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Conditions for fleets are deteriorating and it will get bloody

Photo: Shutterstock

For the freight market, 2019 has been shaping up to as a tug of war between the bulls and the bears. The large enterprise carriers that rely heavily on committed business (commonly referred to as “contract business”) have been enjoying a decent year, while the small carriers that are heavily exposed to the transactional spot market have been faced with a very tough market.

The disagreement has been obvious on Wall Street earnings reports. The large carriers have spoken about decent freight conditions and have been far more optimistic than the Facebook message boards that are made up of small operators. Comments like “worst market ever” and “a bloodbath is coming” are common on Facebook groups like Rate Per Mile Masters. Groups like this are helpful to understand the current sentiment in the market, even if they tend to be highly emotional.

For observers who are trying to get a feel for the direction of the market, the discrepancy has been confusing. The struggle between the bulls and the bears is about to become clear and while it pains us to call it, the bears are going to be proven correct.

The reason that the large carriers do not feel that the market is soft is due to the quality of their shipper relationships and the reluctance of shippers to pull loads away from them. While there is a constant tug-of-war in the pricing game (even for the largest carriers), shippers will hold off pulling loads due to the fear of running out of trucks when the market tightens. In order for this to happen, volumes must remain consistent and shippers need to fear that freight might be left on their docks.

Until May, volumes had been close to 2018 peak levels. Throughout the year, truckload volumes have been within 3 percent of 2018 volumes, at times breaking 2018 year-over-year numbers. Considering the unprecedented demand that the market experienced last year, anything remotely close to last year’s volumes is impressive.

DAT Van Freight Rate Index (SONAR:DATVF.USA)

Meanwhile, spot rates have dropped like a rock. From the June 2018 peak, trucking spot rates are down over 36 percent. Last year’s peak DAT national van rate hit $2.11 per mile and today sits at $1.36 per mile. The reason – the market has been oversupplied with capacity. Carriers, big and small, added to their fleet counts last year. While carriers struggled to find drivers to seat those trucks, higher driver pay and incentives did generate successful outcomes.

The “driver shortage” and “capacity shortage” are two different things. The driver shortage commonly refers to the availability of drivers in the market to drive the trucks that are on fleet rosters, while the capacity shortage is a function of having enough trucks available for dispatch. Unseated trucks don’t generate revenue, while a capacity shortage gives the fleets pricing power as shippers and brokers struggle to find capacity. And in markets with a capacity shortage, carriers and drivers alike are big winners. Nothing brings driver pay up like a good old capacity shortage.

When times are good, carriers are eager to grow their fleets and attract the best drivers, which means they roll out the best perks and incentives to get the drivers to join their fleet. When times are tough, the thinking switches to the short-term. Many fleets are just fighting for survival.

According to the proprietary trucks in market index (SONAR: TRUK) that tracks the total amount of capacity in the truckload market on a daily basis (using electronic logging devices, or ELDs), truckload capacity in the market was up nearly 5 percent in the past year. This peaked in April. And since the volumes were consistent with 2018, but not high enough to soak up the additional demand, truckload spot rates dropped.

In recent weeks, trucks in market has started to drop back, showing that capacity is slowly leaving the industry. It appears that carriers have stopped growing their fleets and some owner operators who were enjoying record high spot rates in 2018 have reconsidered their profession.

Starting earlier this month, it appeared that the spring surge might deliver quality results in the second quarter. Volumes had been moving up since early April, showing a muted, but promising trend for the quarter. That all changed on May 9. On that day, the U.S. accelerated tariffs on Chinese imports, forcing importers to reconsider their supply chains. Port volumes have been driving the freight market for the past year, but that appears to be over.

Outbound Tender Volume Index (SONAR OTVI.USA)

FreightWaves’ proprietary Outbound Tender Volume Index (SONAR: OTVI), which measures the total amount of contracted freight in the market, peaked on May 9, dropping by over 6 percent on May 16. May is typically a strong month for freight volume, so the drop is even more significant.

