North American Freight Market Insights

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Transportation Market Overview

TOP STORY: Mexico, Canada, and cross-border trucking under USMCA

In July 2020, a law was implemented to support trade across North America. The agreement goes by different names, in Mexico it’s titled T-MEC, in Canada it’s CUSMA, and in the United States it’s known as USMCA.

This updated agreement provides trade certainty between the three countries for at least the next 16 years, during which other global trading relationships are being reviewed. Chapter 7 of USMCA outlines ambitious new requirements and goals that should reduce friction from the border crossing process while ensuring safety.

Our market reports for the coming months will discuss the valuable trade relationships between these three countries.

Mexico Carriers to units | C.H. Robinson

Intra-Mexico trucking market summary
In the United States, demand is outstripping supply at unprecedented levels for longer than historical norms. So how does Mexico’s truck market look?

While capacity is strained against demand in Mexico, demand is not growing at the same pace as in the United States. There has been no analogous support in Mexico. Current production growth in Mexico is based in part on the rebound of the U.S. economy as well as businesses choosing to nearshore to Mexico.

Mexico faces a similar supply constraint as the United States: a lack of drivers. But the reason for the shortage is different. The number one reason drivers are hard to find in Mexico is due to an increased risk of security.

Driving a truck with valuable contents can be a dangerous job and security continues to be a challenge on Mexico’s roads. The result is Mexico’s carriers struggle to grow and unlike in the United States, there isn’t a pattern of owner/operator startups occurring.

In addition to the driver shortage, there is an imbalance of freight volumes—especially for northbound capacity. There has always been an imbalance of southbound freight versus northbound, but the economic environment of 2020 and 2021 has exacerbated this imbalance.

As such, we recommend being flexible on planned costs and building in additional lead time to book capacity from the interior of Mexico to border crossing points.

Cross-border services
T-MEC/USMCA codified the trade relationship between the United States and Mexico. It settled investor and business nerves about the continuation of NAFTA and is the foundation to supply chain diversification strategies.

U.S. businesses with supply chains originating in China are reevaluating further expansion in China because of the trade war and higher tariffs. Now, these businesses have increasingly looked at nearshoring in Mexico to leverage cross-border trucking into the United States and Canada. This apparent growth of northbound exports from Mexico is foundational to this month’s market insights.

Immigration and jobs also continue to be part of critical conversations about Mexico and U.S. policy. In the United States, the trucking industry discusses the impact of B-1 visas and cross-border truck capacity provided by drivers from Mexico.

B-1 visas
B-1 visas grant Mexico’s drivers the ability to deliver freight in the United States. Most drivers provide the service from Nuevo Laredo to a crossdock facility in Laredo transloading to U.S. drivers for final delivery and then return to Mexico empty or with a southbound load. They can also execute "direct" loads from Mexico to the final destination in the United States and take loads from the United States back to Mexico. There is a similar situation for Canada’s drivers in the United States and U.S. drivers in Canada.

Today, reports of Mexico carriers hauling intra-U.S. freight—called cabotage, which is not allowed under the B-1 visa—raises concerns for many in the trucking industry. This practice is more concentrated in Texas and the immediate region. Claimants of the activity argue that pricing is compressed in key lanes because Mexico carriers offer lower pricing than U.S. carriers.

The outlined situation is not a new one, but the market is seeing an apparent shift in how B-1 visas are used. The reason for the change is increased enforcement by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) around the proper use of B-1 visas.

This activity has reduced active capacity for intra-Texas and the surrounding region as Mexico drivers don’t want to risk losing their B-1 visa by continuing to run intra-U.S. freight illegally. Instead, many drivers use their B-1 visas legally by running direct loads between Mexico and the United States and benefiting from the current high truckload pricing.

One key trade lane that may benefit from this shift in capacity is between Mexico and Michigan, which supports the automotive industry. Despite added capacity on some direct loads, the market is severely out of balance. These shifts are not yet material enough to be broadly felt.

Direct services
Another reason for the change of capacity is that some B-1 visa holders have shifted to longer direct loads, effectively reducing the available northbound and southbound border-transfer capacity.

While there is some capacity shifting from cross-border service to direct, the actual capacity for direct loads is small and it exists in limited lanes. The real impact is the imbalance caused by Mexico’s export traffic, which far exceeds imports.

