Rob Slavin knows his tractor-trailers. He’s a senior pricing analyst at Ritchie Bros. Auctioneer, which sells hundreds of millions of dollars of used transportation equipment each year. And in the two decades he’s been selling or analyzing used truck prices, he’s never seen a market like the one of the past year and a half.
A red-hot trucking market and substantial delays in new truck manufacturing sent used truck prices soaring. Slavin saw big rigs double and sometimes triple in price. A used 2016 truck that would have cost around $32,000 at the end of 2020 would get auctioned off for $75,000, Slavin said. And, at a dealership, where trucks are reconditioned before getting sold, that truck would cost up to $90,000.
But he knows what goes up must go down. “I didn’t have any anticipation of it staying where it was,” Slavin told FreightWaves. “I’m calling what we went through a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Used trucks sold at auctions in the second quarter of 2022 are already 20% cheaper than those sold during auctions in this year’s first quarter, Slavin said. Other truck auctioneers have reported similar declines. “When you look at the used trucks, there has been a steady decrease in prices the last couple months,” said Allan Anastacio, who is the head of sales at TruckTractorTrailer.com.
Taylor & Martin holds a used truck auction every week; last year, the auction company sold more than 11,000 tractors and trailers. President Stacy Tracy said average tractor prices dropped from January’s high of $70,000 down to $50,000 in April. (In January 2021, the average price was less than $30,000.)
“The inflated, exaggerated, crazy market is done,” Tracy said. “That opportunity is over. Now, we just have to be happy with a good market.”
Analysts agree. As my colleague Alan Adler reported on May 19, analytics firm J.D. Power found four- to six-year old tractors had depreciated by 6.9% per month from Jan. 2022 to April 2022. And ACT Research said on May 26 that average used truck prices were down 1% in April 2022 from the previous month, but still up by a whopping 75% compared to last year.
The numbers vary, but the conclusion is the same: Even though prices are still strong, the big rig boom is finally collapsing.
Why you should care about used semi-truck prices
If you want to understand the economy, you have to look at the trucking industry. Because trucks move, well, just about everything, a trucking recession is usually a spooky signal for the rest of the economy. A downturn in trucking indicates that the rest of the economy — especially industries like housing, retail and manufacturing — is struggling.
Indeed, economists see trucking as a leading indicator for a macroeconomic downturn. Aaron Terrazas, the director of economic research at truck brokerage firm Convoy, found in a 2019 study that six out of 12 trucking recessions preceded macroeconomic downturns.
“Commercial trucking is a canary in the coal mine for the larger economy,” Chris Visser, who is the senior analyst and product manager of commercial vehicles at J.D. Power, told FreightWaves. “Everything from manufacturing to consumer spending is encapsulated in freight metrics.”
Post-pandemic truck auctions have gotten wild
There’s a ton of data to explore around trucking, like spot rates and tender rejections. But Visser likes to explore truck pricing — especially for those sold at auctions. Auction prices are a leading indicator for used truck pricing.
The two ways to buy a single semi-truck are through a dealership or an auction. (There’s also wholesale, but that usually involves buying in bulk.)
Trucks are pricier at a dealership, but you’ll know what you’re buying has been repaired and has warranties. Usually, the only people at truck auctions are dealers who are trying to buy lots of trucks to sell to trucking companies.
That changed in 2021. Folks who own a trucking company decided to go to auctions themselves. Numbers from auctioneer Taylor & Martin lined up with that. Tracy said Taylor & Martin’s weekly auctions attracted around 600 to 700 people before the pandemic, with a couple hundred of those folks attending virtually. But after that, the number attending shot up to 1,200 to 1,600. Most were virtual.
Skipping the dealership and going straight to auctions wasn’t all about saving money, Visser said. There was just so much demand for big rigs and so little supply. As a result of all of that interest, the price to buy a used truck at an auction now matches the price to buy one at a dealership.
“In normal times, owner-operators go to a dealer’s lot and buy with a warranty. They pay a retail premium,” Visser said. “Those same drivers became so desperate for late-model trucks that they were willing to pay retail price without reconditioning or warranty.”
It reminds me of the current housing market, where people are buying homes above their asking prices and eschewing home inspections. This is what happens when supply has shriveled amid unprecedented demand.
Yet another trucking recession indicator
In trucking (as in housing), the good times are coming to an end.
Some truck drivers who entered the market in 2021 are already backing out. Spot rates are crashing, and diesel has hit historic highs. By early April, auctioneers like Taylor & Martin and Ritchie Bros. were already seeing those impacts to truck prices.
Even though 2021’s absurd highs are cooling off, America’s truck auctioneers are still happy with the state of the used big rig world. Visser said he believes used truck prices will lower by 5% each month. By the end of 2022, used truck prices will return to the levels we saw by the end of 2020.
“I never anticipated numbers to go up and stay up,” Slavin said. “We’re starting the slide, but it’s not a cliff event.”
Added Tracy, “Inflation is not healthy. A correction was necessary.”
Do you work in the trucking industry? Send the reporter [email protected] your thoughts. And don’t forget to subscribe to MODES for your weekly dose of supply chain insight.