North American Freight Market Insights

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Transportation Market Overview

TOP STORY: Looking forward to 2022

Since March 2020, the transportation market has been in an unprecedented situation because of COVID-19 and the governmental and market responds locally, nationally, and globally. Participants in the transportation market strive to forecast supply, demand, and performance of strategies and costs.

As the inputs to upcoming forecasts are still rather fluid, and we don't have a historical basis for this type of environment, it’s impossible to expect forecasts to be accurate more than a few months out. Nevertheless, forecasts are needed for business planning and serve as reference as the markets and their influencers evolve. An example of the fluid forecasting environment is estimating the class-8 tractor community. ACT Research has been amending their estimate for 2021 net fleet growth each month based on OEM orders and manufacturing. In their September 13th Freight Forecast, they cite a downward estimate again of approximately 38,000 incremental class-8 tractors in the U.S. for 2021, down from approximately 50,000 in their August report. The semiconductor industry shortages continue to be a challenge near term as ACT estimates about 20,000 built but unfinished class 8 tractors are awaiting parts. Also note that these tractors are sold across the industry, not just in long-haul for hire trucking where the industry is experiencing the greatest capacity pressure.

This month’s insights offer perspectives and recommendations on forecasting for the truckload environment and a wider suite of services.

Forecasts from analysts

ACT Research and FTR, two leading analyst firms, publish truckload and less than truckload (LTL) forecasts. Their predictions offer an outside perspective to C.H. Robinson’s forecasts. With permission from both firms, below are excerpts from ACT and FTR’s monthly reports.

truckload spot market table| C.H.Robinson

Pricing forecasts for transportation are a blend of modeling and experience. As the data above shows, forecasts for the year over year (Y/Y) change from 2021 and year-end pricing has become increasingly similar as it’s already the third quarter of the year.

However, 2022 predictions continue to vary as the modeling inputs evolve. Attributes such as Y/Y change, historical patterns, economic, supply, and volume forecasts as well as industry experience can all influence the possibilities for 2022 pricing.

What’s influencing the market right now?

Trucking labor
The Bureau of Labor Statistics published jobs numbers on Friday, September 3, 2021. The broader jobs growth was disappointing; however, transportation and logistics jobs showed stronger numbers. Specifically, in trucking, there are some very interesting insights as summed up by Jason Miller PhD of Michigan State University:

  • Q1 2021 saw the creation of 2,741 new truck transportation establishments (a very good proxy for firms) with 1 or more employees. This is the most new establishments ever created in a quarter, surpassing Q3 2020 (the prior record).
  • Establishment size further fell, indicating these new establishments are predominantly small. (This is a pattern that has been worthy of note for 2020 and 2021).

In the end, Jason Miller’s analysis continues to show long haul trucking to be most challenged with a shortage of jobs. C.H. Robinson previously provided Jason Miller’s estimate of 30,000 fewer long haul trucking jobs from before COVID-19. The latest jobs report indicates the industry is still roughly 25,000 jobs short.

GDP forecast
The 2021 GDP forecast is 6% Y/Y followed by 4% in 2022. Freight volumes are expected to continue to be healthy through the end of the year. It’s expected in 2022, volumes will put pressure on capacity, further supporting the carrier community's confidence in raising wages, improving lifestyles for drivers, and purchasing more trucks. .

sept gdp| C.H.Robinson

Inventory levels
The above GDP rates have some support from the low inventory to sales ratios for both retail and industrial sectors.

The chart below breaks out the retail ex-auto industry (blue) from manufacturing and trade industries (orange). It clearly shows the challenge of rebuilding inventory many businesses are struggling with.

Freight volume forecasts are a blend of replenishment and rebuilding inventories. It is presumed that the rebuilding process will continue well into 2022 and contribute to strong freight volumes

inventory to sales ratio fred logo| C.H.Robinson

 

C.H. Robinson's spot market dry van truckload rate per mile forecast

With two external forecasts offered for truckload and some updated insights to the forecast inputs, C.H. Robinson again offers a spot market dry van truckload rate per mile forecast for the rest of 2021 and now extended through 2022.

