The average retail price of diesel (DTS), the primary fuel for Class 8 trucks, has increased 16% since the end of July — the largest and fastest increase since October of last year. The rapid jump in fuel costs is masking the fact the trucking market is still deteriorating.
Rising diesel prices have propped up truckload spot rates in September, masking their decline toward the end of the quarter. Looking at the average spot rate for dry van loads represented by the National Truckload Index (NTI), rates increased around Labor Day and are looking to finish the month ahead of where they started.
Removing the total estimated cost of fuel from that number (NTIL), spot rates are actually trending lower, which is unusual for the end of the third quarter. This could accelerate the amount of capacity exiting the market, shrinking the timeline companies have to enjoy a historically loose transportation environment.
Demand has been on the rise over the past several months. The total number of tenders, shipper requests for truckload capacity, are up ~15% over April. The rise in demand has had a negligible impact on carrier availability as national rejection rates (OTRI) remain in a deflationary zone below 4%.
Capacity has tightened slightly over this period, but not to the point where there has been significant upward pressure on rates. Typically sustained OTRI values above 6% are required to have a long-term impact on rates.
The takeaway is that there is still not enough freight to support the available capacity and sharply rising fuel prices will only make the environment more challenging for carriers, especially ones who rely on spot market volumes.
It is difficult to pass fuel costs along quickly on the spot market since carriers are bidding against one another on the open market. Many shippers expect last week’s rate to be the baseline. In a loose capacity environment, it is extremely difficult to raise rates, even when your costs are rising.
Contract freight is also exposed to sharply rising fuel costs as retail prices tend to move much slower than the wholesale or rack prices that many larger fleet fuel purchases are based on. The spread (FUELS) between retail (DTS) and rack (ULSDR) has shrunk significantly since June.
The bottom line is that carrier costs have risen quickly in a market that does not allow for price increases. This will exacerbate the existing trend of carrier exits, which was already expected to jump this winter as it seasonally does.
For shippers, it is only one more reason to prepare for a tighter market in 2024. Even if demand does not hold, the rate of capacity’s exodus will eventually catch up.
About the Chart of the Week
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NOVEMBER 7-9, 2023 • CHATTANOOGA, TN • IN-PERSON EVENT
The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.