January 2023 Freight Market Update

01/13/2023 by Greg Massey

January 2023 Freight Market Update

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2023 Crystal Ball

It’s usually this time of year when predictions for the upcoming year start to make headlines. It’s safe to say that most folks could make some predictions based on what has transpired recently, so I wanted to highlight a few of those as we kick off the new year.

The gap between spot and contract rates will stabilize.  

Now, this does not mean that they will be equal – that rarely happens. Just about a month ago, the spread was quickly approaching $1.00 per mile between contract and spot rates (with contract being higher). That gap is slowly starting to shrink (Figure 1.1). Some of that is due to spot rates seeing a holiday bump, and part of that is related to new contract rates taking hold. With many carriers taking an extended break from the road since mid-December, less capacity has pushed spot rates higher. This upward trend will be short-lived and expect rates below $2.00 per mile to become the norm as we chug through winter and into early spring. Contract rates will also trend downward, finding a floor most likely in the middle part of the year.

Figure 1.1

Few sectors will see bright spots in 2023.  

I don’t think anyone thought the economy could continue to chug along at its rapid pace seen in the latter half of 2020 and through most of 2021.  Even though 2022’s growth was not as robust as the prior year, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should seek out a modest two percent growth rate. However, where that growth occurred sets the stage for this year.  

2022 saw a return of spending on services versus goods. So, while things like healthcare are important to the overall economy, from a freight standpoint, service spending has much less impact on transportation. Expect auto sales, both new and used, to continue their strong run. As parts and inventory issues continue to be resolved, vehicles with temporary tags will be more commonplace as Americans continue to purchase cars and trucks.  

On the opposite end, most notably, the housing market will have a rough 2023. With Americans seeing inflation compete for more of their take-home dollars, and the cost of borrowing increasing, many will choose to remain in their current situation. And it’s not just the building materials that will see less of a demand. With fewer new homes comes less demand for things that go in those homes – like appliances, carpets, and furniture.

Following the building industry, manufacturing will be the next downstream effect, and banking will also see less demand for consumer and business loans. Overall, expect 2023 to see, at best, no year-over-year (YoY) growth in GDP, with 2024 being a rebound year (Figure 2.1)

Figure 2.1

Import activity will continue to slow. 

As we saw in last month’s update, Figure 3.1 shows the impact of the ship backlog being resolved and container movement starting to slow. That will be a common theme this year. While 2022 saw year-over-year import activity down almost 20 percent, that downward YoY story will continue in 2023. This will have an immediate impact on intermodal activity, but also over-the-road and less-than-truckload volumes will feel the impact.

One thing to keep in mind as we see recent actual and forecasted numbers showing negative, that is against a backdrop of a very successful 2021 and modest growth year in 2022. So while 2023 will not continue that positive trend, by comparison to a recent down year like 2019, 2023 will be up from an overall volume standpoint versus just a few years ago.

Figure 3.1

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