(NewsNation) —A waning demand for trucking services could be the early warning sign of a recession, data analysts and experts say.
A recent Bank of America survey found that truckload demand has fallen 58% to near-freight-recession level. Consumer spending habits are contributing to the decline, too. As pandemic restrictions eased, buyers scaled back their online shopping habits and spent more money on services rather than goods, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Industry veterans such as Joe Rajkovacz, the director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association, now are warning that low trucking demand could indicate an oncoming recession.
“When trucking demand falls, it means the economy’s slowing down,” Rajkovacz said.
The transportation data company Freightwaves warned last month of a possible sharp downturn for the trucking industry in particular.
That could be due to a “major consumer slowdown” brought on by inflation and climbing oil prices, Freightwaves CEO Craig Fuller reported in March.
The result is weakened demand, delays in rail, rising truck capacity and softening truck rates, the Bank of America survey found.
There are two types of trucking markets. The first is a contract market, where the largest motor carriers enter long-term contracts with shippers and receivers, Rajkovacz said. The other is a more demand-dependent spot market that relies on intermediaries and brokers.
“It is really the wild, wild west,” Rajkovacz said. “It’s see what you can get moved at what price.”
The spot market largely favored the truckers during the pandemic, but that’s changing now.
According to Rajkovacz, what’s often reported as a trucker shortage is actually churn — drivers leaving their job with one company and going to another. The real issue facing truckers, he said, is a dwindling demand that’s been exacerbated by China’s recent COVID-19 lockdowns.
The pendulum could start to swing in the other direction when the summer produce market takes off in about a month, but the impact of events overseas can be hard to predict, Rajkovacz said.
“Is trucking saying there’s storm clouds on the horizon? Absolutely it is. But would it change if those storm clouds blow away? A lot really depends on when China reopens,” he said.
Trucking isn’t the only industry used to gauge economic growth or lack thereof. Other unexpected indicators include the length of women’s skirts and dresses, the sale of men’s underwear and the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics considers the Transportation Services Index a leading indicator of economic cycles. When compared to economic growth cycles in the economy, the freight measure led by an average of about four months, the bureau found.