March 2024 Freight Market Update

03/15/2024 by Greg Massey

March 2024 Freight Market Update

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I certainly do not expect that we will return to freight volumes like we saw in 2021, and part of 2022. Now, I will never say never, but those were most likely once in a lifetime events. However, there are many signs that point to a potential for 2024 to see a rebound in freight volumes and carrier rates.  

First, let’s talk about rates for over-the-road (OTR) carriers. Many new entrants came to the carrier market in ’21 and ’22, but currently, we’re seeing the contraction of for-hire carriers.  

As shown in Figure 1.1, the past 14 months have seen less carriers in the market. As supply continues to dwindle, this will put upward pressure on rates. Granted, it may take another 12 months for the carrier market to find an economic balance.  

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.2 measures the rate at which carriers reject tenders (shipments) and continues to slowly climb upward. Granted, a rejection rate of five-plus percent is not earth-shattering, but in comparison to where it was in 2023, sub three percent in several months, five percent and the continuing upward movement is noticeable.  

Figure 1.2

Lastly, Figure 1.3 shows that spot rates continue their slow rebound from the middle part of 2023. Contract rates throughout much of 2022 and half of 2023, were $0.60 to $0.70 cents per mile higher. Today, that gap stands at $0.36 per mile. This is a combination of spot rates inching higher, but also contract rates being less than prior years.

Figure 1.3

An Opportunistic Outlook

While contraction in the carrier market will influence the supply side of the economic equation, there also needs to be a demand component. The below chart (Figure 2.1) shows loaded rail car volume and over-the-road volume trending up and to the right, but the green line, representing inbound ocean containers, is really peaking.  

Eventually, these containers will morph into rail and OTR volume. This is most likely a result in the drawing down of inventories, and the need for replenishment. Combine this with continuing increases in the manufacturing sector and housing market that will show better signs than 2023, it sets the stage for strong demand especially in the second half of 2024.  

Will it be a bull or bear year in ’24? Well, if you would have asked that question six months ago, even maybe three months ago, my answer would have been slightly bearish or at best flat. However, seeing the recent signs on freight activity and the carriers needed to move this freight gives more reason to be optimistic as we go through the next ten months of the year.

Figure 2.1

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