A Jekyll-and-Hyde market for trucking

by Truck News

TORONTO, Ont. — For-hire truck tonnage in the U.S. popped in April, but in Canada there were more trucks chasing loads in the spot market than in any other month in history.

And overall trucking conditions in the U.S., as measured by the FTR Trucking Conditions Index, dipped into negative territory in March for the first time in several years.

The -1.18 rating reflected softening rates, and sluggish freight demand, according to FTR. Active truck utilization and the truckload rate outlook also softened in March, FTR reported.

“The trucking industry has essentially returned to neutral conditions as deterioration in most market factors are offsetting continued solid, but not robust, freight demand,” said Avery Vise, vice-president of trucking for FTR.

“We generally expect this balance to continue into 2020, but Trucking Conditions Index readings could turn positive or negative month to month based on relatively minor shifts in demand, utilization, rates, or costs.”

In Canada, spot market load postings took a turn down in April, but strengthened in the last week of the month. April load volumes were 17% off March levels, according to TransCore, and down 41% year-over-year.

Intra-Canada loads accounted for 33% of load volumes, but were down 3% from March and 26% year-over-year. Cross-border load postings dropped 16% in April, with loads leaving Canada down 31%.

Truck postings were up 13% from March, and were up 68% year-over-year, marking an all-time high. There were 3.78 trucks per load in April, a 36% increase over March’s 2.70 truck-to-load ratio. Year-over-year, the truck-to-load ratio was up 185% from 1.32 last April.

The story was more positive for truckers south of the border. U.S. for-hire truck tonnage spiked 7.4% in April, and was up 7.7% year-over-year, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

“The surge in truck tonnage in April is obviously good for trucking, but it is important to examine it in the context of the broader economy,” said ATA chief economist Bob Costello. “February and March were particularly weak months, as evidenced by the 3.5% dip in tonnage due to weather and other factors, so some of the gain was a catch-up effect.

In addition, the Easter holiday was later than usual, likely pushing freight that would ordinarily be moved in March into April.

“I do not think the fundamentals underlying truck tonnage are as strong as April’s figure would indicate, but this may signal that any fears of a looming freight recession may have been overblown.”

April tonnage saw its largest year-over-year gain since July.

Meanwhile, the risk of a freight recession is rising, according to the latest ACT Freight Forecast from ACT Research.

Tim Denoyer

“Freight remains soft, as expected, and while we see reasons for recovery in the second half of 2019, escalating trade tensions raise the risk of a freight recession,” said Tim Denoyer, ACT Research’s vice-president and senior analyst.

“Class 8 tractor retail sales are on fire, adding capacity to the market at an unfortunate time for truckers. Shippers are increasingly targeting freight cost savings, likely emboldened by attractive rates in the spot market.”

The report indicated dry van truckload spot rates fell nearly 19% year-over-year in April, and more than 3% from March, which is more than twice the historical average seasonal drop in April.

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