Trucking volume increases in March, still lower than expected
- The DAT Freight Index — an indicator of volume across van, refrigerated (reefers) and flatbed freight — went up 4.3% in March compared to the previous month, but volume was still lower than expected. DAT's load-to-truck ratio, a measure of the number of trucks available for every load needing transport, fell for vans (from 2.02 to 1.57) and reefers (from 3.69 to 2.93) and went up for flatbeds (from 19.15 to 24.11).
- Volume increased for vans and reefers, 3.7% and 2.1%, respectively, from February to March. Demand for flatbeds also increased by 10%.
- National average spot rates fell month over month for vans (down 3 cents to $1.85 per mile) and reefers (down 4 cents to $2.17 per mile), but were up 2 cents for flatbeds to $2.35 per mile. Average contract rates increased for reefers (up 4 cents to $2.57 per mile) and flatbeds (up 2 cents to $2.61 per mile), and down 4 cents for vans to $2.26 per mile.
While volume was up month over month in March, it was still lower than expected, according to DAT.
"We anticipated a bigger increase in demand for trucking services, but unexpected events, including flooding in the Midwest and a major tank fire in Houston, prevented the typical surge of shipments ahead of the close of Q1,” DAT Senior Industry Analyst Mark Montague said in a statement. "As a result, truckload rates were lower than expected in March."
Volume for vans, reefers and flatbeds were all down compared to the previous year. Van volume slid 2.5%, reefer volume was down 3.4%, and flatbed was down 4.8% compared to March 2018.
But this could already be changing. Morgan Stanley's most recent Truckload Sentiment Survey (TLSS) shows that while the industry is not expecting rates to increase by much this summer, it is already seeing better demand. Not everyone was positive, though, Morgan Stanley pointed out.
"Commentary from carriers was more positive than recent history with some pointing to signs of demand picking up from improving weather, but outlooks from shippers and brokers skewed negative, making some of the widest disparity in TLSS responses since pre-ELD days in 2017," analysts wrote in a note on the survey.
Truckers are likely hoping demand does increase, though, because those sluggish numbers in March led to a reduction in payrolls. Carriers cut 1,200 jobs in March, according to early estimates from the Department of Labor cited by The Wall Street Journal.
Covenant Transportation Group CEO David R. Parker said the low numbers in March were not solely a result of the weather, but admitted it did play a role.
"We attribute the softer demand to factors such as late 2018 inventory growth in advance of the perceived impact of tariffs, the effects of the partial government shutdown on spending, and extended periods of inclement weather that impacted the timing of shipping seasonal goods as well as our ability to safely dispatch our equipment," Parker said in a statement.
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