The American Trucking Assns.’ (ATA)  advanced seasonally adjusted (SA) For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index climbed 2.9% in January--  after rising 2.4% in December—to mark January’s performance as the highest on record.

“Tonnage has surged at least 2.4% every month since November, gaining a total of 9.1% over that period,” stated ATA. “As a result, the SA index equaled 125.2 [2000=100] in January vs. 121.7 in December. Compared with January 2012, the SA index was up a robust 6.5%, the best year-over-year result since December 2011.”

ATA pointed out that it recently revised the seasonally adjusted index back five years as part of its annual revision. For all of 2012, tonnage was up 2.3%, the same as reported prior to the revision. In 2011, the index was up 5.8%.  The not seasonally adjusted index, which represents the change in tonnage actually hauled by fleets before any seasonal adjustment, equaled 122.4 in January, which was 10.7% above the previous month.

“The trucking industry started 2013 with a bang, reflected in the best January tonnage report in five years,” ATA chief economist Bob Costello remarked. “While I believe that the overall economy will be sluggish in the first quarter, trucking likely benefited in January from an inventory destocking that transpired late last year, thus boosting volumes more than normal early this year as businesses replenished those lean inventories.” 

 “January's solid tonnage reading--  in addition to our ‘diesel tracker’ and the ISM Inventories index-- is another data point that suggests restocking might have begun, at least modestly,” observed analyst Peter Nesvold of Jefferies & Co. in a statement. “Meanwhile, our channel checks generally indicate that loads, which were markedly better in January, were up mid-single-digits year-over-year  n early February.

“We kicked off January with a call that 2013 was setting up to be the ‘Year of Transports,’” he continued.  “The group [of transport stocks] is coming off near-decade lows relative to the S&P 500. Our call has been that 2012's underperformance was a function of industrial and retail destocking, a headwind that we believe is poised to reverse.

“We think this rally still has legs,” Nesvold stressed. “Historically, when the [transport] group has started to rally off these unusual lows, there was roughly a 35 percentage point swing in the relative performance. With only three points of that in the rear view mirror, we believe it’s full speed ahead!”

“No doubt part of January’s truck tonnage rise was due to replenishing of inventories,” Jonathan Starks, director of transportation analysis for FTR Associates, told FleetOwner. “But both ATA’s and our numbers show string freight growth since November. The recovery from Hurricane Sandy skewed the numbers in the short term, but there was enough going on across the board to see freight pick up later in the year.”

Starks pointed out that beyond what is covered in “traditional commentary” on truckload freight, the numbers for lumber, wood, stone, earth and such were all up, in part due to Hurricane Sandy but also to the general uptick in the housing sector.

“We’ve been seeing a relatively broad-based gain in tonnage over the last few months,” he stated. “And we are pretty positive on freight as we move through 2013—and a bit more bullish on it once we’re past the federal sequestration spending issue.”

Starks added that the implementation of new Hours of Service rules—slated for July—will “tighten capacity as we move towards the end of 2013.”

ATA calculates its tonnage index based on surveys from its membership and has been doing so since the 1970s. The January score is is a preliminary figure and subject to change in the final report, which is issued around the 10th day of the month. That report includes month-to-month and year-over-year results, relevant economic comparisons, and key financial indicators.

Trucking serves as a “barometer of the U.S. economy,” according to ATA, as it handles 67% of the tonnage carried by all modes of domestic freight transportation, including manufactured and retail goods.

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