ATA’s Truck Tonnage Index Rises 3.5% Over September 2018

Trucks on highway
John Sommers II for Transport Topics

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Truck tonnage rose 3.5% in September compared with year-ago levels, and inched up on a sequential basis over August 2019, according to American Trucking Associations’ For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index.

In September, the index equaled 117.6. It was 117.3 in August. (In calculating the index, 100 represents the year 2015.)

“This was the first month in 2019 that we did not see a significant increase or decrease in tonnage,” said Bob Costello, chief economist at ATA, referring to the sequential increase of 0.2% over August.


On a quarterly basis the results rose too, Costello said.

“For the entire third quarter, the index was up 1.2% over the previous quarter and 4.5% from a year earlier, both are nice gains,” he said.

Further, the index is up 4.1% year-to-date compared with the same period last year.

The monthly tonnage report is dominated by contract freight, which ATA said is performing significantly better than spot market freight this year.

Trucking serves as a barometer of the U.S. economy, representing 70.2% of tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods.

ATA calculates the tonnage index based on surveys from its membership.

Meanwhile, the September Cass Freight Index fell 3.4% and has now been negative for 10 months in a row, and the authors of the report issued a warning for the overall state of the economy.

“We see a growing risk that GDP will go negative by year’s end,” the report said. “The shipments index has gone from warning of a potential slowdown to signaling an economic contraction.”

It added, “We acknowledge that all of these negative percentages are against extremely tough comparisons, and the Cass Shipments Index has gone negative before without being followed by a negative GDP. However, weakness in demand is being seen across most modes of transportation, both domestically and internationally, with many experiencing increases in the rates of decline.”

Cass is a division of St. Louis-based Cass Information Systems, which manages freight audit and payment for transportation companies.

Economist Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta, told Transport Topics the manufacturing sector is already in a recession and the risk of a bigger downturn is looming.

“Compared to three months ago, the chances that we can have a downturn, six, eight, 12 months from now are much higher today than they were three months ago,” he said. “There are too many shocks to the economy, from minor to major coming in, one after the other. The economy can usually weather them when they come in one or two, even three at a time. When they all pile up at the same time, it becomes fragile, and it becomes negative.”

As examples, Dhawan cited the manufacturing slowdown, the impeachment inquiry, the increased tensions in the Middle East and the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

Also, Beaverton, Ore.-based DAT — which uses three indexes to measure freight volume, monitoring levels for vans, flatbeds and refrigerated trailers — said its September van index rose 15.3% year-over-year to 188 from 163 a year ago.

The reefer index climbed 9.7% to 146 from 133.

The flatbed index also jumped 13.5% to 201 compared with 177 the year before. (The index baseline of 100 equals the number of loads moved in January 2015, as recorded in DAT RateView, a database of rates paid on an average of 3 million loads per month.)

DAT said fall harvests and retail shipments spurred by Halloween kept truck demand high, and the end of the third quarter led to a spike in activity.

“Truckload volume has been strong all year long, but pricing hasn’t always kept pace,” explained Peggy Dorf, analyst at DAT. “That’s because truckload rates are tied more closely to capacity than volume, and last month a number of events limited truck availability in key markets for shippers and freight brokers.”

Hurricane Dorian disrupted supply chains, with the spot market kicking into action for the resupply efforts.

DAT Solutions operates North America’s largest load board marketplace and has a database of $65 billion in trucking rates.

Trucks hauled 10.77 billion tons of freight in 2017. Motor carriers collected $700.1 billion, or 79.3% of total revenue earned by all transport modes.

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