The 2021 forecast continues its upward course through the end of the year amidst the pressures of supply and shipment volumes. The 2022 forecast presents a net 3% Y/Y average rate per mile to 2021 with the rate per mile at 2022 year-end near the rate per mile at 2021 year-end.

As many model inputs continue experiencing variances, expect this model to evolve as inputs vary. Additionally, C.H. Robinson will continue to apply its broad market costs and market experience to the forecast and continue to present updates on a regular cadence.

nast Sept TL forecast| C.H.Robinson

 

Truckload strategies for success in any market
Improve your truckload experience to better handle any market conditions. Connect with C.H. Robinson’s account management teams for more detailed insights on these strategies:

  • Reduce costs through route guide maintenance
  • Maintain historical cadence for RFPs and RFQs
  • Shift or optimize modes
  • Amend supply chain/distribution sourcing strategies
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Full Truckload Shipping

TOP STORY: Tension persists as shown in spot and contract markets

Spot market, committed market, and capacity insights
The spot market is a leading indicator of the broader and much larger contract/committed market. Estimates are between 15–25% of the for-hire truckload market is in the spot market. This percentage varies by market cycle and how analysts define spot versus contract. Regardless, it is the minority of the for-hire truckload market.

The spot market also offers some of the best insight to the broader trucking market due to the nature of electronic trading boards that serve as an aggregator of shipper and carrier activity, which is less available in the contract market as relationships are managed in transportation management systems (TMS) of shippers, carriers, and third party logistics providers.

Spot market under tension
In the United States, the spot market continues to show remarkable tension when compared to the previous five years. For perspective, see the images below are generated from DAT.com loads and truck posting data:
  • August 2017 through August 2018 brought a period of tension not seen prior and was often cited as something that would not be repeated any time near term.
  • Q2 2020 through early February 2021 was the challenger to the previous tight cycle because of the disruptive effects of COVID-19, economic turmoil, supply chain disruption, and the trucking labor shortage.
  • Mid-February 2021 to present sets new records, demonstrates the prolonged impact of the supply shortage, and shows there is no elasticity in the market to handle major events like the February weather and Roadcheck week. These events pushed the market to unprecedented levels of tension and afterwards, held new highs for a prolonged period.
graph dat van load to truck ratio| C.H.Robinson

Source: DAT.com. Shown are load to truck ratios (LTR) at a national average for dry van. A ratio of 3:1 is generally considered a balanced market. Below that tends to suggest a plentiful supply of national capacity to over supplied. Greater than 3:1 tends to suggest tension up to undersupplied

National versus regional LTR
While the national LTR is exceptionally high at levels near 6:1, there is material variance at the regional level. Some markets see 1:1 or 1:2 ratios and other markets are well over 20:1 for truckload dry van.

The below map presents the regional diversity of dry van LTR from a regional perspective. This visual shows the import capacity situation from ocean ports and Mexico’s cross-border locations, where LTR's are consistently between 10:1 and 20:1. Capacity is often deadheaded in from meaningful distances for these origin points. The costs of repositioning these trucks gets embedded into the rates paid.

map LT ratio vans Sept21| C.H.Robinson

Note: The refrigerated market map is visually similar, but the tension for each colored market has a higher average value than dry van, leaving a higher national average LTR of about 16:1.

Contract truckload environment

The majority of the United States’ for-hire truck market is managed through commitments most often managed via hierarchical route guides. What follows are some perspectives and notes on today’s contract truckload environment.

Route guide performance
Waterfall (or hierarchical) route guides are commonly used to manage awarded freight on lanes with some level of demand pattern predictability. The following insights are derived from C.H. Robinson’s large portfolio of customers across diverse industries throughout the United States.

Two key metrics of route guide performance are first tender acceptance (FTA) and route guide depth (RGD). RGD refers to how far into a route guide a shipper must tender shipments before carriers accept loads, or the average number of tenders per load. FTA is a percentage of how often the awarded primary transportation provider accepts their shipment tenders.

inventory to sales ratio fred logo| C.H.Robinson

The chart above from TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson, reflects weekly RGD regionally across the United States through the week of September 5–11, 2021

During the week of September 5–11, 2021, the overall RGD across all regions was 1.93, which presents a weekly sequential impact of 9.2% degradation in route guides.

