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

In April, despite a slight decrease in volume by 0.85% month-over-month (MoM), the truckload market showcased signs of increased activity. Volume remained notably higher than much of the previous year, making April the third busiest month since the beginning of 2023.

Throughout April, ample capacity remained available in the market, with rejection rates hovering between 3% and 4% for the entire month. The modest 8 basis points (BPS) decrease in rejection rates from March indicates a consistent willingness among carriers to accept loads, reflecting loose market conditions.

With capacity levels steady, there was a modest impact on both van and reefer rates, which decreased by 1% MoM. This decrease in rates suggests a response to continued imbalance in supply and demand, with rates adjusting accordingly.

Fuel

In April, On Highway Diesel Prices displayed notable fluctuations, with a peak of $4.061 per gallon recorded during the week of 4/8/2024. However, prices steadily decreased each subsequent week, reaching a low of $3.947 per gallon by the week of 4/29/2024. Despite this variance, April concluded with prices averaging $0.02 per gallon lower than March.

Looking ahead, there are expectations for developments in the global oil market. OPEC+ is anticipated to implement voluntary production cuts aiming to stabilize prices around $90 per barrel for the remainder of the year. Furthermore, projections suggest an increase in production in 2025, which could drive prices towards the $85 per barrel mark.

LTL

Saia has introduced an ambitious $1 billion growth strategy for 2024. This plan aims to enhance the company’s network, expand its facilities, and improve its technological capabilities. Saia is planning to open 15 to 20 terminals, part of a major initiative involving the acquisition of 28 terminals from Yellow Corp. The LTL company intends to invest in new terminals, trucks, and trailers while also focusing on workforce development initiatives.

XPO Logistics has initiated the next phase of its plan to revamp Yellow terminals, following the acquisition of the former LTL trucking company. The relaunch involves upgrading these terminals to improve efficiency and capacity, with a focus on enhancing technology and infrastructure. By modernizing these facilities, XPO aims to streamline operations and provide better service to customers.

Estes Express Lines is set to inaugurate a minimum of 20 new terminals this year. This significant expansion plan underscores the company’s commitment to enhancing its network and service capabilities across various regions. By increasing its terminal footprint, Estes aims to improve operational efficiency and better serve its customer base. This ambitious initiative reflects Estes’ strategic growth strategy and positions the company for continued success in the competitive freight transportation market.

The ongoing shift in freight composition continues to impact ARCBEST’s shipment volumes, as reported by FreightWaves. This change in the mix of freight types affects the company’s overall performance, with certain segments experiencing more significant declines than others. ARCBEST faces challenges in adjusting to these fluctuations, highlighting the importance of adaptability in the dynamic logistics industry. As the company navigates these challenges, it underscores the need for strategic adjustments to effectively manage evolving market dynamics and maintain competitiveness in the freight transportation sector.

Old Dominion Freight Line noted positive demand signals but refrained from declaring an upturn in the cycle. Despite meeting earnings expectations, its weaker second-quarter operating ratio guidance diverged from historical trends, causing a sell-off in LTL carriers’ shares, including Old Dominion’s, which dropped by 10.9%. Revenue for the first quarter rose slightly by 1.2%, attributed to a 4.1% increase in revenue per hundredweight offsetting a 3.2% decrease in tonnage. Although April showed promising metrics with higher tonnage and yield, the sequential revenue increase was below historical averages. Operating ratio worsened, reaching 73.5%, with increased expenses in salaries, wages, benefits, and depreciation. Despite growth-related costs and softer revenue trends, Old Dominion maintains a long-term goal of a sub-70% annual operating ratio.

Intermodal

The CEOs of BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad (UP) emphasized the significance of container shipping as a crucial business segment with substantial growth prospects. This assertion comes amidst scrutiny from investors questioning its lower profit margins in comparison to Truckload & LTL transit.

The balance between a railroad’s financial indicators and its commitment to delivering reliable service has become a prominent subject of discussion in recent years. Railway leaderships have engaged in proxy battles against three Class I railroads over this issue within the last two years, underscoring the ongoing debate surrounding the industry’s priorities when it comes to profitability vs efficiency.

The discussion surrounding the value of lower-margin ventures, like intermodal, and the importance of cost reduction has been paramount among railroad shareholders. Many investors scrutinize a key metric known as the operating ratio, which measures expenses as a percentage of revenue. For instance, an operating ratio of 60 indicates that for every $100 in revenue, the railroad spends $60 on expenses, resulting in a net income of $40. Stakeholders generally favor lower operating ratios as they signify higher income.

To achieve lower ratios, some institutional investors propose that railroads allocate more resources towards what’s termed as merchandise business, such as coal, grain, and forest products, as these sectors often offer better profit margins compared to intermodal operation.

The Intermodal Price Index (IPI) displays significant volatility, both in terms of absolute figures and geographical distribution. Its volumes are heavily influenced by the demands of its primary customers, the ocean carriers, which in turn impacts the railroads’ operations. Fluctuations in capacity needs often lead to substantial shifts in the flow of ISO containers, either towards inland destinations or along coastal routes. Additionally, variations in ocean rates, especially the discrepancies between different coasts, play a crucial role in determining the routing of cargo.

For instance, analyzing data from the Intermodal Association of North America’s Equipment, Tonnage, and Services Outlook (IANA ETSO), we observe notable changes in the origin of ISO containers destined for the US Midwest. Notably, this analysis excludes Mexico due to its minimal volume contribution. The data reveals significant recent shifts in the sourcing regions of these containers, underscoring the dynamic nature of intermodal transportation.

Ocean

The import landscape from China continues to be substantial. Chinese imports into the U.S. have been steadily increasing over the past year, reaching record levels in the last quarter.  Despite occasional trade tensions and policy adjustments, China more recently has been trying to ease its industrial overcapacity problem by dumping goods on the international markets.

China’s strategic position as a global manufacturing hub ensures its continued relevance in the US import market. Despite geopolitical considerations and efforts to diversify supply chains, their role as a primary sourcing destination for U.S. imports remains unchallenged.

In parallel, Mexico as the second-largest trading partner of the United States, playing a crucial role in supplying various goods and commodities to American markets. Automobiles and automotive parts constitute a significant portion of imports from Mexico, owing to the deep integration of the automotive industry across the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, Mexico serves as a vital source of agricultural products, including fresh produce and processed foods, catering to the diverse culinary preferences of American consumers.

With trade tensions looming between U.S. and China, trade between China and Mexico shot up by 35% last year, with a majority of those goods eventually making their way into the U.S. In January 2024, China to Mexico container shipping demand rose 60% Y/Y strategically dodging the hefty tariffs the U.S. has on direct imports from China.

Import activity from China both to the U.S. and Mexico are experiencing Y/Y increases. Despite geopolitical uncertainties and occasional trade frictions, the enduring trade relationships with these partners highlight the resilience and adaptability of global supply chains. As the US continues to navigate evolving trade dynamics, maintaining constructive engagement with China and Mexico will be paramount in ensuring sustainable economic growth and competitiveness.

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Contributors

Amber Mille
Vice President, LTL
amiller@freightplus.io 

Mike Beckwith
Vice President, Brokerage
mbeckwith@freightplus.io

Dan Burke
Senior Manager, Strategic Capacity & Pricing
dburke@freightplus.io

Jeremy Eliades
Capacity Manager
jeliades@freightplus.io

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