We recommend continued strategy conversations with your C.H. Robinson account manager about service needs, available capacity, and business processes designed to get the greatest performance from today's market.

Mexico Carrier Demographics Reference: Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transporte www.sct.gob.mx
Cabotage Reference: https://www.freightwaves.com/news/sources-mexican-b-1-visa-truckers-conducting-illegal-runs-in-us

North American Freight Market Insights | C.H. Robinson

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Full Truckload Shipping

Anticipate Class 8 capacity to enter the market in the second half of 2021 as the semiconductor industry catches up to demand. As new trucks are delivered, we may see the most difficult driver market in years.

Supply and demand

Supply summary

  • 3.5% Y/Y growth forecast in the U.S. Class 8 tractor fleet for 2021 (e.g., for-hire, private, LTL, parcel, etc.). Source: ACT May 2021
  • Nearly all tractor growth will come in the second half of 2021 due to the semiconductor industry shortage currently limiting tractor production.
  • Contraction in two key labor pools to trucking—21-year old and 45- to 65-year old—will be a challenge for years to come. Source: U.S. Census Bureau and ACT
  • Anecdotal insights suggest that stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits are keeping some drivers out of the workforce longer.
  • April for-hire trucking is still down 44,500 jobs compared to the pre-pandemic month of February 2020. BLS April 9th Preliminary figures

Demand summary

  • Retail sales are bolstered by expanding economy and stimulus.
  • Retail inventory restocking will take most/all of 2021 to return to normal.
  • Strength in housing industry is a key contributor to freight demand.
  • Return of industrials/manufacturing is also adding to freight demand.
  • GDP forecast is at 7% for 2021.

Roadcheck 2021
During DOT's annual three-day Roadcheck, law enforcement across the country put forth a coordinated effort on trucking safety by conducting an increased amount of roadside inspections. Typically held in June and last year in September due to COVID-19, this year’s Roadcheck event was May 4–6.

Historically, an undefined, yet meaningful percent of capacity take these days off to avoid the inspection hassle. Most capacity returns within two days after the three-day event. In the chart below, “+1” refers to the first day after the three-day event.

DOT roadcheck load to truck ratio impact

Load to truck ratio (LTR), defined as loads posted versus trucks posted on DAT’s trading platform, shown as a 10-year average.

The above visual shows the 2021 DAT load to truck ratio (LTR) for DOT’s Roadcheck week. The May 4–6 2021 Roadcheck event is in red. Days 1, 2, and 3 represent the actual Roadcheck event. For perspective, a national LTR in the 3:1 or 4:1 are reasonably balanced periods. Below those levels are considered a loose or oversupplied market and above are considered tight or undersupplied market.

The graphic shows 2021’s LTR was like 2018, represented in gold. This year, the average LTR for Roadcheck week was 7.8—up from 5.0 the prior week. Van truck postings were down 14%, while loads posted were up 35%. Note the two days of higher tension prior to this year’s event. This varies from the historical experience for 2018 or the previous 10-year average.

Yet to be determined, is the benefit of the weekend occurring as day +2 and +3 in 2021, which may have afforded capacity the opportunity to reset and start a new week.

 

Load to truck ratio for Roadcheck

Load to truck ratio comparison for Roadcheck weeks over the past 10 years 

Spot market, committed market and capacity insights

DAT Dry Van Load-to-Truck Ratio chart

Aggregate U.S. national perspective (for week 19).

This year demonstrates that when the truckload market is experiencing high LTRs, significant events result in dramatic spikes. Recent events, like February winter storms and last week’s Roadcheck, are great examples.

We recommend continuing to prepare operations for tension and volatility. Expect seasonal movement in truckload pricing with the year-end bringing a higher cost per mile than today.

As shown in the map below, regionally, the truckload dry van market experienced remarkable tension because of Roadcheck week. It is reasonable that tension will lessen both nationally and regionally, but we expect much higher than historical LTR averages for the balance of the year.

North America DAT Routing guide heatmap | May 2021

Regional variance view of high tension in the U.S. truckload dry van spot market.

