This Week’s Forecast January 27-31, 2020

Diesel fuel price outlook

The rack-to-retail spread has widened to more than $1.10/gallon, creating an unearned windfall for trucking carriers. Diesel markets have been sliding in part on an overall decline in oil since the start of the year, but retail is slow to follow. Diesel itself has fallen farther than crude, primarily on fears the coronavirus will hit the air cargo market outlook. Jet fuel and diesel are both distillates and tend to operate in tandem. The crude oil price future outlook is decidedly bearish, but the diesel fuel price outlook is that it already has fallen so far relative to crude that it is pushing up against the natural limits of how far it can slide.

Intermodal rates and volume

Following a muted intermodal peak season last fall, shippers are in the driver’s seat on contract negotiations. For the time being, the truck market is too weak for intermodal rates to rise much, if at all, but that could change later this year if the much-anticipated capacity-driven tightening of the truck market comes to fruition. Although intermodal’s long time status as a growth area has been called into question, railroads have made it clear that they don’t plan on reducing rates to attract incremental volume. Therefore, our outlook for intermodal volume is flattish even with a healthy consumer. 

Truckload capacity

The most notable aspect of trucking markets into 2020 so far is that outbound tender rejections have stabilized around the 7% mark, a level that will eventually be supportive of higher spot rates. Tender lead times are up 7% y/y and have been on the rise. Maybe shippers also are seeing capacity begin to tighten. 

Used truck prices:

Prices for 5-year-old used Class 8 trucks are at their lowest level since mid-2010, when the freight economy was still struggling to regain its footing after the Great Recession. Going forward, already at bargain basement prices, used truck prices may not go much lower, but it may be several months before there is meaningful strengthening since there is considerable oversupply and smaller fleets’ costs are pressured.