The American Trucking Associations (ATA) for-hire truck tonnage index contracted 5.8% in September, following a revised 5% rise during August.
Compared with September of last year, the trade group’s tonnage index is down 0.7%, the first year-over-year decline since October 2015. Year-to-date, however, compared to the same stretch in 2015 ATA noted that tonnage is up 3%.
“Volatility this year continued again in September with the large drop after a significant increase in August,” noted Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist, in a statement. “The changes we’re seeing in typical seasonal trends are making it difficult to discern any real or clear trend in truck tonnage.”
John Larkin, managing director and head of transportation research at Stifel Capital Markets, noted in a statement earlier this month that truck freight volumes went from “very weak” to “moderately weak” sometime in the late May/early June time frame.
Subsequently, freight volumes moved roughly “sideways,” showing no signs of breaking out of what he called the “more than year-long funk” that has made life challenging for truckers.
“Many carriers are hopeful that some of the uncertainty plaguing shippers and receivers will be alleviated once the election takes place,” Larkin said. “Others are hopeful the inflated inventories will, once and for all, reach targeted levels sometime within the next six months or so. The seasonal peak will likely be limited to the e-commerce peak that has been developing from early- to mid-November through mid- to late December, in recent years.”
ATA’s Costello added that, after “adjusting” for the larger ups and downs in freight volumes this year, as well as talking with many fleets, he currently sees a “softer than normal freight environment” ahead for the trucking industry, which is likely to continue until the ongoing “inventory correction” is complete.
“Looking ahead, the slow growth economic environment does not suggest that significantly stronger truck tonnage numbers are in the near term either,” Costello pointed out.
Stifel’s Larkin added that “numerous carriers” are now “tweaking down” their fleet sizes as a result of those soft freight numbers, with 3% to 7% year-over-year reductions in fleet size common.
“Those that misread the market and added equipment are lamenting the utilization reductions they are currently digesting in this still soft freight market,” he added.