Spot market truckload rate per mile forecast
There are many variables influencing forecasts for the second half of 2021. Freight volumes, Class 8 retail sales, driver hiring, vaccine use, herd immunity, and more are a few of the top influencers.

Mathematically driven forecasts on truckload pricing for the end of the year will likely be less accurate as there are too many variables and historical references are problematic this year.

Our forecast below for spot market pricing shows it moving through seasonal patterns but concluding the year about another 8% higher than current rates. Again, this forecast will change as variables ebb and flow.

May 2021 | North America Transportation CPM forecast

This chart, created by C.H. Robinson, is founded in DAT van spot market pricing data. The bottom dotted line shows a five year history from DAT of van load to truck ratios. The solid light blue line, the current year of load to truck ratios, shows remarkable tension compared to the average. The dark blue solid line shows DAT's van spot market pricing history and the dotted line extension is C.H. Robinson’s forecast. Week 19 is shown to mark the current state.

Contract truckload environment
The spot market is a leading indicator of the broader and much larger contract/committed market. The contract market is managed in shipper, carrier, and broker transportation management systems (TMS), and not publicly available from spot market trading platforms, therefore, it is difficult to track its performance.

What follows are some perspectives and notes on today’s environment from TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson.

The chart above from TMC, A Division of C.H. Robinson reflects weekly route guide depth (RGD) regionally across the United States

The chart above from TMC, A Division of C.H. Robinson reflects weekly route guide depth (RGD) regionally across the United States through week 19. A decrease in RGD means there are fewer rejection of tenders to the primary supplier (measured by first tender acceptance (FTA) and presented as a percentage of tenders accepted by the primary supplier), which in turn means fewer subsequent tender rejections to backup suppliers.

Route guide performance
Waterfall route guides are commonly used to manage awarded freight on lanes with some level of demand pattern predictability. The following insights are derived from our large shipper portfolio of diverse industries across the United States.

Route guide performance is often measured through several key metrics. RGD refers to how far into a route guide a shipper must tender shipments before loads are accepted, or the average number of tenders per load.

During the week of May 3–7, 2021, the overall RGD across all regions was 1.67, improved slightly from the same week in April of 1.74. The Northeast improved week over week, but still stands out at ~1.9 RGD with the Midwest and South both doing better at roughly 1.75. The West is at about 1.4.

For the month of April, middle distance loads of 400–600 miles and loads over 600 miles have settled to about 1.8 average across all regions, with loads under 400 miles performing just under an RGD of 1.5.

First tender acceptance in North America stabilized at 81% for both March and April 2021 as compared to the 88% seen in March 2020. For perspective, March 2020 was a strong freight month as North Americans prepared for April's lockdown.

April 2021 RGD top insights:

  • April declined 6% from March to 1.67 RGD average.
  • The distance bands of 400–600 miles and 600+ have maintained nearly identical RGDs of about 1.8.
  • Less than 400 miles loads averaged about 1.5 RGD.

Voice of the carrier from C.H. Robinson
Every month we conduct business reviews with contract carriers. Here are some of the comments that are more informative of the current market:

  • Trailer availability and utilization challenges persist impacting load volumes in the trucking marketplace. Carriers are pressing consignees for loaded trailers to be unloaded and put back into rotation.
  • Carrier efforts around compensation and lifestyle are helping maintain fleet size, but growth continues to be difficult.
  • As volumes rise, carriers are prioritizing lanes that contribute to high yield, while declining awards on less attractive lanes.

Ocean and air import volumes impact North American surface transportation
Ocean import demand from Asia to North America via the Suez Canal and Pacific routes is expected to reach historically high levels for the remainder of 2021.

Rail networks in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest are stretched. Import container dwell times also continue to rise due to trucking capacity shortages across many Midwest inland rail ramps with yard space greatly depleted.

The import to North America air freight market continues to be very tight and many shippers experience extended time at airports to transfer cargo to a surface transportation mode. Cargo centers at airports continue to be congested and are experiencing delays for surface transportation.

As such, the additional time being consumed for air freight shipments has many shippers moving up from LTL and consolidation modes to full truckload with teams or hot shot services to accelerate final mile delivery.

For a more holistic update on ocean and air in global trade lanes, please see our Global Forwarding Insights.

