North American freight activity followed virtually the same path in 2013 as it did in the previous two years, concluding with the typical December falloff, according to new issue of the Cass Freight Index Report.

The climate for freight was “mediocre” throughout 2013, with the average number of monthly freight shipments 0.7 % lower than in 2012.

“Inventories remained high, manufacturing stalled mid‐year, and exports and imports were relatively flat for most of the year,” the report says. “All of this contributed to another bumpy year in the recovery that hasn’t quite gotten there.”

Freight volumes in North America plummeted 6.2% from November to December, making this the largest monthly drop in 2013 and the third straight monthly decline. December shipment levels were 3.2% lower than in December 2012 and 1.8% lower than 2011.

“Despite the fact that there were fewer shipments in 2013, other indicators, such as the American Trucking Association’s Truck Tonnage Index, have shown that loads have been getting heavier. This matches well with anecdotal evidence from LTL carriers that they are carrying fuller loads,” according to the report

In looking back at 2013, the report call it a “complicated year from a purely economic point of view” while the major events contributing to this had very little impact on freight.

“As we have experienced for several years now, the first quarter came on strong, then we muddled our way through the rest of the year and entered the following year just slightly above where we were the previous January,” the report says.

Looking forward to 2014, Cass notes there are some hurdles, but the freight picture should strengthen as the year progresses. “Freight growth will still be measurably stronger in 2014, albeit slow and uneven. Volumes will be up consistently for several months, putting pressure on capacity before we see a rise in rates,” Cass says. “The virtual rate freeze that has existed for almost three years should thaw and give way to higher freight expenditures by the second half of the year due to higher costs and volumes.

The Cass Freight Index represents monthly levels of shipment activity in terms of volume and expenditures for freight shipments, based upon the domestic movements of hundreds of Cass clients. Cass Information Systems processes more than $22 billion in annual freight payables on behalf of its clients.