Understanding the Current State and Future Outlook of the Trucking Industry

The trucking industry has experienced a significant shift since last year, with an increase in demand and a decrease in capacity. This change suggests a healthier transportation market, and forecasts indicate that 2024 might see a further narrowing of the gap between supply and demand.

During the pandemic, truckload demand skyrocketed, but it's now just a fraction of what it was. Throughout most of 2023, this demand has been on the rise, a trend largely unnoticed by carriers and 3PLs. They've been grappling with an excess of capacity, a result of a surge in new entrants during 2020-21, as shown in the Carrier Details Total Trucking Authorities data.

December saw tender volumes averaging over 10% higher than the previous year, with a steady growth observed since the previous winter. Apart from October, daily tender volumes have increased, indicating a growth in the economic demand for goods.

A recent episode of Freightonomics featured Zac Rogers, an associate professor of supply chain management at Colorado State and co-author of the Logistics Managers’ Index (LMI). He attributed the demand growth to a combination of adjusted inventories and increased consumption. Despite concerns about consumer health, Anthony Smith, FreightWaves’ chief economist, confidently stated, "never bet against the American consumer.”

An eye-opening insight emerged from the LMI outlook on transportation prices. The LMI, which measures various logistics activities, shows that values above 50 indicate expansion, while those below 50 suggest contraction. The transportation pricing component averaged at 38 in 2023 but has been below 50 since the summer of 2022. However, the November survey projected a value of around 64 for 2024, implying expectations of a market rebound.

Although forecasts are essentially opinions, data indicates a swift movement towards a balance between capacity supply and demand.

Analyzing 13 years of data from Carrier Details Total Trucking Authorities reveals a significant downward trend following an unprecedented growth rate. FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller, in the recent State of Freight webinar, warned shippers of increased risks in 2024. He advised against aggressive cost-cutting strategies, highlighting the unpredictability of capacity even for the strongest carriers.

Fuller, while not certain, aligned with several LMI respondents in anticipating market tightening by the end of next year.

Economically, there are still unanswered questions, but clarity is emerging over time. The U.S. has exceeded many economic expectations, offering hope for the desired “soft landing.”

However, the road to stabilizing the freight market means some will face losses, a common post-pandemic trend across many sectors. But this phase, too, is expected to pass.