The big story for near term weeks was the impact of Hurricane Ida with landfall in Louisiana on August 29th and remnants of the storm progressing to the Northeast. In the image above, Louisiana is within the South and shows no impact (and possibly improvement) to RGD from the storm. The Louisiana market is not a high freight volume origin market, and it seems metrics of RGD and load volumes can offer some misleading conclusions at these aggregate views. The Northeast shows the most notable impact in route guide performance as rejection of tendered loads spiked and drifted deeper into the route guides. During this same time, FTA held at 81% as it was in July. Through the first half of 2021, FTA has held steady in the range of 80-81%. While the first tender is accepted at the same rate, those shipments that are rejected are slightly more likely to be rejected by the backup provider in August as compared to July and 5% more likely than August 2020.

For 2021, the middle distance loads of 400–600 miles and loads over 600 miles have bounced around at 1.8 to 2.0. For perspective:

  • Short haul (less than 400 miles) held relatively steady at a RGD of about 1.4, which is still well elevated from 2019 and H1 2020 levels of 1.1 to 1.2.
  • Middle distance (400–600 miles) has been slowly creeping up and hit 2.0 in August, which is much elevated from 2019 and H1 2020 levels of 1.3 to 1.4.
  • Long distance (over 600 miles) lost ground, rising slightly to about 1.9 in August, like the other distance bands, this is well above 2019 and H1 2020 levels of 1.1 to 1.3.

Ocean import services continue to experience long delays
Access to 40' high cube containers in China for import to North American ports is becoming scarce. And 100% of ocean capacity is deployed and being augmented by opportunistic smaller carriers for the China to North America trade lanes.

Both Los Angeles and Long Beach continue to experience the greatest delays across North America. But continued congestion at Midwest rail hubs is also influencing ocean carrier strategies for inland moves of full containers.

Ocean carriers are managing the volume/flow of containers to keep the movement of containers more fluid at the inland rail hubs. Accordingly, ocean carriers are increasingly requiring at or near port crossdocking of containers to trucks to minimize the risk of containers getting stuck inland as they are desperately needed back in China for reloading.

Voice of the carrier from C.H. Robinson
C.H. Robinson has two customer communities, shipper customers and carrier customers. What follows are insights from our business reviews with our contract carriers each quarter that help present the voice of our contract carriers and shipper customers.

  • Carriers report continued struggles with hiring despite compensation strategy efforts.
  • Carriers are auditing their book of business in hopes of making their organizations more attractive to drivers, removing commitments to origins and destinations with patterns of high dwell or simply not friendly to drivers.
  • Average downtime for maintenance/repairs has lengthened from days to weeks due to part supply chain disruption in the COVID-19 environment. Unseated trucks are increasingly harvested for parts for the active trucks.

The impact of Hurricane Ida
The insights gained from past hurricanes suggest that today's truck market is at such a state of tension that a hurricane landfall event creating a material disruption to a logistics or economic center could be regionally and nationally disruptive.

With the landfall of Hurricane Ida, here are some early insights on the impact to central and Southern Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, and the Philadelphia area.

Inbound loads and pricing insights:
Like other hurricane events, inbound capacity and loads tapered off prior to landfall. As logistics operations are disrupted, outbound loads are also curtailed. This change in a regional or super regional pattern disrupts capacity flows and pricing. Each hurricane event is unique, but like all disruptive events there is a lead up and tail of capacity and pricing disruption.

The below graphic shows both the Louisiana and Northeast regions’ inbound freight and cost per mile before Ida and the days that follow. The vertical dotted line is landfall of Ida in LA on Sunday August 29th and the shaded area are the two highest days of rain fall in the Northeast of September 1st and 2nd. (Depicted is C.H. Robinson data showing week over week change in load volume and cost per mile.)