In Asian import-heavy Los Angeles, the drop was even steeper. Volumes dropped over 28 percent from May 8 to May 16.

Right now, there is a “driver shortage” coupled with a capacity glut.

With a tight labor market, carriers are struggling to find and keep qualified drivers. Drivers can find work with better quality of life elements in construction and warehousing, and often  the pay is competitive or comparable to truck driving jobs. When carriers stop getting the volume of loads from their “contractual shippers,” drivers will start sitting. Over-the-road drivers are typically paid per mile, so when the miles dry up, so does the pay. Drivers get restless and start to consider alternative sectors for employment.

Employee-drivers that leave the industry end up leaving truck cabs empty and sitting against the fence. This forces employers to raise driver pay on a per mile basis and creates cost inflation. Part of this is to make up for fewer miles (i.e. drivers are taking home less pay and therefore need to make more per mile to sustain the same amount of pay) and part is pure market economics (a job at an Amazon warehouse pays $15 per hour).

After all, driver pay is one of the largest cost centers for trucking fleets. Last year, the fleets found willing shippers to pass those costs on to; this year they will find the opposite.

Shippers are aware of the market conditions. Information is fairly ubiquitous and with brokers in the market calling up shippers and offering to undercut their “contracted rates,” shippers are taking advantage. One carrier shared an email from a top food shipper that told the contracted fleets that their “contracted rates” would not apply and they would have to match the spot rates offered by freight brokers. So much for contract rates.

The other major cost center is fuel.

Oil prices have been going up since the start of the year. The benchmark WTI oil price has rallied from $46.31 on January 2, 2019, to $60.97 on May 13, 2019, a 32 percent increase.


The increase has been felt at the pump. Truckstop retail diesel prices have moved from a low of $2.96 to $3.10 per gallon. Large carriers that buy at wholesale rack prices have seen their wholesale assessed fuel move from $1.70 to $2.20 per gallon since the start of the year. (Wholesale diesel rack prices do not include taxes or transportation.) The $0.50 per gallon swing will cost carriers that buy wholesale as much as $0.07 per mile in additional gross fuel expenses.

Diesel Truck Stop Actual Price Per Gallon (SONAR: DTS.USA)

The outlook for the rest of the year is even worse for diesel. IMO 2020, the new maritime fuel standard, goes into effect at the end of the year and by some extreme estimates could increase the cost of retail ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) by as much as $0.50 per gallon. FreightWaves’ internal estimates are more benign and call for a $0.22 to $0.25 per gallon increase of ULSD at the pump.

For carriers on fuel surcharges, much of this increase will be passed on to their shipper clients. For carriers that don’t enjoy fuel surcharges, it could mean $0.04 to $0.08 per mile in unrecovered fuel expenses.

The last nail in the coffin for many fleets will be the used truck market. Over the past two years, many carriers have taken advantage of a hot freight market to buy new trucks and expand their fleets. The used truck market has enjoyed steady pricing, even as market demand dropped. Since June 2017, prices of used trucks that are three to four years old have rallied by 25 percent as the secondary market experienced high demand. This will be the peak.

3 Year Old Used Truck Price Index (SONAR: DTS.USA)

As cash flow starts to dry up, the banks will start to foreclose on truckers that miss payments. Fleets with more flexibility will also start to dump their older and less fuel-efficient trucks as they trim back the size of their fleets, finding that a smaller network is more optimal in this environment. Used trucks will start piling up on dealer lots and dealers will start to get more aggressive in making deals to get those trucks off their lots.

Bankruptcies will start to increase in the industry and fleets with less efficient networks and less flexibility on the balance sheet will be washed out. Capacity will start to leave the industry as the industry right-sizes for the demand. Carriers should start planning defensively for this turn. Utilization will be key. Staying informed with the most current data is paramount. With a sloppy and low-demand market, maximizing your opportunities to get and stay loaded is critical.

