumers’ return to physical stores may affect some e-commerce activity, analysts expect strong sales to continue.  

: E-commerce Sales as a Percentage of Total Retail Sales 2017-2025
Source: eMarketer

One survey of more than 1,000 consumers in late March and early April by consulting firm AlixPartners LLP showed one-third of U.S. shoppers plan to continue buying clothing online, while 25% intend to keep ordering groceries that way.

U.S. Department of Commerce announces the Q2 2021 e-commerce retail sales estimate August 19. 

How does this affect your cost?

Do you use poly mailers, shipping bags or shrink film? Ongoing domestic demand driven by e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, hygiene, food and home meal deliveries all pressure prices on polyethylene products used in your supply chain.

  • Resin prices up 87% cumulatively over the past 12 months.
  • Suppliers announced 5-7 cent per pound increase in June, following a 5-6 cent increase in May.
  • Supply is extremely constrained, and sales allocations or force majeures remain in place for most producers.
  • Upcoming hurricane season could exacerbate supply constraints as plant operations struggle to reach full capacity.

Transportation Rates Environment: Small Parcel

Ongoing issues will continue into Q3. Capacity constraints will become more pronounced ahead of the holiday peak season as retail sales events such as Amazon Prime Day, back-to-school and Labor Day sales events lead into a holiday peak season beginning in October.

UPS continues to focus on value versus volumes. If a shipper’s volumes are not profitable to UPS, they could either be dropped as a customer, experience capacity cuts and/or higher rates and surcharges. FedEx is also embracing value over volumes and is implementing similar measures.

COVID-related peak surcharges from UPS remain in place apart from surcharge changes implemented on July 4 and continuing through Jan. 15. Based on how much a shipper’s average weekly volume increases compared to the average weekly volume in February 2020, the surcharges could reach $6.15 per package.  

Large package shippers face additional problems with UPS surcharge increases, including a 50-cent hike on “additional handling” effective July 4. From Oct. 3 until Jan. 15, that fee increases to $6 per package, a jump of $3 compared to today’s cost.

FedEx is likely to follow suit with similar surcharge changes for holiday peak season.

Crowd-sourced delivery platforms such as Instacart and DoorDash are expanding their partnerships with retailers and services. Other logistics providers are moving into the parcel management space. We will likely see more moves linking freight brokerage and parcel management as a way to provide a one-stop-shop to manage freight and parcel capacity.

Q3 Action Advice: Parcel Transportation

Diversification of last-mile solutions will be even more important as more carriers limit capacity. Shippers need to quickly lock in capacity requirements with carrier partners for the peak holiday season and also have back-up plans just in case carriers cut shippers’ capacity. A contract will not necessarily save a shipper.

For the rest of this year and likely into 2022, shippers need to be creative in managing their last-mile strategies while keeping a careful watch on their costs. Those with storefronts will prove successful by offering alternative last-mile solutions such as curbside and buy-online-pick-up in-store (BOPIS). Shippers without a physical store may want to consider partnering with a storefront retailer or another operator. 

Shippers will continue to struggle with higher supply chain costs, capacity constraints and delays for the foreseeable future. As a result, regular communications with supply chain partners and customers will be necessary as inventory stockouts, and delivery delays may become the norm versus the exception in the coming months 

Transportation Rates Environment: Less-than-Load

Q3 is busy season for LTL transportation. This year, expect costs to increase and service to decline as capacity gets tighter and temporary targeted embargoes continue.

  • Labor shortages accompany the summer vacation season for LTL drivers and dock workers. Open positions with high wages and sign-on bonuses are difficult to fill.
  • Retail volume is moving in support of the Q4 holiday peak.
  • As parcel service levels suffer, shipment consolidation drives volume into LTL.

Many major carriers are not accepting new business, and others that are taking RFQs will not likely publish until later in the quarter.

National LTL fuel surcharge averages are consistently trending upward.

Expect some carriers to pursue out-of-cycle annual business reviews and implement transportation rate increases, especially if your shipping characteristics are cost-intensive.

Maintain skepticism for carriers’ announced “on-time performance” especially as service delay designations can eliminate shipments from that metric.

The FedEx Freight move to reduce outbound volume for 1,400 customers – and then rescind the service cuts following blowback from large retailers – is indicative of ongoing capacity challenges. Other carriers are asking customers to limit shipment sizes in certain lanes.

Potential Disruption: On July 5, FedEx Freight implements an unprecedented peak surcharge on LTL shipments to nearly 1,000 zip codes, about 2.3% of zip codes in the U.S. Th

Q3 Action Advice: LTL Transportation

Stick with your existing carrier partners. Collaborate with them to work through service issues. Consider an alternate approach to cost control.

  • Blocking a service provider only puts your committed capacity into the hands of another shipper.
  • When many carriers are not accepting new business, you might not find capacity elsewhere.
  • In the current environment, another provider is unlikely to improve service levels.

Allow for more time in transit and plan accordingly. Important steps to take include setting expectations with consignees, adjusting inbound material orders to maintain production and communicating with customer service to prepare for response.

Regional and deferred-service carriers, even local couriers, offer alternatives for small impact moves where there’s no capacity available or you are affected by an embargo (including FedEx Freight’s limit on volume). Expect a slower level of service. which is better than no service. Expect a slower level of service.

Transportation Rates Environment: Full Truckload

All indicators point toward a full truckload environment with tighter capacity, elevated contract transportation rates and astronomical spot rates continuing into Q3.

  • Truck delivery delays
  • Inability to hire drivers
  • Ongoing capacity demand

Recent Purchasing Managers Indexes revealed elevated expectations for future growth in production – and products on the road.

