Freight and Economic Market Insights

Last Update January 14, 2021:

Stay informed about freight market conditions, supply and demand influencers, and other factors that can impact your supply chain.

The following information is built on market data from public sources and C.H. Robinson’s information advantage—based on our experience, data, and scale. Use these insights to stay informed, make decisions designed to mitigate your risk, and avoid disruptions to your supply chain.

In this edition of our monthly update, we cover both the spot and committed truckload markets; LTL, ocean, intermodal, cross border, and produce shipping information.

In the spirit of the new year, we offer a market perspective to open this month’s report to help our clients reflect on their 2020 North American surface transportation experience as well as look at 2021 expectations. The COVID-19 pandemic imposed an unprecedented influence on all businesses and markets, transportation is no exception. In short, the loss in trucking jobs in March and April was material. The return of the jobs lagged the economic recovery due to the economic stimulus, early retirements from an aging driver population seeking to avoid COVID exposure, easier screening for drug and alcohol infractions in the new national database, truck driving schools not returning to full capacity, and a growth in local driving opportunities. By the end of the year, most of the lost trucking jobs returned to local and specialty truck driving jobs rather than general long haul.1 The result continues to be a challenge to supply against demand growth.

The continued concern for 2021 is ease of access to capacity across the modal suite and cost escalation. We offer a few perspectives on truckload as a mode in hopes that these insights will help manage perspectives, influence strategies, and control transportation costs.

Truckload market demographics: The for-hire truckload market is commonly cited as a near perfect market. The reality of this market is that most of the carriers are small, with almost 99% having 50 trucks or fewer and comprising nearly 56% of the capacity. Only 204 carriers have fleets of 400 tractors or more, with 13 having 4,000 tractors or more.2 To complicate matters, the truckload market continues to fragment after 2019’s growth of small carriers, July-October saw ~31,000 more new carrier starts as well.3 Most shippers need to engage the breadth of the market capacity in an effort to support the varied attributes of its freight portfolio.

Freight attributes: Larger carriers search for lanes and loads that contribute to higher yield multi-leg routes, optimizing driver hours and leverage their trailer pool regions. Those are finite lanes with higher and more predictable demand patterns. The balance of freight and lanes are less attractive or less plannable. As such, capacity strategies are more response oriented and lean into the smaller carrier community which has limited elasticity and lacks trailer pools. Building these market capabilities into a strategy help ensure success and expected results.

Costing considerations: The spot market increase of 43% January to December 2020 was a factor of idle and shifting supply against a rapidly recovering freight demand.

Route guides produced capacity at higher than planned levels due to substitution and subsequent need to engage the spot market for immediate capacity. What can we expect from the smaller carrier community? Engaging this market majority is to seek available capacity and tied to the active spot trading market.

A rationalized portfolio approach is key to a top performing truckload strategy.4 Strategies to access the contractual and spot market capacity are crucial. Aligning business process and capacity communities with attributes of freight will yield the most predictable and higher performance results. Service providers can typically provide multiple services, helping the shipper community access the broad, evolving, and diverse capacity pool.

We invite our clients to reflect on their freight portfolio and strategies to reach across not only the truck market, but rather the entire surface transportation modal portfolio. Please engage your C.H. Robinson team for a strategy conversation including our proprietary engagement, Procure IQTM. We work with our clients on strategies that bring forth the best that the entire capacity community has to offer as the market evolves and cycles.


2021 is already being discussed by analysts as a year of two halves. H1 is most likely a market of continued tension as idle supply returns to active duty and catches up to demand. H2 sees the analyst community offering a range of possible scenarios from slightly looser than balanced to continued tension. The dynamic nature of this period makes a forecast difficult, and to be more specific, where the economy and freight demand are going. Economists are closely watching these variables, and we encourage our clients to do the same as they develop their forecast for H2 2021: COVID vaccine roll out, impact of the second stimulus package and a potential third package, employment figures, and consumer sentiment. Active supply expected to grow, seating idle and new vehicles as carriers increase compensation packages to bring in drivers.