  • Louisiana load volumes declined as expected with cost per mile rising exceptionally high as carriers and drivers declined to drive into the area.
  • The Northeast region saw material decline in load volume into the region as the resulting flooding followed the rain, with much less impact to cost per mile.
hurricane impact inbound| C.H.Robinson

Outbound from these two regions:

  • Louisiana dramatically cut shipping post landfall and cost per mile rose roughly 5%.
  • Length of haul exit Louisiana was about 12% longer than normal post land fall however, so a 5% increase in CPM is actually a bit more dramatic in that longer length of haul is typically lower CPM than shorter length of haul.
  • The Northeast load volumes dropped as flooding followed the rains, with little impact on CPM broadly across the region.
  • Contract truckload route guide insights uses TMC data on route guide depth (see contract truckload section above)
    • The Southern region which Louisiana is within, saw no appreciative change in route guide depth (RGD). This is due to load tender volume virtually gone so as to mask the capacity situation in that metric.
    • The Northeast saw RGD materially spike during this period, suggesting primary transportation providers were declining shipment tenders.
hurricane impact outbound| C.H.Robinson

Strategies and best practices during hurricane season

  • Prepare for a 2021 market response that demonstrates little elasticity for major hurricane disruptions.
  • Consider forward deployment of inventory for susceptible regions or when a storm seems likely to be disruptive.
  • Add flexibility to sourcing strategies, time windows, modal options, etc.

Temperature controlled shipping

Expect markets and products of regional produce surge in Q3 and Q4. Regional pressures associated with seasonal harvest, production, and inventory stocking put additional strain on the broader truckload market. Expect increased pressure to pull dry and refrigerated capacity to support several products in the coming months.

  • Produce and grilling season
    Some regional markets are experiencing notable capacity pressure for refrigerated trucks in a year where refrigerated trucks may even be outbid for dry loads. The traditional produce season is underway and harvest markets have and continue to migrate north. The United States is late in the grilling season and protein requirements for refrigerated trucks persists from key states such as CA, MO, AR, IA, and NE.
  • Soup season
    There is cyclical demand for capacity in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) and the Northeast from the annual build of inventory to support fall and winter soup ingredients. It starts with demand for refrigerated trucks hauling produce inbound for manufacturing and continues with both refrigerated and dry vans needed for outbound shipments of fresh and canned soups.
  • Back to school season
    September sees kids head back to school. This means significant volumes of shipments with lunch meats and cafeteria/institutional foods as inventories at home and school are being built.
  • Fall harvest season
    Autumn creates high demand for refrigerated and dry van capacity for apples, cherries, and Christmas trees in the PNW. Additional fall harvest regions include the great lakes and upper Midwest for sweet corn, apples, pumpkins, and other late season vegetables. Thanksgiving turkeys are a specific protein that also moves in high volumes after the grilling season tapers off.

Imbalance of refrigerated trucks
Throughout the year, 2021 has brought a unique imbalance for refrigerated trucks. As outlined above, the demand patterns migrate with the crops, which results in regional capacity demands much greater than the national average.

The chart below offers a national perspective of the refrigerated truck spot market through the lens of DAT’s LTR. It shows that 2021 is an exceptional year, with LTRs at levels not seen in previous years—much higher than dry van LTRs.

Work with your C.H. Robinson account manager to discuss the state of regional markets, timing of events, route guide strategies, and how capacity and price can be aided through amended business processes.

graph dat van load to truck ratio| C.H.Robinson

Flatbed

The flatbed truckload market continues to experience much higher than average LTR but has settled back closer to historical averages from earlier in 2021. Certain regions and commodities have additional pressures impacting the flatbed market, plan accordingly.

  • Oil and gas companies in the gulf region had started pulling on incremental capacity. This settled recently due to the impact of Hurricane Ida. Expect this demand to return as business and infrastructure normalize.
  • Construction project timelines seem to be experiencing delays due to building material costs, availability, and labor shortages. Expect prolonged demand as products and labor are available.
  • Metal manufacturers supporting the automotive industry have been shipping more to build inventory that will better support growing auto manufacturing volumes as semiconductors become more readily available.

Engage your C.H. Robinson account manager to discuss flatbed success strategies, such as flexible shipping windows and shipping on specific days of the week.

Cross-border shipping: Canada

Canada’s truck market continues to experience tension at levels below those seen in the United States, but the imbalance for cross-border trade is growing.

