After a slow start to the second quarter due to economic weakness and heavy flooding, truckload prices and demand gained steam toward the end of May and into June, signaling positive trends through the rest of the summer and early fall.
Data from TransCore, a Portland, Ore.-based load-matching network that tracks freight activity on 64 U.S. traffic lanes, showed an increase in "spot market" rates—non-contract rates charged for goods that must be moved quickly—over year-earlier levels. In June and through the first week of July, the average spot market rate for freight moving in dry vans, the most frequently utilized trailer type, rose 3.6 percent over prior-year levels to $1.43 per mile. Rates for goods in moving in refrigerated vans rose 2.4 percent to $1.72 per mile. Both increases represent the biggest gains in the past 12 months, according to TransCore.
Perhaps more significant from a macroeconomic standpoint, rates for freight moving on flatbed trucks have increased 16 cents a mile from year-earlier levels, an increase of 10 percent. In addition, flatbed rates, which usually peak in March or April, have remained strong through mid-July. Dry van and "reefer" pricing, by contrast, probably peaked last month, the firm said.
Mark Montague, an industry rate analyst for TransCore, said the resilience in flatbed rates reflects continued demand for industrial plant and construction equipment that normally moves on those trucks. Montague said it would be a positive sign for the broader economy if flatbed pricing can hold firm through the end of July.
TransCore expects a strong third quarter because shippers normally spend down their capital expenditure budgets during the quarter in preparation for fourth-quarter planning for their 2012 budgets. Business will also be stimulated by generous depreciation allowances on capital equipment permitted under federal tax laws, Montague said.
"We are poised to have a pretty good third quarter," he said.
Montague said the Port of Savannah is currently the strongest market in TransCore's universe for flatbed activity. It is followed by the ports of Charleston, S.C., and Houston, and then Joliet and Rock Island, Ill. Montague also noted that flatbed activity had been strong on the West Coast of late, particularly in outbound moves originating in California.
Truckload capacity in general fluctuated within a narrow range during the second quarter, Montague said. Freight brokers, who are engaged by shippers to build and market loads for transport, have been able to obtain equipment fairly easily. At the same time, carriers and brokers are relying more on spot rates as truckers, confronting the specter of higher fuel prices and a slew of government mandates likely to drive up costs, shy away from locking themselves into contractual arrangement for fear their revenues will not keep pace with their expenses.
Spot rates currently exceed contract rates on 23 percent of the lanes that TransCore monitors. That is roughly in line with the ratio reported in the first quarter.