FreightPlus’ Monthly Market Update, created by FreightPlus subject matter experts, provides detailed and actionable insights into the ever-changing transportation industry.
A core FreightPlus principle is providing our partners with data and insights to enable better, strategic business decisions.
April Market Report
Truckload has experienced another month of decline, as evidenced by the continuously falling spot market rates. These rates have decreased by 5% month-over-month or $0.11/mile. The drop in rates has been a significant trend since the beginning of 2023, amounting to a reduction of $0.35 per mile or 14%, and a substantial decrease of $0.73 or 26% compared to the same time last year. While rates have not yet reached their lowest point, it is likely to occur soon, although not expected in May. We are nearing the point where spot market rates drive smaller fleets to exit the market because they are unable to cover their costs.
On the contract side, volumes have declined by 0.4% month-over-month, based on the Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI). Simultaneously, the Outbound Tender Reject Index (OTRI) has dropped to 2.9%, marking a decrease of 62 basis points from 3.5%. This means that less than 3% of contract loads are being rejected. The decline in OTRI is driving down the spot market, as less contract freight enter the spot market, resulting in a limited pool of spot freight. Despite the start of the produce season in the south, which typically boosts the market, rates have remained low, indicating a negative outlook for the transportation market.
On April 17th, the EIA’s benchmark rose to $4.116/gal, marking the first increase in ten weeks. However, fuel prices have since dropped in consecutive weeks and are currently at $4.018/gal as of May 1st. The transportation industry’s stagnation and dwindling economic activity have further weakened demand for diesel.
Notably, the decline in ocean freight volume has contributed to the reduction in diesel prices. This is partly due to the IMO 2020 regulation mandating lower sulfur content in marine fuels, resulting in a higher supply of diesel in the marine fuel market.
LTL carrier volumes are declining; however, yield and pricing are still holding relatively strong. As the larger carriers (with revenues of $200 million or more) improve their ability to identify and allocate costs, they continue to strengthen their pricing strategies. These strategies include implementing mechanisms that are better at variable pricing to attract the business that they want and keep out what they don’t. It is widely known that with continual economic and market cycles at play, “quarter over quarter” revenue numbers will always wax and wane. It’s the yield aspect that most larger LTL carriers are chasing now, especially after seeing what ODFL has done with their operating ratio in recent years.
There are still several carriers in the market now that are hungry and are on a mission to grow. This subset is looking at every new piece of business that they can get their hands on right now and are pricing very aggressively. Our anecdotal view of this shows somewhat of a correlation between the carriers that are currently hungrier, and those known to be aligned with some of the large retailers and e-commerce players.
It has been interesting to see in recent months how well the LTL carriers that lead the market, in size and capability, have fared in comparison with those on the truckload side. It’s normally said that LTL is the long tail of truckload; however, FreightPlus believes that as LTL carriers get more and more sophisticated, the divergence between the two modes and their own internal market cycles will widen.
When examining the Q1 results of the top nine publicly traded LTL carriers, it becomes evident that there is a significant overall softening in the market. Some of the big categories that drive revenue and profitability for LTL carriers tell the story. Specifically, the average weight per shipment decreased for seven out of nine carriers, with Saia and Yellow experiencing marginal increases of less than 2%. Tonnage declined for all carriers except ABF, while shipment counts were down for all carriers except ABF and XPO. Likely, ABF’s prevalence using dynamic LTL pricing is the reason they were able to grow during this quarter in that way. Lastly, revenue was down for all the top 9 LTL carriers, except for XPO and Knight Swift LTL.
Intermodal transportation is a demand-driven business, with the underlying demand coming from the economy. However, the failure of several banks over the last month, which were heavily weighted toward specific consumers, has dented demand and limited volume. While high-impact events like this could significantly alter the outlook for intermodal volumes in 2024, there should be no significant effects in the short term.