Canada sees record level of trade with the United States in July
While a large majority of the increase in trade is attributed to the automotive industry, stats Canada notes exports of consumer goods increased 2% while imports of consumer goods decreased 5.3%. The imbalance of trade is leading to rising prices for Canadian outbound trucks as demand surpasses supply. Source: Stats Canada

Canada adds two more certified ELD devices in August
The latest electronic logging device (ELD) approvals bring the total of certified devices to three. These additional choices are welcoming news to many as frustration continues to mount with the lack of options since the Canadian ELD Mandate took effect on June 12, 2021. Source: Truck News

Cross-border shipping: Mexico

A lot is happening when shipping into, out of, and within Mexico.

Delay of Complemento Carta Porte legislation
The SAT (Mexico’s equivalent of the United States’ IRS) will delay the Complemento Carta Porte legislation until January 1, 2022. This will allow companies more time to prepare and implement the required process changes.

Imbalance for cross-border trade is growing
Northbound demand for both crossdock and direct truckload services continues to exceed southbound demand by (3:1) for both intra-Mexico and Laredo into the United States. Higher costs are associated with repositioning empty capacity for the northbound loads.

Spot market for northbound exit Laredo maintains a LTR at 12:1, as such the market continues to experience capacity and pricing challenges on northbound freight. Source: DAT

C.H. Robinson recommends adding flexibility to pickup and delivery dates to increase access to capacity as this situation is persistent and is forecasted to continue through 2021.

Loads with long dwell times being declined
Carriers are increasingly declining loads within Mexico that have a history of long dwell times. Focus your attention on reducing dwell times and improving driver experiences for origins experiencing high rejection rates.

Plan budget variance for rising fuel prices
Diesel pricing continues to rise in Mexico. Note this as a budget variance above rate per mile pressures. Source: Global Petrol Prices

Regarding the ongoing B1 Visa migration, Mexican drivers with B1 Visas continue migrating from cross-border transfer services to direct service, delivering deeper into the United States. Work with your C.H. Robinson representative to determine if a crossdock or through service is best suited for your needs.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU), based in Geneva, released a survey that said Mexico’s truck driver shortage could increase by 18% by the end of 2021. The Mexico driver shortage may impact rates up to 25%. CANACAR (Association for Mexico’s freight industry) said the driver shortage can be attributed to:

  • Lack of good training for drivers
  • Bad image of the profession
  • Difficult working conditions
  • Difficulty attracting young people and women to the profession
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Intermodal Shipping

TOP STORY: Intermodal volume remains strong

Intermodal volumes remain stable with some localized challenges with capacity. Service volatility remains a primary reason for modal shifts away from intermodal. That said, volume is expected to remain strong for intermodal service through the second half of the year.

  • Dray capacity has pockets of limitations that can be addressed with flexibility and planning
  • Elevated import container volumes outbound from California present challenges and are forecasted to continue
  • Service volatility, coupled with demand, may lead to additional network disruption through lane metering and capacity allocations

Union Pacific update
Union Pacific recently reported continued increased demand for domestic container capacity. Additionally, street cycle times remain elevated by 20%, which has impacted their ability to support all the container demand across their network. Source: JOC

Intermodal is an opportunity for more capacity
Overall, intermodal is largely open and continues to participate in the broad freight flows and migration of loads in today's market. Use it as an opportunity to increase capacity, but be sure to accept goods when available and turn trailers/containers as fast as possible to return capacity to the network. Engage your C.H. Robinson account manager for more insights and strategies to help integrate intermodal into your supply chain, minimize peak season and dwell surcharges, and manage this current environment.

Less Than Truckload (LTL) Shipping

TOP STORY: LTL tonnage forecast is healthy

LTL and consolidation

LTL tonnage forecasts are showing some softening but are still at historically high levels that the LTL carrier community will struggle to serve.

  • Strong manufacturing freight
    August ISM’s PMI for the fifteenth month in a row registers growth at59.9, which suggests strong manufacturing freight entering the LTL carrier community.
  • Network and truck optimization
    The industry continues to show remarkable pricing disciplines and strength as it optimizes trucks and networks, sending pricing signals of what freight creates value for each carrier.
  • Hiring challenges
    Despite LTL investment dollars largely being placed on the driver community, LTL carriers are plagued with further labor issues into the fall peak season. Hiring drivers and dock workers is difficult.
  • Investment in tractors and terminals
    The second highest investment by LTL carriers is in tractors, followed by expanding terminals. Real capacity growth in LTL today comes from increasing the driver pool.