Temperature controlled shipping

The month of May continues to show signs of strong growth in two key market segments for refrigerated truckload and LTL: produce harvesting and summer picnicking and grilling. Temperature controlled demand is expected to continue at historical highs supported by consumer confidence as vaccination rates increase and life moves toward a sense of normalcy.

Foodservice refrigerated volumes have started to return as restaurants re-open, the traveling public eats out, and festivals and large functions are occurring. See the aggregate U.S. DAT load to truck ratio (LTR) below, where the red line is 2021 and demonstrates the highest levels of imbalance in six years.

The LTR for key temperature controlled markets like, FL, CA, and TX, have already hit record highs before produce season’s highest demand weeks begin, suggesting 2021 is likely to continue to see high pricing as demand outstrips supply.

The temperature controlled truckload sector experiences greater challenges finding drivers for trucks than dry van since these positions require a driver to manage a refrigeration unit and maintain the temperature of the trailer. Growing capacity rapidly in the temperature controlled market is unlikely, and we would expect enhanced compensation strategies for drivers to be most successful for dry vans due to the less complex job and significant job openings.

DAT Reefer Load-to-Truck Ratio chart

Temperature controlled truckload capacity is typically attracted to the high pay of seasonal produce loads; accordingly, capacity moves across with country with the growing season.

This year, the produce season in the south is slightly delayed due to the February weather. The first markets to harvest will be FL, GA, TX, and CA. Leafy greens and vegetables have fully transitioned from Yuma, AZ, to the Salinas, CA, region, increasing the seasonal demand for temperature controlled trucks in the Salinas region.

Due to the exceptionally tight truck market, we recommend all shippers be mindful that capacity and pricing will likely be impacted. Planning and flexibility are critically important in 2021.

Pallet Shortage: The broader lumber market stress and cost increases now appear to be affecting wooden pallet availability and pricing. The scarcity and escalating prices for #1 and #2 pallets are most notable in the Southeast with quickening pace of produce harvesting and immediate need for top quality pallets. Some retailers are loosening restrictions on how they define an acceptable pallet.

Produce industry leaders are reaching out to retailers and retail association leadership in an effort to work together and address this challenge. We share this insight with our clients so they may have the opportunity to evaluate their pallet supply chain and caution that floor loading solutions can put significant strain on warehouse staff, loading/dwell time, and load attractiveness in this tight market.

Flatbed

Flatbed markets are always experiencing a load to truck ratio (LTR) that exceeds van and temperature controlled equipment. This year’s national averages show a pattern similar to 2018, running in the range of 80 to 100, with a market variance of 20:1 to 1,000:1.

Below are a selection of industries showing load volume growth at C.H. Robinson for April Y/Y.

  • Auto: +32%
  • Energy: +7%
  • Manufacturing: +30%
  • Infrastructure: +10% (e.g., housing, pipe, and traditional bridge and road materials)

Selected flatbed demand insights:

  • Housing and DIY volumes are high, with loads of dimensional lumber and building materials driving high demand.
  • The oil industry needs flatbeds to haul pipe (e.g., drill site supplies) with the increase in oil pricing.
  • Auto and truck industries are extremely busy (despite the semiconductor shortage), building inventory on steel, axels, commercial vehicle bodies, etc.

Flatbed strategies to employ for current market conditions:

  • Use a shipping window versus specific appointment times to garner greater success with price and capacity. This approach affords options for price and changing
  • Secure the greatest capacity and price performance with pre-procured environments or strategic approaches to daily demand patterns.
  • Create a direct connection between your transportation management system (TMS) and C.H. Robinson’s Navisphere® technology for quotes and tenders in real-time.

Cross-border shipping (Canada and Mexico)

Canada
Tension and performance levels for cross-border freight between the United States and Canada is similar to historical seasonal experiences. That said, cross-border traffic has increased from roughly 80% being hauled by carriers from Canada to about 90% hauled with Canada carriers.

Additionally, it is important to be aware of the ongoing labor issue at the Port of Montreal. Montreal, one of Canada’s busiest ports shut down after 1,150 dockworkers struck work on April 26, 2021.

Canada’s Federal Government passed legislation on Thursday, April 29, 2021, to end the strike at the Port of Montreal. The proposed legislation must still be passed by the Senate, after which, the longshoreman will return to work.