Keeping costs under control will also be extremely important. And for carriers that are sophisticated, hedging their exposure to spot rates will give them an enormous cash-flow advantage in the market as industry rates start to reset.

The outlook is not all bad, of course.

The well-managed carriers will do better than most and will be in a better position to take market share. You can expect companies that have healthy balance sheets to be able to pick off synergistic acquisition targets. Companies that use technology and maintain high-quality shipper relationships will also do well in this cycle, relative to ones that are transactional and live/die in the spot market.

Carriers that have diverse service offerings will also be insulated from too much exposure to a single customer or sector. Over time, drivers will also figure out which carriers have the best networks and keep them running. Those carriers will be able to pick off the best drivers, even as the market overall struggles to find drivers. I would also expect some large carriers to buy some smaller and less-capitalized carriers near the bottom of the cycle, but we are a bit away from that.


  1. Steven

    It’s exactly what I predicted in March while many
    laugh on my comment.
    Next big thing:
    Self driving trucks and electrical trucks.

  2. Steve

    It’s exactly what I’m seeing. I haven’t run much this year. I post my truck, when they call I give them my rate, they usually want to pay half of that, which is probably the main contributer to the Colorado truck accident killing four people. At those rates one can’t properly maintain their equipment. Nor properly train their drivers. More often now I’m talking to mechanics that tell me trucks are being “patched not repaired” You’ve got all these trucks up here from down south where the drivers work for less than US minimum wage. Which drives the prices down to below a reasonable cost. What’s the answer to get a rate that will allow companies to cover good maintenance and training? Are we going to continue to watch more Colorado’s take out companies due to their inability to command fair rates?
    Add to the increased costs all around, new costs like in many areas one will be paying $15 a night or more just to park, double that if you want a shower. I netted more in the 80’s than the rates allow now. If you can get out of that truck, it will be the wisest financial decision of your life. It will probably save your retirement. Good luck all!

    A good article would be on how trucking costs and rates in 1980 compare to today’s.

    1. SuperDan Trucking

      Steve, you’re spot on 100% accurate all the way around. And I couldn’t agree more, run an article on the industry rates of the 70s and 80s compared to today. THAT will change A LOT!

  3. DF

    The major companies are what have ruined the trucking industry. By accepting unqualified and highly unprofessional drivers and cutting the throats of independent owner operators. I worked for 2 major companies over a six year period and almost starved to death because big companies do not give a shit about their drivers. This article talks about driver shortage but no where does it mention the real problem of safe places to park, and companies actually treating their drivers like human beings instead of fucking them every chance they get.

  4. Troy Thomas

    What a great article!! I hope the big carriers are hit with, ” no contract only spot market” philosophy you suggested could happen. Also all those big Bobby belt buckles who went and bought a $3500 a month truck will be the stupidest people ever as they gloated about they’re shiny new god against my 08 389 a year ago. Old enough to lnow here. This is 1999 all over again.

    1. Steve

      It isn’t a philosophy, it is actually happening. Our main customer, whom we had good rates and a good relationship with, suspended our contracted rates as soon as the market turned. We re-negotiated, then they suspended them again. You work your tail off for years to get contracted freight and suddenly when it’s convenient for them shippers get to tear up the contract and do whatever they want.

    2. SuperDan Trucking

      Amen! I’m right there with you. Instead of purchasing a new truck last year, I did a motor swap, all new suspension, and this year bought a new trailer. I’m ready for the slump. I’ll sit home and wait for something good before I go back out to break even.

  5. Troy

    This challenges the best strategists to maintain a viable business. 2019 is already showing a down turn from the level of 2018. It will be truly Important to operate as lean as possible to ride this out.

    1. Steve

      But you can’t be lean with safety. If the brake slack adjuster is constantly needing “manual” adjustment, real repairs are needed. Don’t patch the problem and wait until a crash or bad inspection before you repair it because the loads you’re pulling don’t pay enough.

