BMO predicts tighter capacity, higher rates to come

TORONTO, Ont. – Analysts with BMO Transportation Finance expect shippers to hold the power over trucking rates through the middle of this year, but predict that dropping carrier capacity could see rates push upward into 2021.

The talk of rising rates offers one of the few glimmers of hope for a Canadian trucking industry hammered by a coronavirus-related economic downturn and struggles that began to emerge before the virus took hold.

“A spike in spot rates during the first few weeks of March provides evidence of progress toward removing excess trucking industry capacity,” explains the 2020 BMO Transportation Finance update. “There is a plausible scenario that improving freight trends in the second half of the year and into 2021, coupled with ongoing reductions in carrier capacity, could lead to an upward trending rate environment that rivals the 2017-18 upcycle.”

At the moment, conditions are bleak.

Freight volumes are down, but could that lead to lower trucking capacity and higher rates? (Photo: iStock)

Freight losses within the weakest sectors of the Canadian economy now outpace any gains in stronger sectors.

The total cost of over-the-road freight transportation hit a near-term peak in February, thanks to factors like rotating rail blockades, and overall truckload spot freight volumes in the first quarter of 2020 were up 25% over those in the final quarter of 2019. But downturns in fuel surcharges and lower utilization followed. Base rates are expected to fall further as the year progresses.

“Despite the strong start, freight volumes are expected to subside significantly during the current quarter as demand for consumer staples normalizes and the full brunt of freight-heavy industry shutdowns (oil, manufacturing, construction) take hold,” BMO says.

Still, the analysts expect re-opening businesses, coupled with fiscal and monetary policy support, will drive most freight categories higher in the third quarter of the year and beyond.

“The impact of Covid-19 will no doubt accelerate the industry rebalancing process,” BMO adds, noting that available truck capacity will continue to drop in the face of factors like mandated electronic logging devices (ELDs), and equipment cannibalized for spare parts.

Not every sector is being hit equally by the current economic downturn, either. Those that haul medical supplies, groceries and consumer staples are on the downside of an initial peak but remain robust, BMO says. In contrast, industrial manufacturing, construction, and auto sectors have been hit particularly hard.

“The protein processing supply chain is an addition recent concern,” the analysts observe, in a nod to closures by meat processing plants.

Plunging crude values have had their own negative effect on those who haul steel or fracking sand, or remove waste.

Retail diesel prices – averaging 89 cents per liter in early May — have fallen to a level not seen since a collapse in early 2016. That’s down 31% from an early January peak, and the price is expected to remain near current low levels until the economy begins to re-open.

Just take care not to celebrate those prices in mixed company.

“The negative implications of demand destruction in energy far outweigh the benefits of lower diesel prices for carriers,” BMO says.

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media’s trucking and supply chain publications — including Today’s Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Canadian Shipper, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.