On the other hand, service across the industry remains lackluster, and there are no plans currently in the pipeline to alleviate this issue for 2023. Moreover, struggling import volumes are likely to add additional pressure to the intermodal volume outlook.
Schneider National and CPKC have formed a partnership to establish a new single-line domestic intermodal service between Mexico and the US Midwest, which is a major win for the newly combined railroad and a loss for Union Pacific Railroad. Additionally, CPKC has reached a multi-year agreement with Knight-Swift Transportation to provide capacity for a Mexico to Chicago train, launching in mid-May, marking the second major victory for the newly merged Canadian Pacific Railroad and Kansas City Southern.
Finally, the Port of Savannah has received approval to move forward with constructing a new inland terminal in northeast Georgia after clearing a key environmental hurdle, which has unlocked federal funding for the approximately $170 million project.
- BNSF Railway (BNSF): Oakland origin lanes are delayed due to low volume.
- Union Pacific (UP): Network remains fluid.
- Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS): Network remains fluid.
- Canadian National Railway (CN): There is some congestion moving exports to major ports due to lack of import volume. Centerm export restrictions have been lifted.
- Canadian Pacific (CP): Centerm is at 95% capacity. They continue to work with terminal, CP, and procurement to clear dwelling cargo.
- CSX Rail (CSX): The total number of loaded containers has decreased by 134 since last week, however the average idle number of days remains at 7. There is a continued focus on clearing longer dwelling units.
- Norfolk Southern Rail (NS): Network remains fluid.
In mid-April, the ILWU and PMA announced that tentative agreements had been made, although negotiations for the overall contract continue. The upcoming areas for discussion between the parties are benefits and wages.
Regarding Transpacific spot rates, Asia – US West Coast rates saw a 71% surge to $1,725/FEU, while Asia – US East Coast rates rose by 16% to $2,500/FEU, due to carriers implementing a general rate increase. In an effort to decrease capacity, carriers are reducing capacity through blank sailings and sailing at record low speeds. While carriers plan to announce another general rate increase sometime in May, there is doubt that the increases will hold due to declining volume.
In contrast, Transatlantic spot rates have declined due to a lack of volume into the US. As of the end of April, the FBX index for North Europe – US East Coast was $3,081/FEU, down 18% from the beginning of the month and 44% from the beginning of the year.
Mergers & Acquisitions
Covenant Logistics Group Purchases Lew Thompson & Son Trucking for $100M
According to Transport Dive, Covenant Transportation Group recently completed the acquisition of Lew Thompson and Son Trucking, an Arkansas-based poultry carrier of around 225 trucks. Covenant executives believe there are growth opportunities in both the current and new regions due to the acquired company’s excellent reputation and quality service. The decision to pursue the acquisition was influenced by Lew Thompson & Son Trucking’s strong track record as a dedicated contract carrier in a niche market, which is considered less vulnerable to economic recessions. Despite the economic downturn, several trucking companies have been involved in acquisitions recently. Covenant completed the acquisition through a stock purchase using available cash and credit facility borrowing. While not actively seeking immediate mergers and acquisitions, Covenant remains open to potential opportunities in various segments if the right fit arises.
TFI Acquires LTL Carriers Siemens Transportation Group and Line Freight Systems
Transport Dive reports TFI International has announced its acquisition of Siemens Transportation Group, a Canada-based mostly LTL carrier with 15 terminals and over $110 million in annual revenues. Additionally, TFI International has completed the acquisition of Hot Line Freight Systems, a specialized LTL carrier with 14 terminals and $30 million in annual revenues, which focuses on one- to two-day service across the Midwest and nationwide long haul for white-glove freight. The specific terms of the deals were not disclosed, and the acquisition of Siemens is pending regulatory approval. These acquisitions follow TFI International CEO Alain Bédard’s hint at upcoming mergers and acquisitions during an earnings call.