Food and beverage shippers moving freight into grocery warehouses continue to face chargebacks for missing delivery times or not fulfilling an order in full.

Expect a brief “breather” toward the end of July, potentially into August and September, but do not plan for a downward trend in rates and capacity demand ahead of the retail peak season.

Produce season in Q3 creates added strain on capacity in traditional patterns that vary market to market, but don’t expect it to be more than another aggravator in the cost environment.

International shipping disruption continues to waterfall into over-the-road transportation:

  • Smaller shipments are moving into LTL lanes.
  • Increased on-shoring of manufacturing is driving more freight into over-the-road capacity.
  • Intermodal transit times and rates are up, eliminating modal conversion as an option.

While some spot market rate relief may come in late July, do not expect contract rates to follow.

Q3 Action Advice: Truckload Transportation

Be flexible with pick-ups and deliveries – even within shipping hours.

Lead time goes hand-in-hand with flexibility, and it is paramount to tender acceptance.

Maintain a realistic understanding of your capacity consumption and carrier service levels.

Carriers are not chasing higher-dollar freight, generally, but they may be hauling an equal or larger volume of business than last year in a more cost-intensive, capacity constrained environment – especially if your sales are up.

For freight enduring added cost when moving into a facility with a chargeback program for “on time and in full” (OTIF), understand the cause and frequency of the charge and make a business decision of absorbing that cost versus penalizing your carrier partner. Penalizing your partner may mean paying more on every load.

Transportation Rates Environment: International

Coming into traditional peak season in the August timeframe, COVID-driven port closures in southern China are causing severe disruption in ocean shipping. This will have a long-lasting effect on supply and demand for containers, ocean and air capacity. Demand for inbound shipments will continue to surge.

Everything that is moving is moving at a premium and moving with surcharges. Shipping costs are at historically high levels. These costs are going to increase in a substantial way over the quarter, in some lanes by multiples of their cost prior to COVID.

Demand for air freight is increasing, driving up costs as capacity issues build, especially until passenger flights fully resume. This limits further your ability to contingency plan for international freight.

Port congestion on the U.S. West Coast is slowly improving. It is still a challenge, but throughput is gradually getting better. The opposite is true on the Asian side of the balance, but as ports re-open fully returning vessels could make West Coast ports a greater pinch point.

Expect ocean shipping disruption to continue through peak season. This not only affects significant volumes coming from Asia, it affects U.S. exports as well. Container demand in Asia is high and drawing empty equipment back to China without waiting to match with a U.S. export load. This will continue to have an impact into Q4 and 2022.

Q3 Action Advice: International Transportation

Acknowledge the reality, prepare for higher costs, and consider a unique approach. Larger companies with buying power are being extremely creative to solve challenges. Not every business can buy a container ship (like Home Depot), but small- and medium-sized business need to explore outside-the-box solutions.

Be prepared to quickly shift modes, going from ocean to air. Find ways to shift equipment, taking advantage of capacity where you can find it, even if it isn’t your typical container. Can you mix up how you are consolidating? Be flexible about your point of origin.

Strength of partnership is more important than ever. A lot of shippers are fighting for space, and it is not just a cost game. This is where it helps to have trusted providers in place.

Import planning and forecasting is difficult in this environment. Depending on your industry, planning and projections are traditionally complete for the coming peak season. This environment calls for extending that timeline forward where you can, working with vendors and planning on a longer time horizon. This can help avoid disruption and position you to better react when it does happen.

Examine your inventory planning as ongoing disruption strains just-in-time strategies. Conditions in the transportation marketplace may factor into the discussion around a different inventory approach that mitigates risk and buffers some of the impact on the end customer.

Transportation Rates Environment: Indirect Spend

Freight and labor costs, as well as demand, are up in recycled paper and corrugate markets.

  • Paper costs increased $100/ton cumulatively the past six months, but stability is expected until Q4.
  • Recycled paper demand was up 6% in Q1.
  • New grocery bag machines coming online adds additional pressure on kraft paper supply.
  • Two large lightweight kraft paper producers left the market, transitioning to alternate heavyweight kraft and linerboard products. Mills are “sold out,” and inventory is 75% of desired levels.
  • Box shipments were up 6-8% in Q1.

Linerboard costs increase $110/ton cumulatively since November 2020. Carton prices up as much 20%.

  • Box shipments were up 6-8% in Q1, and containerboard mills are unable to keep up with demand increases. Production was up 9% in March, year-over-year.
  • Old Corrugated Containers Prices increased in May for the sixth consecutive month.

Major office paper producers announced increases to take effect July 1 after 6-8% increase in March.

Pallet Prices are up +50%, and supply is very short. Manufacturers are urging shippers to find alternatives.

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 transportation rates during 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 transportation 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 Rates 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.

Looking ahead, expect Amazon Prime Day on June 21-22 to drive an uptick in e-commerce activity, as well as a bump in small parcel volume.

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: Freight 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 transportation 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 increases to transportation rates, 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.

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 Capacity Shortages and Service Challenges Persist

Freight Capacity Shortages and Service Challenges Persist

Freight capacity challenges are driving upward rate pressure for over-the-road shippers.

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 freight capacity. The upshot? Service challenges likely will remain at some level.

LTL Capacity Bears Weight of Freight Volume Growth

LTL carriers struggle to keep pace with demands for capacity on docks and trucks.

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

Truckload shippers face cost and service challenges as high volumes exceed capacity already limited by the number of trucks on the road.

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

Rate volatility is affected by driver shortage, even as more equipment is expected on the road.

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.

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.