Tonnage Dips 4.1% in September

Annual Decline Is Steepest Since November 2020
trucks on highway
Trucks on a Tennessee highway. Truck tonnage slumped 4.1% in September compared with year-ago levels. (WendellandCarolyn/Getty Images)

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Truck tonnage slumped 4.1% in September compared with year-ago levels, the steepest annual drop in nearly three years and an indication that the U.S. freight market remains turbulent, American Trucking Associations said Oct. 24.

“The year-over-year decrease was the largest drop since November 2020 on a very difficult comparison — September 2022 was the previous cycle high,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in the Oct. 24 release of the federation’s For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index. “While it is likely a bottom has been hit in truck freight tonnage, there could still be choppy waters ahead as the freight market remains volatile.”

The index equaled 113.9 last month, compared with 118.8 in September 2022. The result was the seventh consecutive annual drop for the seasonally adjusted index and the widest of the year. In August, the index was down 2.4% from a year earlier.

On a month-to-month basis, tonnage decreased 1.1% from August to September after inching up 0.2% from July to August. Costello noted the monthly shifts show the volatility of the current freight market.

Bob Costello


“After hitting a bottom in April, tonnage had increased in three of the previous four months, gaining a total of 2.2% before September’s drop,” he said.

“However, this freight market remains in flux,” he added, noting that the September sequential drop erased half of the previous months’ gains.

The ATA index is dominated by contract freight as opposed to spot market freight. In calculating the index, 100 represents 2015.

Separately, another monthly snapshot of the freight industry’s health also recorded an annual decline for September, but saw a moderate gain compared with August.

The Logistics Managers' Index slid 14.7% to 52.4 from 61.4 a year ago, but increased 1.2% from August’s 51.2 reading. One of the index’s authors, Arizona State University business professor Dale Rogers, said the month-over-month increase is a sign that the U.S. economy continues to show resilience and growth, even as rising interest rates have slowed the economy and cut the pace of inflation.

“The U.S. is still in better shape than many other places around the world,” Rogers said, noting that China, for example, continues to struggle with consumer sentiment and a crash in their exports and construction industries.



In the U.S., meanwhile, he said consumer spending remained strong through the summer. “While this provides a hope that holiday spending will increase the movement of goods, there are a few potential obstacles on the horizon in the form of the resumption of student loan payments, the UAW strike and a potential U.S. government shutdown,” he said.

The potential for a government shutdown — which looms in mid-November — could be especially problematic for consumer spending as it would coincide with the run-up to the historically busy Black Friday and Cyber Monday holiday shopping days, Rogers noted.

The LMI combines inventory levels and costs, warehousing capacity, utilization, prices and transportation capacity. A reading above 50 indicates that logistics is expanding; a reading below 50 indicates a shrinking logistics industry. The LMI is produced by business and logistics professors at universities including Arizona State University, Colorado State University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rutgers University and the University of Nevada-Reno, in conjunction with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

Against the backdrop of a still-unsettled freight market, economist Paul Bingham believes the overall economy still has a 30% probability of recession in 2024. The Director of Global Intelligence and Transportation at S&P Global, Bingham believes trucking remains in a freight recession in the wake of consumer spending shifting abruptly from mostly goods to a balance of goods and services, causing freight to decline.

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“For those that have been going through a freight recession, I am afraid I don’t have very good news,” he said. “We’re facing a further downturn in the economy than we had earlier this year. Consumer spending has been strong this year and the labor market has been strong as well, but there is a lag when it comes to the recent interest rate hikes. It’s impacting the economy with higher mortgage rates, car loans and credit cards, and that’s slowing the economy.”

Bingham believes an overall slowing of the economy will continue to impact freight well into 2024.

“For those in the freight industry, that means slower demand in those sectors of the economy, such as slower housing starts and less goods being put into inventory, and consumer spending will slow.”