Montreal-based TFI International plans to allocate a minimum of $300 million for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and buybacks this year, as revealed by CEO Alain Bédard during an earnings call. Bédard expressed enthusiasm for the recently undisclosed acquisition of Siemens Transportation Group in Canada, highlighting its strong reputation, loyal customer base, and strategic fit with TFI’s network. Another acquisition in Canada is expected to be finalized later this year. Additionally, TFI International completed the acquisition of Hot Line Freight Systems, emphasizing its favorable presence in the Midwest and potential for expanding cross-border business. Both acquired companies will continue to be managed by their current leadership. While discussions regarding a potential TFI acquisition of ArcBest are ongoing, the process is currently delayed due to labor negotiations at ABF Freight and TForce Freight.
Teamster Talks Delay TFI Acquisition of ArcBest
According to Transport Dive, during a Q1 earnings call, TFI International’s Chairman, President, and CEO Alain Bédard stated that ongoing union contract negotiations with the Teamsters at TForce Freight and ABF Freight are currently impeding any potential acquisition of ArcBest. Bédard described the situation as being too occupied with the negotiations, and he indicated that there is currently no progress on the rumored M&A deal. However, he mentioned the possibility of announcing smaller acquisitions in Canada throughout the year and suggested that a larger acquisition could potentially occur later this year or in the following year, without disclosing any specific targets.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is determined to advocate for its 15,000 members during contract negotiations at TForce Freight and ABF Freight. The union has not commented on TFI International CEO Alain Bédard’s statements about the potential acquisition of ArcBest. However, Bédard confirmed that TFI International still plans to allocate a minimum of $300 million for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and buybacks this year. He expressed excitement about an upcoming “fantastic deal” in Canada and hinted at a second acquisition in the country later in 2023. Despite inquiries from analysts, Bédard did not disclose specific details regarding potential M&A involving ArcBest. TFI International recently sold shares of ArcBest to remain below a reporting threshold. Bédard stated that the company has the capacity and expertise for a significant M&A deal, and investors should stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, labor concerns have not yet prompted shippers to shift significant volumes away from unionized carriers to non-unionized competitors. Old Dominion Freight Line, a historically non-union carrier, reported no noticeable increase in business due to ongoing Teamsters negotiations.
State of Produce
As we start April, reefer capacity is still over-supplied in most markets, with national average spot rates hovering below $2.00/mile. Excluding 2022, when reefer spot rates dropped by $0.21/mile from the Vidalia Onion Pack Date to Independence Day, linehaul rates typically increase on average by $0.26/mile over these 11 weeks. Because reefer carriers that typically haul dry van freight in the off-season migrate to temperature-controlled produce in the summer, dry van capacity tends to tighten also. Over the same period, dry van rates typically increase by $0.19/mile.
According to Produce News, domestic watermelon season in the United States has experienced a slow start due to cool weather conditions. The USDA’s Agricultural Reporting Service indicates that by April 5 last year, Florida had already shipped 74 loads of seedless watermelon, whereas this year, only 24 loads had been shipped by the same date. The delayed start can be attributed to frost damage caused by the cold weather, resulting in smaller-sized watermelons. However, imports from Mexico and other southern climates have been ahead of 2012 totals, with 4,018 loads crossing from Mexico at Progreso, TX, compared to 2,796 in 2012. Despite the slow start, once the weather improves, watermelon production is expected to ramp up, leading to increased demand.
FreightWaves anticipates a weak produce season. Historic rainfall in California is causing delays and weak yields in the harvesting of crops like lettuce and strawberries, particularly in central California. This is bad news for the trucking industry, as late spring and early summer are typically high-demand periods for hauling perishable produce. The weak produce season adds to the already negative trucking conditions, impacting freight volumes. Freight brokers express concerns about the lack of significant loads to offer drivers, and the situation may contribute to inflation due to shortages of grocery store staples. Some crops, like nuts, may benefit from the rainfall, but farmers still hope for dry, warm days to support overall harvest.
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Senior Vice President, LTL
Senior Manager, Strategic Capacity & Pricing