ATA’s truck tonnage index falls 1% in May, 9.6% below May 2019

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Red tractor on highway
American Trucking Associations' For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index showed a 1% drop in May following a 10.3% decrease in April.

Arlington, Va. — American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) advanced seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index contracted 1% in May after falling 10.3% in April. In May, the index equaled 106.1 (2015=100) compared with 107.2 in April.

“While tonnage fell in May, even though other economic indicators like retail sales and housing starts rose, I’m not overly concerned,” said Bob Costello, chief economist for ATA.

“First, while down over 10% sequentially in April, truck tonnage did not fall as much as other economic indicators that month,” he said. “This means that any rebound is tougher since tonnage didn’t fall substantially to begin with. Second, there are indications that freight continues to improve as more and more states and localities lift lockdown restrictions.”

ATA graphCompared to May 2019, the seasonally adjusted index contracted 9.6%, the largest year-over-year decline since 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession, although the index is not falling quite as much as during that economic downturn. For example, in April 2009, the index was off 14% from a year earlier. The latest drop was preceded by a 9.4% year-over-year drop in April. Year to date, compared with the same period in 2019, tonnage is down 2.6%.

“While the overall economy will likely take more than a year to recover, assuming the pandemic doesn’t spike again, the trucking industry could recover back to pre-COVID levels before many other industries because it hasn’t fallen as much,” Costello said. “As retail sales improve and housing starts recover, that will help trucking. The risk for trucking is that the virus surges again and places start to shut back down again.”

The not-seasonally adjusted index, which represents the change in tonnage actually hauled by fleets before any seasonal adjustment, equaled 109.8 in May, 2.8% above the April level (106.9). In calculating the index, 100 represents 2015. ATA’s For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index is dominated by contract freight as opposed to spot-market freight.

Trucking serves as a barometer of the U.S. economy, representing 71.4% of tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods. Trucks hauled 11.49 billion tons of freight in 2018. Motor carriers collected $796.7 billion, or 80.3% of total revenue earned by all transport modes.

ATA calculates the tonnage index based on surveys from its membership. The figures noted above are preliminary and are subject to change in the final report, which will be issued around July 5. The report includes month-to-month and year-over-year results, relevant economic comparisons and key financial indicators.

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