Transportation industry hires & retires trends | Jan 2021

Trucking Labor

The specifics behind our opening comments include the following:

  • ~52,000 of the ~94,600 lost trucking jobs have returned.1
  • The returned jobs are spread across the sub sectors of trucking including local/short haul and specialized trucking vs. general long haul.1
  • ~31,000 new carrier startups are not counted in BLS figures as they are considered self-employed (non-payroll companies).

The trucking industry has experienced a headwind regarding potential hiring to fill new truck orders with a forecasted rise in retirement through 2025 and decline in 21-year-olds through 2023 (Figure 1). The market expects to see continued upward pressure on driver compensation and bonuses needed to seat the expanding fleet and counter the primary driver demographic trends. C.H. Robinson has also confirmed this through voice of carrier surveys and business review conversations. In addition to compensation strategies, our carriers report increased focus on shippers of choice, short haul lanes, dedicated fleet strategies, and recognition programs for drivers.

Truckload volume

  • 2020 truckload volume and tonnage are estimated across analysts between -3% to ~flat Y/Y 2019
  • Inventory replenishment is largely cited as a key freight volume driver for H1 2021 as business across verticals(including retail) strive to get to higher levels.

Consumer sentiment and behaviors:

  • Vaccine adoption, if widespread influences economists bullish view of consumers return to pre-COVID movement and spending patterns.
  • Services sector spending is expected to grow later in the year post vaccine adoption. Not known is how services spending dollars will curtail goods spending.
  • Three sectors to watch: Analysts tend to focus on retail, housing, and manufacturing when studying and forecasting freight demand/flows.
  • The PMI at 60.7, continues to suggest expansion in the manufacturing sector which will continue to bolster freight volumes.5

Truck supply

  • 2020 estimate that the U.S. market has 5,000 fewer class-8 tractors than 2019.
  • Q4, 2020 strong orders of tractors, far exceeding OEM production ability, leading to backlog of orders and 5-6 month lead time for delivery.
  • Q2 will see delivery of Q4 tractor orders. Seating these will contribute to supply and demand experience.
  • 2021 forecast of 35,000 net increase in class-8 tractors in the U.S (~2.7% Y/Y growth). Source: ACT
NAST spot market update | Jan 2021

Spot market update

Week 2’s regional representation of the U.S. spot market (Figure 2) continues to show a wide range of load to truck Ratios (“LTR”) in DAT’s data. There is continued tension in the Midwest, off the Southern California port region, and Laredo, TX. (LTR of 5:1 and higher is a very tight market.)

The committed truckload environment

The spot market is a leading indicator of the broader and much larger contract/committed market. The broader contract market is more difficult to measure because those relationships are held in transportation management systems (“TMS”) and other datasets at the shipper and supplier level vs. more publicly available views from spot market trading platforms. What follows are some perspectives and notes on today’s environment from TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson.

NAST routing depth guide | Jan 2021

Route guide performance

We continue this month with route guide performance trends and insights to describe the broader contract market. Most of the shippers in this dataset use a traditional waterfall route guide. As such, we look broadly across industries and markets for common trends across this shipper community. Route guide performance is often measured by looking at a two key metrics. Route guide depth (“RGD”) is how deep into a route guide is needed for loads to be accepted, or the average number of tenders per load.

  • Week of January 3rd - 1.82
  • December 2020 - 1.79

The other metric is first tender acceptance (“FTA”) or the percent of time the primary (intended) supplier accepts the shipment tender.

  • November 2020 - 82%
  • December 2020 - 81%
  • December 2019 - 88%

This month’s chart (Figure 3) reflects week over week change in RGD regionally. This is a lens to the contract market trends. A decrease in the sequential percent means there are fewer rejection of tenders to the primary supplier. RGD is the average number of tenders to cover a load. At 2.36 for the week of January 3rd, route guides are still struggling with the primary and secondary rejecting tenders somewhat frequently. Additionally, we see that the Midwest continues to be the most problematic market and correlated to the high load to truck ratios shown in figure 2 above. Finally, the 400-600 mile loads diverged again from other distance bands to a RGD of about 2.2 against the nationwide average of 1.82 for the week of January 3rd.


