By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

September 08, 2014 – LM Editorial

Market conditions continue to favor trucking carriers, due in large part to tight capacity, according to the most recent edition of the Trucking Conditions Index (TCI) from freight transportation forecasting firm FTR.

The TCI reflects tightening conditions for hauling capacity and is comprised of various metrics, including capacity, fuel, bankruptcies, cost of capital, and freight. According to FTR, a TCI reading above zero represents an adequate trucking environment, with readings above ten indicating that volumes, prices, and margin are in a good range for carriers.

The TCI for July, the most recent month for which data is available, is 8.49, which FTR said is one of its highest points of 2014 and reflects increases prices and service lapses due to the ongoing tight capacity in the truckload sector. And the firm noted that current truck utilization levels are within 100 basis points of record levels, which it explained translates into any further economic growth and associated freight likely to strain capacity and subsequently increasing rates further.

“When looking at the truckload market, for much of 2014 it has been a tale of two markets with spot activity very strong, especially in rates,” said FTR Director of Transportation Analysis Jonathan Starks in a statement. “The contract market has been less robust but still showing signs of stress on capacity, costs, and rates. You can expect to see those two markets merge this fall as a shipper’s core carriers get further stressed and contract rates move higher. The public announcements of strong driver pay increases by fleets are a testament to this fact. Despite easing over the summer, spot rates are still elevated versus last year. Keep an eye on spot rate as we head into September as they will be an early indicator of capacity shortages and stress in the system.”

Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Ben Hartford concurred with FTRE, noting in a research note that spot truckload activity remains healthy because of the ongoing truckload capacity tightness.

“Truckload industry regulatory changes and incremental driver recruiting challenges continue to limit available truck capacity,” he wrote. “Spot truck activity remains above seasonal in 3Q14; and we believe industry rate growth needs to accelerate in 2H14 and 2015 to offset incremental inflationary cost pressures experienced in 2014.”

Hartford added that he expects rate increases for committed capacity during the second half of the year to top the first half’s rate, explaining that anecdotes of shippers’ willingness to secure capacity during seasonally weak July/August likely speak to both anticipation of expected capacity tightness in the fourth quarter of this year and the likelihood of continued rate growth acceleration in 2015.