For-hire truck tonnage dropped 1.1 percent in April from March, but grew at a slightly faster year-over-year pace, 3.5 percent, than in the previous month.
In the first four months of 2012, the American Trucking Associations For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index was 3.8 percent higher than in the same period in 2011.
The contradictory trends indicate short-term moderation in longer term economic growth and may point to some shifting of freight among modes and carriers.
“While April’s decrease was a little disappointing, the March gain turned out to be stronger than originally thought,” Costello said. The ATA index increased 0.6 percent in March from February and was up 3.1 percent year-over-year, he said.
“The ups and downs (of the tonnage index) so far this year are similar to other economic indicators,” Costello said. The sequential decrease in April “matches an economy that is likely to grow slightly slower in the second quarter,” he said.
In a recent report, the National Association for Business Economics forecast 2.4 percent GDP growth this year and a 2.8 percent growth rate for 2013.
Costello expects for-hire truck tonnage to grow at a 3 percent to 3.9 percent rate this year, compared with a more torrid 5.8 percent increase in 2011 and 2010.
But the results of other freight indices in April suggest changing shipping strategies may partly account for the month-to-month drop in ATA’s tonnage index.
The TransCore DAT North American Freight Index in April leaped 17 percent year-over-year and climbed 3.5 percent from March on higher spot market truck demand.
And the Cass Freight Shipments Index rose 1.9 percent in April from March, though the April growth rate was lower than the 2.1 percent rate reported for March.
Domestic intermodal container volume rose 14.9 percent in the first quarter, the Intermodal Association of North America said. The spot market is busy, too.
“What we’ve seen so far in 2012 is some of the heaviest freight volumes we’ve ever seen” on the spot market, said David Schrader, senior vice president at TransCore.
“When you try to reconcile that kind of volume with modest economic growth, you hit the dynamics of the spot market,” Schrader said in a recent interview.