Please seek out your C.H. Robinson representative and our flatbed team, as we are seeing success with planned capacity and outsource programs.

  • Residential construction continues to be the thriving industry sector tied to flatbed demand.
  • Manufacturing/industrial production has continued to rebound, albeit still operating below pre-pandemic levels.
  • Supply continues to be the limiter with ongoing idle trucks seeking drivers.
  • Western region is seeing the greatest tension with low volume and capacity. Repositioning costs are driving up rates per mile. Great lakes area is also seeing tension with short supply as automotive sector continues to rebound.
  • Southern California and Southern Texas regions are balanced.

Less Than Truckload (LTL)

New year, same LTL demand. Carriers saw solid volumes during Week 1 of 2021. Most indicated that volumes were good right out of the gate and will remain solid for the foreseeable future. Drivers to demand are ecommerce middle mile and the recovering manufacturing sector.

  • In late December and early January, more carriers announced GRI’s between 1% and 10%. C.H. Robinson helps our clients minimize exposure to GRI’s.
  • Recently, multiple LTL carriers have experienced disruptions due to ransomware attacks. C.H. Robinson security has not been breached by ransomware attacks.
  • Some carriers are still rejecting transactional freight (embargos) in some markets.


The increased demand in online shipping due to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with normal upwards growth Y/Y stressed the U.S. parcel carriers like never before. This caused widespread disruption and delays in service to businesses and consumers alike, leaving parcel carriers needing to prioritize shipment types and shippers that increase yield and apply additional charges that sub-optimize cube, weight, and revenue.

Expect new rule and rates changes in 2021

  • 38% of zip codes in the U.S. will incur delivery area surcharges designed to fully cover regional costs.
  • Additional handling fees will now be assessed on any package over 105 but less than 130 inches in length and girth. These shipments take up more space in the network and can be more labor intensive in final delivery.
  • 2-day and 3-day service volumes projected to increase as many businesses strive to compete with Amazon.
  • Guaranteed service refunds will not likely be honored for some time.
  • FedEx will follow UPS’ lead and start charging late fees on past due invoices.

What can shippers do to mitigate these changes? Two shipment types facing increased charges may have some mitigation strategies available, and C.H. Robinson may be able to our clients with these opportunities:

  • Non-metro deliveries and shipments now incurring additional landing may be able to be served via other modes such as consolidation or smaller regional parcel carriers.
  • Express shipment costs can be mitigated by downgrading services to be more cost effective for that same transit day.
  • To avoid late fees, speed up the invoice processing and payment cycle or work with your carriers to increase your terms to avoid late fees.


Capacity likely to remain constrained out of California throughout Q1, 2021 as container ships continue to arrive.

  • Transloading from USWC expected to grow as steamship lines reduce the inland points they will allow their equipment to terminate in.
  • Railroads seeking mid-high single digit price increases, significantly higher for freight out of deficit markets like California. Mexico drayage continues to be hindered with driver availability, as providers are selective on preferred shippers and corridors.
  • Chicago is experiencing ongoing congestion on cross-country moves and facility backlogs.

Cross border

Mexico-U.S. border insights

  • Empty container news: Southbound empty containers with non-Free and Secure Trade (“FAST”) participants are being diverted from Laredo’s main crossing, World Trade Bridge (“WTB”) to the Columbia-Solidarity bridge 22 miles away. For these carriers, the positioning of empties is taking longer due to mileage and longer crossing times at the Columbia Solidarity Bridge. C.H. Robinson is a FAST participant and able to use all crossing points north and southbound.
  • Laredo volume up 9.41% on imports, while exports are 1% down (southbound), thus continuing to exasperate the imbalance of capacity (2020 v. 2019 Y/Y).
  • Maquilas from border cities in Mexico are about 80% back to their normal operation schedule from holiday shutdowns. Volume will start to pick back up with outbound from these areas in January week three.
  • Carriers are still reporting a high amount of driver shortages from after the holidays, with backlogs being serviced this week and slowing current volumes.