      When leaving home, set a fair rate over $2 a mile. Post the truck, let the calls come in and stay ready to go. Eventually one will call back and whine that it’s more than “we have in the load”, maintain your rate and you will get the load at a fair rate. Don’t be surprised when you get to the shipper to hear, why are you late? I just tell them I was just assigned the load. That’s because the broker wanted you to lose money because he promised the shipper he could move it below what it costs to run a truck. You need to make the money where you can and your costs are lower waiting at home.

      It doesn’t work that way when you’re empty in a city far from home. So don’t be afraid of DH. I’d rather DH 300 miles to a better freight area, than take the cheap freight. And I have always averaged above the cheap rate for all miles when DH to better freight. And way above what I would have averaged for all hours, as with the cheap rate to get to the better rate doubles the work, and as your cheap, they treat you that way. Also you feel better about yourself and the customer because they’re paying a fair rate.

    2. Ray

      Troy, while everyone else is digging there grave….pump it up! You’ll be in a class all your own , everyone else will be gone.

  6. Benny

    Thank you for your assessment.
    I’m going to wait a few month and once those dealers lots are full of 2 year old trucks I’m hoping to snag one at a steal.
    If small companies and owner ops arent prepared for the bears they don’t deserve the bulls.
    I’m ready to put my money into being an owner operator, me and nd my girl team. We’ll get s truck on this downturn as nd whether the storm till 2021 when I suspect the bulls will rage like never seen before. I think a new age of Americsn prosperity is just around the corner… buy low sell high.

    1. Ray

      Thats good, nothing like a blood bath and the middle finger to what ails us, I haven’t felt the lag at all, I’m an o/o And do quite well, but I have always managed to stay out of the dry box arena for the very reasons mentioned in this article, good drivers? BS, most left the industry when FMCSA went to bed with big trucking, you would be hard pressed to find a quality driver, if it isn’t the tighter regs that decimate trucking , it’s big trucking destroying trucking all together, and we could go on for days at what they do. But I wish you the best in the future, a hint…..stay out of the cesspool of big dry box trucking, go with raw materials, get yourself a dry bulk trailer and go for it. BTW. The pay is great, I gross 6 to 7 grand a week, my company does well, and so do I .

      1. Kenneth Hodges

        I’m getting ready to purchase a truck next week and have been hired on with Oakley!! Any pointers to a new O/O??

    2. Steve Scheckel

      So, you have no experience as an owner operator but you’re going to mock the ones who are out here struggling because it’s all just as easy as buy low, sell high? Good luck and enjoy the eye opening you are about to receive.

      1. Dan

        38 years O/O … No truer words Steve ! I love the positive attitude that dreamers have until the education proceeds. It must be that nobody else thought of buy low sell high… SMH

    3. Richard

      Your an idiot no one is ready for bad times or a bad economy I’ve been driving my own truck for well over 20 yrs I’ve seen it good I’ve seen it bad I’ve seen companies fold up that you would never thought would just because of a bad situation or a bad business move so don’t run your mouth till you’ve been through it your probably just some big mouth kid just starting out and you think you know it all well you don’t and with an attitude like yours I hope you get hit hard and loose everything then maybe you’ll learn to shut your pie hole and not talk shit about something you know nothing about!!!

Comments are closed.

Craig Fuller, CEO at FreightWaves

Craig Fuller is CEO and Founder of FreightWaves, the only freight-focused organization that delivers a complete and comprehensive view of the freight and logistics market. FreightWaves’ news, content, market data, insights, analytics, innovative engagement and risk management tools are unprecedented and unmatched in the industry. Prior to founding FreightWaves, Fuller was the founder and CEO of TransCard, a fleet payment processor that was sold to US Bank. He also is a trucking industry veteran, having founded and managed the Xpress Direct division of US Xpress Enterprises, the largest provider of on-demand trucking services in North America.