Q2 2022 Truckload Market Forecast: Spot & Contract Freight Rate Trends

In our last U.S. truckload market update, the Coyote Curve® spot rate index was heading back toward year-over-year deflation.

While we’re seeing an improvement in carrier capacity and a general easing in supply chain issues, both volatility and rates remain elevated.

Does that mean a reversal in the forecast? Has all the supply chain disruption broken the truckload market cycle?

Get answers to those questions (and more) with these resources.

  • Read on to learn everything you need to know about the Q2 truckload market.
  • Download the forecast slides to use in your next presentation.
  • Watch our full Q2 freight market forecast panel (below).
     

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Q2 Truckload Market Guide — What You'll Learn

New to the Coyote Curve spot rate index?

The Coyote Curve is our proprietary spot rate index built with data from over 10,000 daily shipments.

To make the best use of the forecast, it's helpful to know how the trucking industry works.

Check out our guide, Understanding the U.S. Truckload Market, to build a foundation then read Explaining the Coyote Curve to learn how we build the index.

 

2021 in Review: Another Wild Year in the Truckload Market

For as wild as the 2020 truckload market was, with Q4’s Peak Season now in the books, we can safely say that 2021 wasn’t much of an improvement in terms of stability.

After a slight blip downwards in Q1, unprecedented volatility drove the truckload market cycle to a record peak in Q2, followed by two consecutive quarters of a downward trend (a lot of it driven by Y/Y comparisons).

Q4 2021 finished up with at 14% inflationary Y/Y, but down from 25% in Q3. Contract rates (we use the Cass Truckload Linehaul index as a proxy) also continued their downward trajectory, dropping from 12% in Q3 to 9.9%.
 

Q4 2021 Truckload Market Rates, Coyote Curve Index Final

Download these charts as high resolution slides for your next presentation.
 

Q4 Truckload Spot Rates Continued Their Downward Trend
(But Still Inflationary)
  • TL spot rates at end of Q4: 14.0% Y/Y
  • Record peak in Q2 was 68.1% Y/Y
  • Downward slope throughout Q4 was less steep than initially projected due to ongoing supply volatility
     
Q4 Truckload Contract Rates Have Peaked
(But Still Inflationary)
  • Q4 2021 contract rate performance: 9.9% Y/Y
  • Q2 2021 contract rate peak: 12.9% Y/Y
  • Downward trend is in line with past behavior (typically lags spot rate index)
     

Q4 Takeaway: Both the spot and contract rate indexes have peaked. However, we’re still in an inflationary rate environment.

Don’t expect your actual spend in Q1 to dramatically decrease just yet.

 

Q1 2022 Truckload Market to Date: New Year, New Trajectory?

Like so many things over the past couple years, we’re not out of the woods just yet. After a second half showing signs of softening, several lagging supply chain issues are propping up our truckload market index.

We dive into a few of those factors later, but the two main culprits are Omicron-driven labor force volatility and weather events.

As of late February 2022, we’ve seen the Coyote Curve index head upwards — it’s currently sitting at 20.2%, above the Q4 final of 14%.

The initial read for Q1 Cass index (data is only through January) is 6.4%, down from a 9.9% close to Q4.
 

q1 2021 Spot and contract truckload rates to date, coyote curve indext

Download these charts as high resolution slides for your next presentation.
 

Is It Time to Panic?

The short answer: No.

There are still several more weeks in the quarter, and we anticipate that it will bring the index back down when all is said and done.

Furthermore, a quarter with a kink in the line is something we’ve seen many times before over the past 15 years (as recently as last year). It’s important to remember these are longer-term, multi-quarter cycles.

We anticipate that (if the quarter finishes higher than the Q4 final of 14%), it will be a blip on the radar, not the start of never-ending rate inflation.

Speaking of inflation, let’s take a look at some of the core macroeconomic indicators we track to better gauge supply and demand in the truckload market.

 

Demand: Key Economic Indicators Driving the Truckload Market

While most of our demand-side economic indicators have leveled off following their rapid growth in 2021, they are still performing highly enough to strain the existing carrier capacity in the truckload market.
 

macroeconomic indicators driving the truckload market in q1 2022

Download these charts as high resolution slides for your next presentation.
 

