Booming economic activity results in more freight needing hauled. Freight volume refers to the amount of goods, import and export, moving through the transportation industry. Almost every physical product made or sold in the U.S. economy moves through the commercial vehicle (CV) market.
Why Is Freight Volume Important?
No matter the economic environment, having an understanding of market trends is extremely valuable for companies to be able to respond to challenges and opportunities.
Shippers own or supply the goods (freight) that carriers will transport, and brokers act as the middle man between them; thus, the amount of freight moving among these players will impact how they conduct their business. Businesses benefit from having accurate information related to freight volume so they can better plan for the road ahead.
An effective way to think about supply and demand in the truckload (TL) market is the concept of a pendulum. When demand grows faster than capacity and the supply of drivers or tractors is short, the pendulum swings to the fleets and freight rates rise. When supply growth outpaces demand growth, the pendulum swings to the shipper and freight rates fall. Trying to match long-term businesses with short-term fluctuations in freight demand is cyclical.
How is Freight Volume Measured?
For any company, the scope of internal data can be limiting and unfortunately, the cost of gathering broader market analysis can be prohibitive. As a solution, ACT Research gathers information on a confidential basis from a wide variety of TL carriers, especially the small and mid-size TL carriers that haul a major portion of freight in the North American market. The elements of information include:
- business volume trends,
- market price trends, and
- expectations for vehicle sales and purchases.
The ACT For-Hire Trucking Index surveys carriers to help paint a comprehensive picture of trends in transportation and CV markets.
Additionally, ACT Research partners with Cass Information Systems, Inc., the nation’s largest processor of freight billing, to gain insight on current market trends and the state of the shipping sector. ACT uses the Cass Freight Index®, which measures freight volumes and expenditures, and the Truckload Linehaul Index®, a pricing indicator, to forecast freight demand.
What is ACT saying right now about freight volume?
The Volume Index weakened further in April, at 37.6 (SA) versus 44.6 in March. Destocking contributed to the softness, although the 24% y/y decline in container imports in Q1 likely represents the worst of the destocking. A slowing in destocking would be a positive for volumes. Inflation, while showing tentative improvement, continues to gnaw at consumer spending power, with retail sales in real terms down 3.6% y/y in April. The slow start produce season may also be a headwind. As illustrated, a normal trucking freight cycle includes two-plus years of growth followed by about 18 months of retrenchment. The Volume Index has been below 50 for 11 of the past 13 months. While the near-term outlook remains cautious, imports should begin to recover soon. If this cycle is like the last two, demand growth will return in 2024, perhaps even late 2023.
Freight Volume Forecasting
When forecasting the truckload and less-than-truckload markets, ACT Research utilizes three primary metrics to measure industry volumes (demand):
In short, both measure consumer demand that drives the shipping of goods by a carrier. In other words, measurements of the volume of freight hauled.
Cass Freight Index®- Shipments measures the number of freight shipments hauled within North America by Cass Information Systems. Cass processes more than $44 billion in freight transactions annually and is the ideal source for measuring shipper volumes.
ACT Freight Composite Index is a measure of the estimated total freight hauled by sector as developed by ACT Research.
These two demand metrics provide insights into the expected volumes of freight shipped over the next 6-36 months, providing a supply-demand balance when utilized with ACT's capacity (supply) metrics.
To see how freight volume is likely to change in the future, and for detailed analysis and forecasts for truckload, less-than-truckload, and intermodal, see ACT's freight & transportation forecast.