Plan for LTL networks to continue to be full and stressed for the balance of 2021, supported by the industrial economy and middle mile ecommerce shipments. Visit the C.H. Robinson blog for 5 Strategies to Increase LTL Freight Efficiencies and On-Time Performance, for more ideas to handle markets like this. Pricing increases for 2022 will most likely continue in the low single digit ranges. The graphic below shows FTR's September Y/Y forecast for contract LTL rates as one analyst reference.

rate outlook contract LTL | C.H.Robinson

Work with your C.H. Robinson representative to help with pricing and capacity strategies. They can leverage the market’s largest portfolio of carriers—from national to local LTL carriers—to help you succeed.

Small Parcel

Coping with a mountain of packages
With the change seasons, a mountain range lies ahead for small parcel networks. This mountain range has many peaks: peak surcharges, peak Seasons, peak capacities, and peak headaches.

  • Peak Surcharges
    FedEx has updated its peak surcharges, including new additional handling, oversize, and residential delivery surcharges based on a shipper’s volume. Keep in mind these are additional surcharges on top of the existing package size and home delivery fees. As usual, UPS is following suit with similar categories and surcharges.
  • Peak Seasons
    The industry is currently in the midst of the back-to-school peak season, which will blend quickly into the holiday season. Businesses, particularly retailers, will try to start their Black Friday sales earlier to spread their volumes out and beat the traditional rush between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A helpful perspective is the prolonged peak season of ecommerce retail because of COVID-19.
  • Peak Capacities
    The nation’s parcel delivery network is expected to exceed capacity by about 5 million packages per day for the 2021 peak season. This will likely create an enormous strain on the nation's parcel delivery infrastructure. Source: Freightwaves
  • Peak Headaches
    With all these peaks converging, expect late shipments, damaged packages, higher shipping costs, higher operational costs, and most painful of all, frustrated and unhappy consignees.

Small parcel strategies for upcoming strain
First and foremost, be sure to follow the carrier’s packaging recommendations to ensure your packages arrive safely. Packaging diligence can minimize damage and risk in any market, most certainly in an over-taxed market.

Second, ship early. As peak season gets closer, there are fewer options available and transit times will likely experience greater variability. In addition to when to ship, is where to ship to. Think about shipping to pick up locations or drop boxes instead of residences. This may increase speed of delivery and improve the cost of shipping.

Finally, utilize multiple carriers. Regional carriers will have the greatest ability to take on additional capacity. Like LTL, rethinking a one or two carrier solution to include more parcel carriers is proving to offer greater opportunity.

Seek out your C.H. Robinson account manager to engage parcel experts for answers to your specific small parcel shipping strategies.

Government and Regulations

TOP STORY: Might reconciliation result in spending that creates freight?

In August, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill and then promptly left for its annual August state work period (also known as recess). Previously, the U.S. House had passed their own infrastructure bill called the INVEST act that was more focused on environmental policy than the Senate bill.

In addition, House Democrats aim to pass a large “social infrastructure” bill using budget reconciliation, however, a few House Democrats secured a promise from Speaker Pelosi to vote on the Senate infrastructure bill by September 28, 2021. While it appears the infrastructure bill is in the eighth or ninth inning, the increase in freight demand from this bill may not be material overall compared to changes in the broader economy.

Perhaps more impactful to the U.S. truck market will be the debate around the reconciliation package. This package may include significant spending, coupled with various tax increases on both corporations and the wealthy. Economic forecasts for the second half of 2022 will be heavily dependent on the details around spending levels and any tax increases, potentially impacting truck market forecasts.

U.S. Economy

This month’s economy update was discussed in the opening of the report. See the transportation market overview at the beginning of this report for high-level insights about how the U.S. economy is impacting transportation across North America.

Discover additional freight market resources

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North American Freight Market Insights | C.H. Robinson
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