Consumer Spending

With Peak Season behind us, consumer spending has fallen from the dizzying heights it reached in 2021 — the Q2 2021 peak of 16.2% was mainly driven by Y/Y comparisons to the onset of the pandemic.

Sequentially, consumer spending has ticked upward throughout all of 2021, and ended Q4 at +7.1% Y/Y.

The consistent growth still represents a healthy recovery. If consumer spending remains strong, it should continue to drive high demand in the truckload market.
 

Industrial Production

Industrial production has declined further, finishing Q4 at 4.5%, coming down from a Q2 2021 peak of 14.6%. Similar to consumer spending, this was mainly driven by Y/Y comparisons, and industrial production showed sequential improvement every quarter in 2021.

However, the ongoing microchip shortage, materials stuck in transit and a workforce hampered by the Omicron variant have all stalled growth as well.
 

Imports

Of all the demand-side indicators we track, imports have fallen the most. This is partially due to the ongoing West Coast port backlog that has forced shippers to delay orders or look for alternative sources for goods and materials.

It is mostly due to, like industrial production and consumer spending, to crazy Y/Y comparisons. Import did move up sequentially throughout 2021.
 

Inventory-to-Sales 

Inventory-to-sales ratio continues to hold steady near a historic low it hit in 2021 of 1.25.

This means sales are still outpacing inventory replenishment as retailers continue to struggle to stock their shelves amid the port backlog and other supply chain disruptions. This still points to continued restocking in 2022.
 

Inflation

The big unknown that could have an impact to all these indicators is inflation.

With interest rates going up, there will be less borrowing and, with less purchasing power, a dip in consumer spending.

So far, we haven’t seen that affect demand for truckload freight, but a dramatic dip in consumer spending could do so in the quarters to come.

 

Economy Takeaway: While they have all fallen from their 2021 peaks, consumer spending, industrial production and imports remain strong, which is keeping the inventory-to-sales ratio low for retailers struggling to keep up.

Inflation may be an issue in the quarters to come, but we have not yet seen it impact the truckload market. 

 

6 Factors Contributing to a Chaotic Truckload Market

While the market is far more stable than it was throughout the more volatile parts of 2020 and 2021, rate stabilization seems to keep moving further into the future.

What is driving that? A lot of the same factors that were driving volatility in Q4.

Most of these are well-documented, front-page news stories, but let’s quickly summarize a few of the factors that are causing the chaos.
 

1. Long Class 8 Truck Backlog (Microchip Shortage)

Class 8 tractor orders, despite coming in stronger in December than November, have finally dropped to Y/Y deflation, down almost 50%.

That is down 27% sequentially from Q3 2021 and the first negative Y/Y reading since Q2 2020.

In Q1 2021, many trucking companies were on an epic supply binge, but that doesn’t mean all those trucks carriers ordered last year are on the road. Ordering a truck is one thing — building it is another.
 

class 8 truckload orders vs. coyote curve spot rate index in q1 2022

Download these charts as high resolution slides for your next presentation.
 

The ongoing microchip shortage continues to extend the lag time for North American Class 8 truck orders.

While it’s improved over the last several months, the typical time order backlog-to-build of six to eight months has ballooned over the last year.

The timeline for order fulfillment is now around 10-13 months. As semiconductor and other raw material shortages persist, it will be quite some time before the rubber literally meets the road.
 

2. Commercial Truck Driver Shortage

The truck is only half the equation — getting a driver in the seat remains just as challenging as the equipment.

While hiring is trending up for commercial truck drivers, demand looks to continue to outpace supply throughout Q1.

Carriers continue to struggle to hire heavy-duty tractor-trailer drivers, needing an average of nine job postings to hire a single driver.

The industry is facing competition for a dwindling labor supply from other blue-collar jobs with less demanding travel schedules (construction, warehousing).

Carriers are also struggle to replace an aging workforce with younger drivers; only 20% of the current workforce is under 45.

And it's showing up in our own data; since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, we've seen total posted trucks in our system decrease by 40%. 

