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LTL transportation

Middle of the Road for the Trucking Industry

Of all the industries that American consumers have come to rely on, perhaps the most underrated, and subsequently complex, is that of the transportation industry. While the laws of supply and demand will affect every form of business it is perhaps the most volatile and fluctuating when applied to the transportation industry. Last year was a great year for trucking companies, demand was high, capacity was low, and it allowed them to more or less pick and choose the jobs they wanted to do.

With so many wild swings in one direction or another, we’re entering a period of “new” balance that no one is quite sure of.

Shippers, for their part, have accepted the higher rates as an understood cost of business, but with so many wild swings in one direction or another, we’re entering a period of “new” balance that no one is quite sure of. Shippers that turned to contracts to escape the high rates are now making a return to the spot market as there’s plenty of available capacity currently on the market.

Aptly put, this “muddy middle” for the trucking department is a rare moment when supply and demand have reached something of an equilibrium, something that hasn’t been seen for years. Spot rates for FTL have dropped upwards of 12 percent from this time last year while contract rates, on the other hand, have climbed up 14 percent in 2018 according to data from DAT Solutions and Truckstop.com. Shippers that turned to contracts to escape the high rates are now making a return to the spot market as there’s plenty of available capacity currently on the market.

Given such a high volume of transference, it might have actually created an overly strong demand on contract rates which would have caused them to increase.

It’s rather reasonable at this point to speculate that the current shift towards the muddy middle was caused by overcompensations. Beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) reacted to the rate spike mid 2017 by shifting over to contract rates. Given such a high volume of transference, it might have actually created an overly strong demand on contract rates which would have caused them to increase.

Going into 2019, carriers and 3PLs were using terms such as “balanced” and “equilibrium” to describe the current state of the market. However, that might not be entirely accurate, or, at least not strong enough of a prediction to hold fast in the days to come.

The transportation industry is precariously balanced amidst two slippery slopes and it could go one way or the other.

“With contract and spot rates currently headed in different directions, it’s unclear exactly how this will all play out. IHS Markit chief economist Nariman Behravesh put the odds of a recession in 2019 at around 30 percent but upped that chance to 50-50 for 2020. A recession would mean lower cargo volumes, which would drive down both contract and spot rates, creating a buyer’s market,” according to an article from the JOC. Hence, the muddy middle. The transportation industry is precariously balanced amidst two slippery slopes and it could go one way or the other.

Hitting Bottom

Given the nature of the industry, balance doesn’t tend to last overly long. Eventually, rates will break either one way or the other to someone’s advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective.)

“A lot of shippers who started the process in the third or fourth quarter, they saw the rates [moving] in the right direction for them, so they actually held out on releasing the awards until mid-January or even into February,” said Mark Ford, our very own chief operating officer here at BlueGrace Logistics. “Shippers are trying to figure out where that bottom is, throwing out their routing guides, and going to the spot market depending on the cost differential.”

Shippers aren’t the only one that has a card or two up their sleeve.

Given that time is such a commodity, shippers have the power to drive rates in either direction, depending on what value they attribute to their time. However, shippers aren’t the only one that has a card or two up their sleeve. Given a recent downturn in the trucker pool in addition to more stringent regulations that make it harder to operate, carriers might have a little more say about carrier rates than one might expect.

A Drop In the Trucker Pool

While shippers can garner some power to affect rates, that doesn’t mean that carriers aren’t without an answer. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal states that carriers have cut payrolls by 1,200 jobs last month, owing largely to a softening of demand at the tail of a profit-boosting hot streak all through 2018. The drop in demand for new trucks is also a good indicator of a softening in the trucking sector.

“Orders for Class-8 trucks – the heavy trucks that haul consumer goods, equipment, commodities, and supplies across the US to feed the goods-based economy – plunged 52% in April compared to April last year, to 16,400 orders, according to FTR Transportation Intelligence on Friday. It was the lowest April since 2016 when the industry cycled through its last transportation recession. This comes after orders had already plunged 67% year-over-year in March, 58% in February and January, and 43% in December,” reads a recent article from Wolfstreet.

The flip-side of that particular coin is that warehousing and storage company job positions have been on the rise, up 1,700 in March alone, likely due to the continual increase on online consumer shopping. Same can be said for courier and messenger companies that make last mile deliveries.

In general, the transportation market, which has been ramping up over 2017 and 2018 is beginning to slow down, allowing them to control their overall available capacity and their spot or contract rates as a result.

Utilization seems to be the key to determining which way the rates will go. Shippers should be using this time to consider how they can vastly reduce their load times and what sort of effect that would have on the available capacity in the market. Given that there’s no clear indication of which way the market winds will blow next, focusing on optimization and utilization could be the necessary elements to not only help drive rates down, but to keep them down.

For carriers, the means of reaching a perpetual middle of the road would be to find alternative service offerings as well as increasing their focus on last mile deliveries. Doing so allows them to provide more value to their customers and increase their profit margins as a result.

Navigating Through Industry Changes

BlueGrace helps our customers navigate through the constant changes the industry brings. No matter the situation, we are here to simplify your freight needs. If you have any questions about how a 3PL like BlueGrace can assist, contact us at 800.MYSHIPPING or fill out the form below to speak with a representative today!