Q1 Should be Strong for Trucking

The opening of 2021 has seen tender volumes and rejections decreasing, as the industry returned from the long holiday. However, while January is traditionally a slow month for the freight market, volumes are still high so far, currently sitting up 40% YoY.

“Markets such as Harrisburg, Ontario and Los Angeles seem to be loosening this year, after being the tightest markets for weeks or months,” Justin Maze, Transfix’s senior manager of carrier account management, says. “But this could be short-lived on the West Coast, as import volume remains extremely strong, with more than 25 ships still anchored off the coast waiting for the ports to clear up.” Warehousing continues to fill in the close-by trucking markets, which could lead to high volumes in the coming weeks and months, as the waiting freight gets repositioned, and the ports clear for more imports to enter.

“The inventory-to-sales ratio is at its lowest point since 2014, and the restocking of inventories that were just depleted — and often not restocked due to supply chain disruptions — will serve as an incremental demand driver moving forward,” Seth Holm writes for Freightwaves. “With the consumer still stuck at home for the foreseeable future, discretionary income from currently arriving stimulus and a slowly recovering labor market, Q1 should be one of the stronger first quarters in recent history from a consumer and freight volume standpoint.”

Tender rejections also have followed a seasonal downward pattern after the holidays, but the Outbound Tender Reject Index (OTRI), too, sits at the very high level of 23.02%. “Unless consumer spending falters or the industrial economy slows significantly, which appears unlikely, there should be plenty of demand to keep tender rejections above typical Q1 levels,” Holm writes.

Additionally, most container lines from China to the West Coast announced they will not cancel services during the Chinese New Year in February. This is very unusual; traditionally, imports slow due to the Chinese New Year, with production usually coming to a stand-still for nearly a month. This should have a pronounced effect on volumes.

“While the first week of 2021 showed strong markets with a slight decline, the coming weeks will be the true predictor of how strong Q1 and, perhaps, even H1 will be in 2021,” Maze says.


Optimism Reigns, but Issues Remain 

The Institute for Supply Management’s Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) for manufacturing rose 3.2% in December to 60.7% — its seventh consecutive month of growth — and the prices index for manufactured goods rose 12.2 points to 77.6% in December, its highest point since May 2018, Logistics Management reports. Purchasing managers in various sectors tell the publication they are optimistic for 2021.

As we’ve discussed in past Weekly Market Updates, the driver shortage continues to be a significant issue and shows no sign of abating. The resurgence of COVID-19 is keeping driver-school capacity down, and the drug clearinghouse that took place in early 2020 forced 2.5% of drivers off the road due to violations. Carriers are offering increased wages and bonuses for new drivers, but they are still having trouble getting enough drivers to deal with increased capacity.

“Our shipping partners continue to seek solutions for the new normal of the transportation industry. This leaves many shippers rethinking how their supply chains operate and how they can find efficiency gains, such as drop trailer solutions,” Maze says. “We continue to talk to our carrier partners, who believe 2021 will be a strong year for them.

Amit Mehrotra, Deutsche Bank’s managing director and head of transportation and shipping research, also paints a strong picture for trucking in 2021 and beyond. Last week, he told Freightwaves: “We have high confidence that demand trends in 2021 will surprise materially to the upside. It is our view that both the U.S. industrial and consumer economies will be firing on all cylinders this year. The industrial economy will be supported by demand growth for refined oil products, which has significant positive implications for the U.S. energy complex and, in turn, U.S. industrial activity. … We are forecasting a surge in consumer activity from a release in pent-up demand … not to mention the ongoing, and significant, need for inventory restocking.”


With the uncertainty and volatility surrounding the U.S. economic recovery, shippers need a partner that can help them adapt and excel — no matter the circumstance. Shippers turn to Transfix for our leading technology and reliable carrier network. As volumes drive higher, we are here to help: Learn more about our Core Carrier program and Dynamic Lane Rates. As part of our ongoing market coverage, we’ll continue to provide breaking news, resources and insight into emerging trends and the pandemic’s impact on the transportation industry.

Try Fleet Planner, a free, online tool to manage your fleet. Now you can also book loads in a few clicks!Learn More