A few potential headwinds to the driver supply:

  • The FMCSA Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, which could disqualify more candidates.
  • Potential COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which drivers may opt out of and choose to quit or retire.

Related: Take a deep dive with our original driver shortage research study.
 

3. Rising Fuel Costs

Diesel fuel, which represents around 30% of a carrier’s overall cost, can have a huge impact on profitability if it rises or falls faster than rates.

At the end of Q4 2021, fuel rates were up a formidable ~50% Y/Y. That number has declined a bit since Peak Season ended — it’s currently sitting at ~30% Y/Y midway through Q1 2022 — but it is still high enough to cause issues.

If fuel continues to remain elevated in cost (perhaps driven by inflation across the U.S. economy), it could push the inflection point for a deflationary truckload market farther into the future and elevate the floor that rates can eventually fall to.
 

4. Port Congestion

Perhaps the most widely publicized supply chain disruption, the heavy congestion outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has been an ongoing issue for the last year.

While there has been relief from peak congestion in July of 2021, several analysts think it will be until later in 2022 before the situation normalizes.
 

5. Winter Weather

Numerous severe storms and cold snaps throughout January and February caused pockets of disruption in the truckload market.

The effect is similar to hurricane season. In a softer market, the impact is less, but when many supply chains are stretched to the breaking point, regional shutdowns can have a lasting ripple effect.
 

6. Vaccine Mandates

While the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate for large employers (which would impact some of the larger carrier fleets in the country), vaccine mandates are still disrupting supply.

In particular, vaccine mandates for cross-border drivers were enacted both by the U.S. and Canada in January 2021. This means that unvaccinated drivers can no longer transport cross-border freight from Mexico or Canada into the U.S. or from the U.S. into Canada.

As it currently stands, these rules look to impact roughly 16,000 Canadian and 14,000 American drivers.

Even though the immediate impact is on cross-border freight, it will have a ripple effect across the truckload market as other drivers are repositioned to accommodate the disruption.

 

Volatility Takeaway: The story hasn’t changed much since Q4.

Demand remains strong, but carrier supply is struggling to keep up, taking longer than in previous cycles.

Equipment (semiconductors, trucks, chassis), people (labor shortages) and seasonal factors (winter storms) are combining to create a challenging shipping environment.

With no immediate solution coming in Q2, continue to expect volatility and prioritize flexibility.

 

Q2 2022 Truckload Market Forecast: A Bump in the Road

At first glance, the truckload market cycle graph you see here probably looks a bit surprising.

While the quarter to date line is trending up, as mentioned earlier, we believe that by quarter’s end we’ll see it come back down.

If it does finish the quarter inflationary, we still believe it is a temporary kink in the line, not a permanent shift upward — we’ve been here before, many times.

We still predict that, especially considering comparisons from last year, the index will likely enter Y/Y deflation by later this year.
 

Coyote Curve Q2 2022 truckload market forecast

Download these charts as high resolution slides for your next presentation.
 

An important point to keep in mind: This index measures Y/Y comparisons, not sequential. So a dramatic dip (or rise) in the index may not feel dramatic compared to the previous quarter, but compared to Q2 of last year, shippers should start to feel some relief.

Contract rate inflation is also tracking down slowly, in line with past cycles, and will likely enter Y/Y deflation by the second half of 2022 as well.

In this environment, we’re seeing shippers either shorten their bid terms as low as a quarter, re-upping with trusted carriers rather than running a new procurement event and/or tracking performance extremely closely and weeding carriers out of their networks who aren’t hitting their KPI targets at an acceptable level.

 

Forecast Takeaway: We still project that a deflationary spot and contract rate environment will come later in 2022, but it will likely be delayed and diminished, with supply chain-wide volatility putting a floor on deflation.

 

Get the Best Rates You Can in Any Market

No business — no matter how big — has control over the truckload market.

Though you may not be able to guarantee capacity and stable rates, there are some things you can do.

If you follow some basic best practices, you can set your supply chain up for success, whether you’re getting a one-off spot quote or preparing for an annual RFP. 

Check out a curated collection of all Coyote's best freight pricing resources to help you stay agile and prepared throughout 2022.

Show Me The Freight Pricing Resource Library

 

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