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Commentary: Really bad logistics predictions for 2021

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

If 2020 has proved anything, it is that everyone is really bad at predicting things. Who could have guessed what was ahead when we set out last January, bright-eyed and optimistic about our resolutions and the continuation of trends we’d seen develop over the previous year? These past 12 months have taught us that the only thing for certain is uncertainty.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but I’d like to put some truly awful logistics predictions out there into the universe again for this year. When meteorologists make predictions using a percentage for the forecast weather, it annoys me; I prefer something more concrete and so have tried to be as specific as possible. With that said, I believe 2021 is going to be a strong year for the transportation industry.

Truckload

In the first half (H1) of 2021, truckload volumes and prices will continue to go up as they have in the second half (H2) of 2020.

We have seen record demand for truckload shipping in H2 2020 and it’s unlikely that the faucet will get shut off immediately. Beginning this summer, we saw pricing elevate strongly; next year it’ll flatten out, a stark difference from this year. I think we’ll see the peak for domestic truckload pricing happen in H1 2021.

Semi-truck orders have also gone up in H2 2020, but it can take three to nine months for these new trucks to get on the road. That’ll help handle some of the increased volume, but then it’s likely that pricing will drop off in H2 2021 as capacity increases.

My predictions:

?   Class 8 truck orders will peak at 45,000 in a month.

?   Peak monthly van rate per mile will be $2.56.

?   Cass Freight index will have a peak of 1.278.

Intermodal

Trucking and intermodal are very connected: When truck demand increases dramatically as it has, shippers tend to transport more on rail and vice versa. Truckload and intermodal act as an overflow for one another, though not in an exact relationship. Intermodal has much smoother ups and downs, while trucking spikes are much quicker. This is due in large part to the multiyear contracts and volume commitments in intermodal, whereas trucks are a mix of contracts and spot pricing.

In the past 20 years, we have not seen such tight Intermodal capacity as we have in  H2 2020, and finding excess capacity has been very difficult since late summer. If truck pricing levels off, that will level off the demand for intermodal. Investments in equipment now will drive more overall volume and reduce prices in H2 2021.

My predictions:

?   CASS IMDL Cost Index will have a peak of 148.6.

?   IANA monthly volume shipments will peak at 1.84 million.

Ocean

The Port of Long Beach is the largest port in the U.S., so it gives us a feel of the global market. It broke 800,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in October 2020, which was 17% higher than in 2019. I expect the Port of Long Beach will break a new record in Q1 2021 and move over 900,000 TEUs in a single month. Many of these orders are already in the system, and steamships are already reporting they’re going to have a crazy Q1. 

Ocean is not too dissimilar from other transportation sectors in that we’ve seen a crazy H2 2020. We’ll see both volume and pricing increases, but not to the extent we have in 2020.

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A)

No strong calls here as far as which companies will merge, but this will undoubtedly be an active segment.

Truckload

We will see mergers between the carriers that rank between 25-100 on the Transport Topics Top 100 For-Hire Carriers, in an effort to better compete with some of the carriers in the top 1-25. 

Brokerage

In Q4 2020 we have seen a lot of private equity and venture capital (PE/VC) investment in “digital” freight brokers such as Flock Freight, Loadsmart, Convoy and Uber Freight.

Tech has evolved a lot and there’s a belief by the PE/VC people that this is a place to invest now. The influx of PE/VC cash will keep margins depressed in the brokerage space until the market determines winners and losers, which won’t happen until 2022-2023. The need to make a profit won’t be there while the PE/VC funding is in place, after which we’ll see margins and profit level out.

I believe we will see increased activity in 2021 with M&A activity in the top 100 carriers and 3PL brokers.

Fuel

The Department of Energy (DOE) produces a weekly national average for a gallon of diesel. The national average will finish 2020 around $2.50 a gallon, and I expect that we will see this increase and finish 2021 at $2.84 a gallon.

In 2020, we saw fuel prices drop at the onset of the pandemic due to a decrease in personal transportation. However, prices and gas usage aren’t necessarily connected; you don’t inevitably drive more when gas is cheap. Refineries try to keep in alignment with demand, which causes a breakdown in the supply chain.

Demand for trucking and transport does have an impact on this price, but so do OPEC considerations, U.S. refinery capacity, demand for oil for other sources, etc. I’m not predicting any wild swings in fuel prices in 2021.

Autonomous-driven trucks

We will continue to see increased VC/PE investment here but no clear path to when we will see these trucks outside of closed systems. Our public roads need technology to help tell autonomous vehicles what to do, and that will require serious investment in a broad infrastructure plan, bigger than a few municipalities. How likely is it that the Department of Transportation approves an 80,000-pound unmanned truck driving on the same roads as your family?

Unfortunately, updating infrastructure is quite expensive. Since I am predicting things, I predict we will not see an infrastructure bill for self-driving trucks pass through Congress next year.

Baseball

I’m a long-suffering Braves fan and I am thinking 2021 will be our year to add a second World Series title since moving to Atlanta 55 years ago. 

full release on freightwaves.com