In mid-January, DAT TransCore, the Portland, Ore.-based consultancy that tracks demand, capacity, and pricing on 15,000 truck lanes in the United States and Canada, forecast a near 6-percent rise in contract rates over 2011 levels for dry van, flatbed, and refrigerated transportation. It also projected a 7.4-percent increase in "spot," or non-contract, rates for the same livery.
At the time, however, it issued a caveat that full-year projections in mid-January should be made, and taken, with a grain of salt.
Four months later, there appears to be more than a grain of salt in TransCore's shaker. While second-quarter freight demand remains solid—unusually so, since it normally peaks in the third quarter—there appear to be "plenty of available trucks" on the road, the consultancy said. What impact these unexpected supply levels have on rate trends as a result is anybody's guess. Mark Montague, TransCore's pricing guru, said the projected rate increases "will happen, we're just not sure exactly when."
Montague wrote in a web blog Wednesday that a hardly-robust economy, available alternate capacity from rail intermodal, a mild winter and spring that kept roads open, and declining fuel prices that allowed more operators to stay on the road instead of parking their vehicles or going out of business, have combined to keep capacity abundant at least mid-way through the quarter.
TransCore's load-to-truck ratio for dry vans—the most common form of livery—is at around 3.0, a level that is considered neutral on the supply-demand scale and which would imply ample availability of equipment, Montague wrote.
Spot market rates for dry vans, which were soft in the first quarter, have begun to firm, according to Montague. Flatbed rates are near the peaks hit in mid-2011, helped by favorable winter weather that allowed freight to move "ahead of season" instead of later in the year, he said. Rates on refrigerated shipments are 5 percent below last May's levels, despite good weather in California, Florida, and the Deep South that produced good volumes and strong pricing, according to Montague.
In a follow-up e-mail, Montague said he's "not as optimistic" now as he was in January about carriers achieving robust pricing levels. "There are definitely mixed signals out there, but given inflation in trucking costs, the fact remains that rates are about where they were one year ago, which means a net loss to truckers," he said.
Montague said June "could still be the strong month that makes the quarter." Still, his data indicate no evident rate pressures, except in the refrigerated sector, which is normal for this time of year.
With supply and demand in balance, it may not be surprising that market conditions are turning a bit against truckload carriers. Morgan Stanley & Co.'s Truckload Freight Index has demonstrated signs of weakness in recent weeks, according to William Greene, the firm's leading transport analyst.
Greene added in a research note that in visits to Swift Transportation Co. and Knight Transportation, two of the country's largest truckload carriers, managers were "notably reluctant to discuss recent market trends or [to] counter concerns of moderating [truckload] fundamentals."
Executives at Swift and Knight affirmed the industry's guidance of a 3- to 4-percent growth rate, Greene said. However, barring a significant structural change in how the industry does business, carriers' pricing initiatives will do little more than offset the impact of cost inflation, he said.
Montague, for his part, is not prepared to issue a forecast for the rest of 2012 with seven months still left in the year. "We have a better window on 'today' than most data sources, but we haven't deciphered what recent trends mean for tomorrow," he said.