While COVID-19 related demand boosted freight volume and spot freight in the first part of March, the latter part of the month saw a reversal, and April is looking ugly.
The Cass Transportation Indexes revealed that North American freight volumes fell 9.2% year over year in March, with truckload linehaul rates falling back to 2009 levels during the global financial crisis – and Cass analysts predicted April will be worse. The Cass indexes measure changes in North American freight activity and costs based on $28 billion in paid freight expenses for the Cass customer base of hundreds of large shippers.
Cass noted that the linehaul index has a strong correlation to the quarterly yield metrics reported by the publicly traded truckload carriers. “The fact that January-March rates were so soft looks like another tough 1Q20 earnings season for publicly traded truckload companies.”
Another measure of the health of the freight market, the DAT Truckload Volume Index, showed that spot truckload volumes and rates rose sharply for dry van and refrigerated freight during the first three weeks of March, before cresting and spending the final week of the month well below seasonal norms.
“The increases in March were based on exceptional demand from shippers through March 22, at which point the market turned dramatically,” said Peggy Dorf, senior market analyst at DAT Solutions. “Consumers and supply chains began to adjust to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the urgency to replenish inventory and secure available capacity on the spot market fell significantly.”
Looking at April, DAT reported van spot freight volumes lost 20% in the past two weeks (as of the week ending April 12). National average rates lost 8¢ per mile, to $1.78, reflecting declines all over the country. Refrigerated freight trends weren't much better, and the flatbed sector has been slow for months. Tornadoes in the South and high winds up the East Coast didn’t help.
“According to the new Market Conditions map in DAT Power and RateView, there are exactly two hot spots in the U.S. for carriers: Houston and Laredo,” wrote Dorf in the DAT blog. “If you're in South Texas, you should be able to find a load, and possibly a decent rate. A handful of markets are lukewarm, neutral, or cool, but most are an icy cold, deep blue.”