If the strike drags on, it will cost the economy $40 million to $100 million per week, directly threatening 19,000 jobs and indirectly affecting hundreds of thousands of other jobs across the country.

We recommend prioritizing orders and for additional flexibility, pulling freight from the port in anticipation of a surge of released containers when the strike ends. Source: Trucknews.com

Mexico
This month’s report opened with an update on Mexico’s truck and cross-border market insights. Below are our recommendations for shipping into or out of Mexico in the coming weeks:

  • Clearly communicate load characteristics and expectations.
  • Increase lead time of load tenders.
  • Develop efficient loading/unloading processes.
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Intermodal Shipping

TOP STORY: Demand outpaces supply; assets are not where they need to be

High levels of loaded truck and ocean containers are being used as mobile storage at consignee locations. This means continued challenges for intermodal transport in accessing enough containers to meet demand.

Couple this trend of inactive assets with domestic volume and maintained high levels of imports (most recently the increased volume from the Suez Canal incident) and intermodal service is experiencing stress similar to truckload and LTL markets.

Seek committed intermodal volume awards to ensure the best experience the market can offer in a tight market such as this. If you’re seeking spot market intermodal services, we’ve found the following lanes create the greatest opportunity for current market conditions:

  • California inbound (any intermodal lane into CA is attractive)
  • Any intermodal lanes on the eastern core (East of the Mississippi river)
  • Mexico inbound from the United States (any intermodal lane into Mexico is attractive)
  • Chicago and Wisconsin inbound intermodal lanes

Less Than Truckload (LTL) Shipping

TOP STORY: LTL market is facing labor shortages

The LTL market faces similar supply and demand pressures as truckload and intermodal. The following are some key insights for May:

  • Manufacturing is competing with ecommerce/retail for limited LTL capacity.
  • Driver labor shortages and elevated purchased transportation costs continue.

As the market tightens, LTL carriers are being increasingly selective on the freight and lanes they are interested in. It takes a portfolio approach to garner the best services and price. Work with your C.H. Robinson account manager to develop the right LTL strategy for your business and current conditions.

LTL & Consolidation

Demand forecasts for LTL are robust. The second quarter of 2021 is at 7.5% growth quarter over quarter. According to ACT Research, year over year growth for 2021 is at 9.9%.

Like truckload, LTL has a smaller fleet that needs to add capacity. Ecommerce middle mile transportation has contributed to demand volumes over the past 12 months.

As industrials return, there will be more freight options for carriers to choose from. Accordingly, LTL carriers will send pricing signals of freight they want and don’t want.

  • April’s ISM's PMI continues to be strong, down slightly at 60.7.
  • California eastward lanes are experiencing the greatest delays associated with high import volumes.
  • Transactional shippers may be struggling with certain carriers. Our network of LTL carriers can help secure the LTL capacity you need.
  • Carriers are declining large shipments.
  • Consolidation in the middle mile can help serve larger partial load shipments.

Small Parcel

Ecommerce continues growing in retail and the pressure remains for fast, on-time deliveries. As a result, retailers, manufacturers, and parcel companies are retooling processes and investing heavily in infrastructure to support the portfolio of market requirements. Below are some examples of investments being made in the parcel industry:

  • Amazon's “continuous-flow process” allows for later cut off times and more accurate delivery date commitments to end customers. Source: Supply Chain Dive
  • USPS is accelerating investments with 138 package sortation centers and 45 annex facilities, preparing for peak season. Source: Supply Chain Dive
  • FedEx's ShopRunner ecommerce platform and Adobe are working together to offer Adobe's merchant customers access to FedEx's network and two day shipping. Source: Wall Street Journal
  • Shopify and Inovia Capital have invested in digital logistics startup Swyft (based in Toronto, Canada), integrating courier companies to the platform with merchant shopping carts. Source Betakit

These market activities improve the management of ecommerce shipments and balance cost with performance. They move beyond traditional carriers and historical fixed pickup schedules and evolve the performance metric portfolio for defining what success looks like for ecommerce shipments.

Government and Regulations

TOP STORY: What impact will legislation have on reducing the driver shortage?

