Results from Transport Capital Partners' Third Quarter 2012 Business Expectations Survey show that much like 2011, the optimism expressed in the first quarter was tempered by the reality that the economy was likely to remain questionable for the year ahead.

The percentage of carriers expecting volumes to increase has been trending downward since a high of 92% in February of 2011, with 50% expecting volumes to increase this quarter. The percent of carriers in the survey who believe volumes will decrease was the highest it has been since August of 2009. Twice as many smaller carriers as larger carriers (11% versus 5%) expect volumes to decrease.

Nearly as many carriers expect volumes to stay the same as to increase. The percentage of carriers expecting business volumes to remain the same over the next 12 months jumped from 26% last quarter to 43% this quarter.

"Half the carriers see the glass as half-full amidst tepid consumer expectations, flattening load growth, and more caution in general as the election rhetoric rises," says Richard Mikes, TCP partner and survey leader.

Expectations for rates mirror the carriers' expectations about volumes. For the last six quarters, carriers' expectations about rate increases have trended downward from 91% in February of 2011 to 64% this quarter. Yet, the number expecting rates to decrease has been fairly constant for the same six quarters.

The number of small carriers expecting rates to increase, however, is 28% higher than larger carriers, 67% versus 52%.

"Make no mistake, rates have been demand-driven the past three years with a flat supply of trucks," says Lana Batts, a TCP partner. "Smaller carriers are now seeing opportunities flowing their way."

The expectations for future rate increases reflect the current ability to raise rates: Only 42% of the carriers experienced rate increases in the last three months, compared to 83% in May of 2011.

The percentage of carriers experiencing rate decreases, however, has remained stable at 2.5% for the last two quarters.

"As expectations moderate, attention will likely be focused on spot market rate increases in the fourth quarter," Mikes says.