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Q4 2021 shipments drop while costs to ship climb

Jan. 27, 2022
Lacking available capacity, U.S. Bank reports that early holiday shipments led to a freight truck volume slowdown of 5.1% compared to the fourth quarter of 2020.

The U.S. Bank Freight Payment Index has revealed that the cost to ship goods via commercial trucks continued to grow strongly in the fourth quarter of 2021, jumping 20.2% compared to the last three months of 2020. Meanwhile, a lack of available trucks and drivers, as well as a decision by many retailers to acquire more holiday inventory earlier than usual, led to a 5.1% contraction in the number of shipments in the fourth quarter compared to the same quarter of 2020.

“The freight trucking industry faced familiar challenges as we closed out 2021: a lack of available drivers, trucks, and trailers,” said Bobby Holland, U.S. Bank VP and director of Freight Data Solutions. “This is increasing costs for shippers and making it more difficult for carriers to haul more freight. The rising cost of diesel fuel in the fourth quarter—up nearly 10% compared to the previous quarter—also drove up costs for those shipping goods by truck.”  

Shipment index  

In addition to the 5.1% decrease in shipments over the fourth quarter of 2020, the latest U.S. Bank National Shipments Index dropped 2.4% compared to the third quarter of 2021. For all of 2021, shipments were down 0.5% compared to all of 2020 and 4.5% compared to all of 2019. 

American Trucking Associations (ATA) Senior Vice President and Chief Economist Bob Costello said that the lower shipment volume in the fourth quarter last year was partly due to anxious retailers acquiring more of their holiday products in the third quarter. The larger issue, though, was capacity. Costello noted that ATA data shows that carriers who primarily haul contract freight operated roughly 5% fewer trucks in 2021 compared with 2020. 

Spend index 

In addition to the 20.2% year-over-year increase in spending over the fourth quarter of 2020, the U.S. Bank National Spend Index rose 8.4% compared to Q3 2021. For full-year 2021, spending by shippers was up 26.5% compared to all of 2020 and 21.5% compared to 2019. 

“In 2021, we moved about the same amount of goods via truck freight in the U.S. as we did in 2020, but it cost more than 25% more to do so,” Costello said. “The demand for trucking services continues to be high, but until driver shortages, as well as various supply chain challenges—such as those that are causing new truck and equipment shortages—are improved, capacity will be constrained.”    

Regional data  

West

Shipments

  • Fourth quarter: down 6.4% 
  • Year-over-year: up 2.5% 

Spending

  • Fourth quarter: up 12% 
  • Year-over-year: up 29% 

The West, which was the strongest region for freight truck shipping in 2021, experienced a 6.4% decrease in shipment volume in the fourth quarter. Shipments were influenced by a drop in West Coast port volumes as Southern California ports remained congested. This has caused some shippers to switch to East Coast ports. Strong housing construction numbers in the West helped limit the decline in shipping volume. 

Midwest

Shipments

  • Fourth quarter: down 2.9% 
  • Year-over-year: down 12% 

Spending

  • Fourth quarter: up 6.7% 
  • Year-over-year: up 15.8% 

This quarter marked the second straight quarter-over-quarter decrease in shipments for the Midwest. A significant drop in auto production—caused by supply chain challenges—is causing reduced freight levels in the region. 

Northeast 

Shipments

  • Fourth quarter: down 1.6% 
  • Year-over-year: down 1.2% 

Spending

  • Fourth quarter: up 8% 
  • Year-over-year: up 23.8% 

Shipments in the Northeast fell, but were helped by solid household consumption of goods in the region. Spending in the region hit a record high as a result of tight capacity. 

Southeast

Shipments

  • Fourth quarter: down 1.5% 
  • Year-over-year: down 4.7% 

Spending

  • Fourth quarter: up 8.4% 
  • Year-over-year: up 18.7% 

The region experienced its worst year-over-year drop in shipment volume since the second quarter of 2020. Like the Midwest, Southeast truck freight volumes are being impacted by auto manufacturing challenges. 

Southwest

Shipments

  • Fourth quarter: up 0.7% 
  • Year-over-year: up 2.2% 

Spending

  • Third quarter: up 7.9% 
  • Year-over-year: up 20.4% 

The Southwest was the only region to record an increase in shipment volume in the fourth quarter of 2021. Strong crude oil production—as well as solid truck freight volumes between the U.S. and Mexico—is helping freight truck volumes in the region. 

About the Author

FleetOwner Staff

Our Editorial Team

Kevin Jones, Editorial Director, Commercial Vehicle Group

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