This month we offer updates to some of the most common questions on regulatory and legislative insights related to the truck driver labor pool.

  • Will 18-20 year old drivers be approved to help with the driver situation?

    The Drive Safe Act aims to establish a national internship program for 18-20 year old truck drivers. It has a challenging path toward enactment. If Democrats opt for a reconciliation path to pass infrastructure spending, policies like the Drive Safe Act will not be included per the rules.
    However, if Congress passes a traditional infrastructure package of both spending and policy, there will be many safety advocates opposed to the Drive Safe Act. Even if the Drive Safe Act passes in 2021, a program will not likely be up and running until well into 2022.

  • How impactful has the Drug & Alcohol clearinghouse been to the truck driver labor pool?

    The Drug & Alcohol clearinghouse has been active for over 16 months (including the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns). This makes any trends difficult to discern.
    Testing decreased in April–June 2020 along with the lockdowns. One pattern that may be discernable is a notable increase in pre-employment queries of the clearinghouse the past three months, potentially indicating a more active driver environment when compared to 2020.

  • Will driverless trucks help alleviate the driver labor situation soon?

    In short, no. Beyond technology advancements, there is a portfolio of regulatory and legislative activity that needs to happen before driverless trucks are performing interstate transport.
    Autonomous trucking regulation or legislation chatter has quieted. Meera Joshi has been named the nominee to lead the FMCSA and once she is confirmed, her regulatory agenda will become clearer later this year. We can expect state level testing in controlled environments to continue.

  • What impact does the recent court ruling on California AB-5 (or independent contractor status) have on for-hire trucking?

    In short, no immediate change. While the issue of independent contractor status in trucking will be discussed as both legislation (PRO Act) and in the courts, impacts to overall capacity may be limited and slow in developing.
    We anticipate the AB-5 court decision may eventually be challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless of the outcome of the debates, a clear trend of growth among smaller carriers has emerged in the industry.

U.S. Economy

TOP STORY: Stimulus contributes to strong economy and labor challenges

The U.S. economy continues to experience an impressive rebound with 2021 GDP now forecasted to grow 7% Y/Y. The COVID-19 pandemic created a 10% reduction in economic activity or 10% “output gap” versus pre-COVID-19 levels in the second quarter of 2020.

The CARES Act, with its $2.3T stimulus cash (>10% of the U.S. economy), dropped into the economy in various programs, including $292B of cash stimulus payments, to shore up that output gap or hole. The 2020 stimulus successfully stabilized the economy and reduced this output gap to only 2% by the end of 2020.

Entering 2021, we have seen combined stimulus packages totaling $2.8T (14% of the U.S. economy) to fill that 2% output gap. This drives very strong growth, leading to dynamic shocks of supply and demand across a wide range of supply chains—from labor and materials to components, including semiconductors and trucking equipment.

The full re-opening of the economy in the second half of 2021 is a continued organic tailwind to growth. The figure below shows the size of the economy each year (dollar GDP), the GDP growth rate, and estimates the relative size of the Federal stimulus packages in 2020 and 2021.

It is likely an infrastructure package will mean more Federal stimulus in 2021. However, due to the second-half timing and longer duration of impact from an infrastructure package, the growth from this won’t be experienced until 2022 or beyond.

CNBC Moody's GDP forecast | May 2021

Retail is a key component to the economic recovery. The below chart shows the direct correlation of each stimulus package and the retail growth response. You can see 2020 drove an 18% growth rate, the late December 2020 package did not deliver funds until early 2021, resulting in another 8% at that point, and the February 2021 package drove another 10% growth.

CNBC Moody's GDP forecast | May 2021

A key result of these retail spikes is supply chain elasticity. Accordingly, retail and supply chains supporting the industry are struggling with demand planning and replenishment. Global forwarding freight planning and capacity issues arise as well based on the ability of North American transportation to support these spikes.

We believe there are several factors exacerbating the existing truck driver shortage, including extended unemployment benefits, family childcare access/affordability, and a fear of exposure to COVID-19. A few states are discontinuing the extended unemployment insurance benefits before September to stimulate workers to return to work.

While there is a possibility of one more stimulus package in the late third or fourth quarter, it is becoming increasingly less likely or needed and political support for another stimulus package is diminishing.

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