Intra Canada and Canada-U.S. border insights

  • The province of Quebec has implemented strict lockdowns and curfews effective until Feburary 8th. Manufacturing sectors are seeing activities reduced to a minimum. As such, demand patterns are materially disrupted and trailers are being used for storage. Source: Truck News.
  • Truckload cross border outbound from Canada into the U.S. is experiencing lower tension as many non-essential manufacturers closed for the holiday season, resulting in continued lag in outbound freight for the first two weeks of January.
  • Well into Canadian winter, supply and demand introduces seasonal influences:
    • Reefer demand rises as “protect from freeze” requirements are executed on some commodities.
    • Alberta and British Columbia experience active capacity reduction as some drivers avoid Canadian Rockies regions.

Full load summary

We invite our clients to engage your C.H. Robinson team regarding our research portfolio offering insights on applied strategies and attributes of freight correlated to performance in any market. Your C.H. Robinson team will discuss capacity strategies and business processes that will help bring increased operation and spend performance.

Temperature controlled

  • California: The first two weeks of January brought a historical softening in the refrigerated market as outbound demand decreased.
  • Midwest & No. East: Continues with elevated demand exit these markets against stagnant supply.
  • So. Florida: Floral season returns in late January to supply Valentine’s Day. Demand will spike for about 4-5 weeks.
  • The forecasted demand for dry van service to support strong import activity in So. California may pull on reefer capacity (running dry) and influence the California reefer market mid-January through February.



  • Vessels exit China and Southeast Asia are over booked through Chinese New Year (February 11-17). Expect demand for bookings on vessels to be strong post Chinese New Year.
    • Empty container availability continues to be a material issue in China and Southeast Asia for all lanes globally.
  • Expect port dwell times across east and west coast ports to increase as these vessels continue to arrive:
    • Chassis availability is a growing concern as well as intermodal dray and container capacity.
    • Inland trucking will continue to experience demand pressure.
  • The market is experiencing significant payment premiums by shippers in an effort to prioritize cargo. We expect this to continue through at least February.


  • Typical January pattern of lessened demand is slightly tempered against conversion from ocean freight not able to wait for another sailing.
  • 2020 and into January 2021 continues to see fewer aircrafts, but load factors are up.
  • Chinese New Year will create increased demand the first two weeks of February.
  • Vaccine distribution has begun, but volumes are currently modest. Volumes will increase through Q1 as more candidates are approved for use. Expect this to be a significant disruptor through the first half of the year.

Produce Sourcing

Robinson Fresh-Product Supply Chain Insights

robinson fresh logo

The Robinson Fresh division remains fully operational, and there are no impacts to supply chains to date.

  • We are seeing an increase in demand for fresh commodities and will continue to watch this closely.
  • With increased commodity demand, refrigerated trucking demand tends to follow

Thank you for being a valued customer

We invite our clients to engage their C.H. Robinson or TMC commercial representative to discuss collaborative strategies designed to offer quick and effective response. Our modal expertise and capacity portfolio afford for elasticity in full and partial load shipments to help minimize service disruptions in this unique market.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact your C.H. Robinson or TMC commercial representative for further information or look up any of the services listed within this report at


  • 1 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current Employment Statistics - CES (National) Table B-1a December 8, 2020
  • 2 C.H. Robinson analysis of FMCA MCMIS 2019 carrier registration data
  • 3 FMCSA MCMIS carrier registration data.
  • 4 Leaders and Laggards, MIT-CTL capstone project with C.H. Robinson. Researchers Bleggi and Zhou, 2017
  • 5 Institute for Supply Management, Purchasing Managers Index (ISM-PMI) Dec ISM-PMI Figures above 50 generally indicate expansion in the manufacturing sector. PMI strength is correlated to LTL freight demand growth.
  • Figures:
  • 1 US Census Bureau and ACT Research, ACT December 2020 Freight Forecast
  • 2 DAT Freight and Analytics, Truckload Van Load to Truck ratio.
  • 3 TMC, A Division of C.H. Robinson. Routing Guide Depth by USA Regions


  • 1 US Census Bureau and ACT Research, ACT December 2020 Freight Forecast
  • 2 DAT Freight and Analytics, Truckload Van Load to Truck ratio.
  • 3 TMC, A Division of C.H. Robinson. Routing Guide Depth by USA Regions