Finding the Hot Spots

Where's the Action? Right now, you're either shaking your head and saying there's no action at all, or you are too busy answering the phone to even glance at this blog.

It's normal to have regional variations in freight trends -- but this year there are transitions in play, so you may find yourself in a market that is suddenly deader than a doornail. On the upside, some formerly quiet freight backwaters are seeing a burst of activity.

In the past year, the US economy has been shifting from a mostly import-based growth model with heavy freight at the ports, as manufacturing and energy exploration are booming. Industrial production is way up, especially for automobiles, and the shale oil and natural gas industries are taking off. In recent months, housing and construction are starting to lead. The end result is change in freight patterns and cargo types.


I've been looking at load-to-truck ratios on the DAT Load Boards as a sort of barometer for freight availability on the spot market. The load-to-truck ratio tells us how many loads are posted compared to the number of trucks. Load providers post loads as a way of advertising, but trucking companies typically prefer to search for loads without posting trucks, so they can choose which loads they want to pursue. Think of truckers as the pretty girls at a singles bar. They're waiting to see which loads look good before they make a decision.(Okay, maybe that's a bad analogy.)


The load-to-truck ratio may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out to be a reliable indicator of demand and capacity, and it's a great forecasting tool for changing freight rates. There are other influences, including fuel prices, consumer confidence, regulatory changes and the weather, but the load-to-truck ratio is a sensitive gauge in its own way. Statistically speaking, if the load-to-truck ratio increases significantly in a particular market or lane, there is a high likelihood that the spot market rate will rise immediately in that location. If the changes are sustained for about 3 months, and it's not just a seasonal bump, shippers will likely raise the contract rates in that market.

Back to the load-to-truck ratio. Here is my scale for van freight:

If the load-to-truck ratio for vans is freight availability isExample (Jan. 31, 2013)Ratio
below 0.5practically nilChicago, IL 0.4
between 0.6 and 1.5very limitedDallas, TX 0.9
between 1.6 and 2.5moderate, but rates may be lowElizabeth, NJ 2.5
above 2.5robust, and rates are pretty goodMemphis, TN 3.7
more than double the national average terrific, brokers will pay top dollar Cape Girardeau, MO 7.1

Here is the map view:

This Hot Market Map for January 31 shows load-to-truck ratios are low (light orange) for vans on most of the West Coast, with pockets of high demand (brown) scattered through the inland areas and river ports noted in the regional analysis below. Hot Market Maps are a feature of DAT Power Load Boards and DAT RateView (formerly Truckload Rate Index.)

DOWN BY THE RIVER, FREIGHT IS TRENDING UP: As of January 31st, the hot spots are river ports that are also sourcing points for the industrial freight that is needed to increase manufacturing and oil production: Rock Island – 7.2, Quincy – 7.9, Cape Girardeau – 7.1, Memphis – 3.7, and Decatur, AL – 10.0. Because they are river ports, the low water levels, post-drought, may have an impact due to a shift in tonnage from barges to trucks. Freight is also doing fairly well at East Coast sea ports in Virginia, as both Richmond and Norfolk show a load-to-truck ratio of 3.5 and northern NJ is at 2.5.

SLOW IN THE GULF:The southern region is mixed. Along the Gulf of Mexico, things are looking pretty soft: Houston has 1.7 loads available per truck, New Orleans – 0.8, Mobile – 1.4, and along the Atlantic, Miami – 0.5, Jacksonville – 1.3.

AVOID MAJOR METROS AND WEST COAST: Major cities are also a bit slow: Atlanta – 1.5, Chicago - 0.4 (as cold as its weather), and Dallas – 0.9. Nationwide, van rates are low because these high-volume markets are pulling the averages down. Finally, there is the West Coast. Things look very slow there right now: Los Angeles – 0.4, Fresno – 0.3, Seattle – 0.6, and Stockton – 0.1. Ouch.

IF YOU MUST GO WEST, CONSIDER TUCSON: The interior, inland states look the strongest right now. Many of these same "cold spots" are likely to persist through the month of February but you should start seeing the major cities coming back in March. California will need produce to start flowing before rates pick up for vans and reefers,, but if you need to head West, keep Tucson in mind. Increasing amounts of fruits and vegetables are flowing in from Mexico to Arizona. These go into warehouses for inspection and then are trans-shipped across the U.S. Also, The Rio Grande valley in South Texas has been robust and has been a good source of long-haul freight.


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DAT operates the largest truckload freight marketplace in North America. Transportation brokers, carriers, news organizations and industry analysts rely on DAT for market trends and data insights derived from 256 million freight matches and a database of 65 billion of market transactions.

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