Chart of the Week

Tight trucking market may hamstring Laura recovery effort

Altruism won’t be enough when carriers are struggling to meet existing customers’ needs

Chart of the Week: 7-Day Van and Reefer Rate Per Mile – USA SONAR: TSTOPVRPM.USA, TSTOPRRPM.USA

In a year that has become the poster child for natural disaster, Hurricane Laura became the latest in a long line of internet meme-generating events that have characterized 2020. To make matters worse for the victims of the first major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., the recovery efforts may be hindered by the tightest freight market in years. 

The average national rates for dry van and reefer truckloads according to have been increasing consistently after bottoming in early May, reaching the highest levels since 2018. Relief efforts are greatly dependent on transportation of supplies into the disaster zones. With carrier networks already strained due to the surging demand resulting from an economy both recovering and adapting, there may not be as much capacity available to bring in the needed supplies. 

This week FreightWaves CEO and founder Craig Fuller decided to once again offer free access to the SONAR data platform to aid in any response effort whether directly or indirectly related to Laura. With so much uncertainty already present in the market, visibility into the highly fragmented trucking market will help anyone involved make better decisions on how to source freight transportation over the next week. 

Most of the recovery efforts will be led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They will bring in supplies like food, water and generators initially while they help those who have been displaced by the storm. Once they have evaluated the extent of the damage, they will start bringing in supplies for rebuilding. The extent of the damage helps define the timeline, but typically it takes several months for a full recovery. 

If carriers are having trouble servicing their existing customers, there will need to be a strong incentive outside of altruism to devote capacity to the relief effort, especially considering the fact many were concerned about staying in business earlier in the year. 

A surge of freight into the Houston market while outbound volumes take a break could end up aiding the recovery. Chart: SONAR – Inbound Tender Volume Index and Outbound Tender Volume Index – Houston

There are some reasons for optimism for the recovery process in regard to near-term capacity. Looking at the Houston market over the past week, there has been a surge of inbound freight while outbound slowed, indicating the market may be experiencing a surplus of trucks, depending on how quickly shippers ramp back up after many slowed in anticipation of the storm. 

Import shipments clearing customs plummet as the Port of Houston closes in front of Laura. Chart: SONAR – CSTM.HOU

The Port of Houston also shut down this week for safety concerns, which means it will also see demand for capacity resume next week. The recent influx is well timed regardless and could significantly aid with the critical near-term assistance. 

In the long run, however, carriers cannot afford to dedicate too much capacity to relief efforts as it could damage their existing relationships. Emergency loads are not your typical freight and require a lot of time sitting and waiting as none of these places typically have permanent dock or warehouse features. This means a lot of the freight is stored on trailers and hand-offloaded when needed. Many trailers will have to sit for weeks, some with power in order to move it when needed.

For this reason, hurricanes can cause major trucking capacity disruptions. Harvey and Irma are both good examples of infrastructure destroying systems that left their mark on the freight market for extended periods. It is difficult to isolate the full extent of what hurricanes can do to national capacity, but there is definitely a relationship in regard to the insurance estimates. Harvey was a $200 billion event that shut down a major freight hub. We are weeks from getting an estimate on Laura’s damage total, but it is safe to say it will not be on the scale of Harvey — hopefully far less.  

About the Chart of the Week

The FreightWaves Chart of the Week is a chart selection from SONAR that provides an interesting data point to describe the state of the freight markets. A chart is chosen from thousands of potential charts on SONAR to help participants visualize the freight market in real time. Each week a Market Expert will post a chart, along with commentary, live on the front page. After that, the Chart of the Week will be archived on for future reference.

SONAR aggregates data from hundreds of sources, presenting the data in charts and maps and providing commentary on what freight market experts want to know about the industry in real time.

The FreightWaves data science and product teams are releasing new data sets each week and enhancing the client experience.

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Zach Strickland, FW Market Expert & Market Analyst

Zach Strickland, the “Sultan of SONAR,” curates the weekly market update. Zach is also one of FreightWaves’ Market Experts. With a degree in Finance, Strickland spent the early part of his career in banking before transitioning to transportation in various roles and segments, such as truckload and LTL. He has over 13 years of transportation experience, specializing in data, pricing, and analytics.