Freight Rates: 2021 Truckload Outlook

The unpredictability that characterized most of 2020 continues to make itself felt in many areas of business, including the truckload market. Spot rates are plateauing, but at a rate that’s about 30 percent higher than a year ago. Similarly, rates for flat bed shipments are up about 10 percent compared to a year ago, while rates for refrigerated truckloads have increased 20 percent during the same period. 

Even within the past six months, many rates have spiked. For instance, in May, national dry van rates averaged $1.60. By October, they had shot up to $2.42 - a jump of more than 50 percent in five months. Similarly, flatbed rates rose from an average of $1.90 in May to $2.46 by October. So, while many rates appear to be holding steady, they’re doing so at high levels. 

In addition, aside from a potential increase in demand for vans leading into the holidays, the typical seasonality in demand and rates appears to have taken a hiatus. Instead, pockets of higher demand are driving rates even higher in some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest and southern California. 

Demand for flatbed trucks remains strong across the country. Demand for refrigerated truckloads is loosening but remains high in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. 

Driving the Market

Blog 1 truckload Driving the MarketOne reason for the rate increases is a drop in capacity. While overall shipping tonnage is down, the number of available drivers is as well. Many smaller trucking shops may have left the market, driven out by a challenging mix of COVID-19 and rising insurance premiums, some resulting from high jury verdicts awarded in the aftermath of accidents. And mid-sized carriers have been reluctant to add equipment and drivers in this turbulent time.

In some cases, drivers face prohibitions stemming from violations logged in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. While the shipping and carrier community support safety in trucking, this does represent a significant decrease in available drivers. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA) as of Oct. 1, As of Oct. 1, more than 34,000 drivers were prohibited from getting back on the road because they had registered a violation. Of those, close to 27,000 had not started the process required before returning to their jobs. 

In total, about 74,000 transportation industry jobs have been lost or furloughed, or about 5 percent of the base, between late 2019 and late 2020.

Moving Into 2021

Blog 1 moving the 2021 New trucksIt might appear that the rise in Class 8 truck sales would offset the drop in drivers. According to J.D. Power’s October 2020 Commercial Truck Guidelines Industry Review, sales of the three most common sleeper tractors - those three to seven years old - has been generally rising throughout 2020, and then spiked in July. However, new truck sales equipment may not be available until mid- to late-2021. Moreover, many of these sales are for replacement equipment, rather than expansion. As a result, they are unlikely to add significantly to capacity. 

The conclusion of the presidential and other elections, assuming they occur in a relatively straightforward manner, may spark consumer confidence. In turn, that might drive shipping volumes - a generally positive outcome, but one that may further constrain capacity.

The disruption in the small package market may mean some of those shipments move to the LTL market, and a percentage of those then head to the truckload market. Similarly, ongoing challenges and chaos in the international and intermodal market may lead to more shipments moving to truckload. All of these will, of course, further constrain capacity.

In light of the factors affecting the truckload market, Transportation Insight (TI) forecasts rate increases of 3-5 percent for our clients that contract with carriers. Rate increases in the spot market likely will be 5-7 percent. 

In working on behalf of our clients to negotiate rates, we take a lane-by-lane and market-by-market approach. This targets those carriers whose rates appear out of alignment with the market, focused on our goal of leveraging relationships to help bring them into alignment. Shippers gain some protection from the overall increases that might not be available without those relationships.

More Truckload Change Coming

Blog 1 truckload DATAA couple of changes in the truckload sector may have a positive impact on shipments. One is the shift from some national carriers growing their regional presence to rejuvenating their long-haul network. Regional focus is an attempt to entice drivers with more time at home, but with specific market disruptions caused by COVID-19, some carriers are looking to diversify their lane mix. The flipside: this could pull additional congestion off the rail to feed these long haul fleets and add pressure to over-the-road capacity.

Another shift is the increasing use of data, such as score-carding and monitoring, by both carriers and shippers. Early in this shift to monitoring and managing, some carriers worried that data would replace the relationships they cultivated with their customers. 

The opposite appears to be occurring. The data tends to allow for more dialogue and planning, helping to strengthen relationships. In addition, it allows quality carriers to quantitatively demonstrate they can provide the reliability and service shippers require. 

Navigating a Changed Market

In the current truckload market, shippers that have taken steps to become shippers of choice tend to benefit with greater commitment by the carriers with whom they partner. This can mean, for instance, shippers provide longer lead-times and some flexibility on pickup times. Both enable carriers to schedule their routes more efficiently.

It also helps to keep in mind that the rate increases happening now will not last forever. The truckload market tends to self-correct; as rates increase, more drivers enter the field and supply and demand start to balance out. In the meantime, however, it helps to expect some volatility to continue. 

To help you navigate that volatility across all transportation modes in your supply chain, we created the Rate Outlook 2021. It provides a forecast for transportation rates in Parcel, LTL and International, as well as truckload. Read it today for information that will help you mitigate risk and control cost across your network.

We’re also assembling our freight experts to discuss brokerage and capacity planning during a Supply Chain Masters Digital Event Series roundtable. Join the webinar to get insight from our truckload and LTL transportation management experts.

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