Will an unexpected surge in demand for non-contract, or "spot" market, truckload freight influence the outlook for contract rates as the industry heads into the traditionally strong spring shipping cycle?
Spot traffic was anything but punk in February, which is normally a slow month. DAT Solutions LLC, a consultancy that provides load board services to the spot market, said total volumes last month rose 48 percent from the same period in 2016. This led an unusual number of contract carriers to shift capacity into the spot market, a common tactic when spot demand spikes.
The influx of supply drove down spot rates for dry van services—the most common form of truck transport—by 5 cents per mile over January, including fuel surcharges, according to DAT. Spot rates for refrigerated traffic fell 9 cents per mile on a sequential basis. Flatbed rates bucked the trend, up 4 cents per mile, due to strength in demand for building materials and heavy machinery used by companies in the construction and energy sectors.
By the last week of February, however, spot rates had increased week over week, and DAT's load-to-truck ratio, which compares the number of available load postings to available trucks, rose sharply, a possible indication capacity had returned to the contract market as contract rates began to firm. The spot market accounts for about 25 to 35 percent of the estimated $400 billion a year U.S. truckload market.
At this point, it is unclear whether enough supply has receded from the spot market to sustain the trend, and what impact it will have on the next contract bidding cycle. Contract rates tend to follow spot market trends, though the contract market lags the spot sector by a number of months.
John G. Larkin, lead transport analyst for investment firm Stifel, said in a note Monday that most shippers are not prepared to accept rate increases. In crisscrossing the country, Larkin said he found that many shippers are giving their carriers a chance to keep their existing lane awards as long as current rates—already at depressed levels—remain flat, or are reduced even further. "In short, the negotiating power still largely resides with shippers and not the carriers," Larkin wrote.
Though shippers are mindful that capacity could be reduced by various factors, including fleet downsizing, a worsening shortage of commercial drivers, and the government's mandate that every truck built after the year 2000 be equipped with electronic logging devices (ELDs) by Dec. 18, they still "press on with strong demands for great service at low or even lower-than-low pricing," Larkin said.