Freight volumes rebounded in November following a sluggish October, largely on the strength of “Black Friday and “Cyber Monday” retail sales along with goods being shipped into the Northeast to help repair the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Longer term, analysts noted that the strike engulfing the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could damped freight demand, yet that the continuing shortage of drivers which might reduce truck capacity could help carriers gain and maintain freight rate increases in the early part of 2013.

After a sluggish start to the 2012 ‘peak season,’ demand has firmed up in November [with] many public carriers noting overbooked conditions – loads exceeding available supply,” said Benjamin J. Hartford,one of Robert W. Baird & Co.’stransportation analysts, in the firm’s monthly Freight Flows research brief.

“The disruptions from ‘super storm’ Sandy contributed in part to the improvement in demand, but we believe the driver of November’s solid trends was seasonal freight demand,” he stressed. “Spot truckload rates generally remain lower than prior-year levels, but the gap between 2011 rates has narrowed in recent weeks from late third quarter levels.”

Hartford said many of the freight industry contacts polled by Baird remain “cautiously optimistic” that this seasonal improvement in demand can continue into mid-December, but added that the growing L.A./Long Beach port strike has the potential to impact freight volumes in coming weeks if the labor dispute continues. “However, disruptions to-date appear to be minimal,” he stressed.

John Larkin, managing director for Stifel Nicolaus’ transportation & logistics research group, also noted in a recent market update that regulatory and driver market “headwinds” could effectively reduce trucking capacity in 2013, leading to significant upside to current rate increases provided the economy maintains its current growth rate.

“Going forward, we believe year-over-year contract rate increases offered by large carriers should continue, albeit at a low single digit year-over-year rate,” he explained. “That has the potential to accelerate late next year given the likely implementation of the new hours of service (HOS) rule in mid-2013 as TL supply and demand currently remain roughly in balance and a small amount of incremental capacity is coming on-line.”

Larkin noted that unfavorable driver employment trends – especially increasing demand for construction workers alongside as lack of qualified, willing drivers coming into the TL industry – which could potentially reduce effective capacity in 2013 could  drive significant upside to the 1% to 2% rate increases Stifel Nicolaus currently believes publicly-held TL carriers are securing.

“Additionally, any uptick in economic activity beyond a 1.5% to 2% annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth – our base case – would also benefit the large, well capitalized, well systematized, TL carriers by further tipping the currently balanced supply/demand equation towards a capacity shortage,” he stressed.