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Weekly Transportation Update: Wholesale sector sales decline more than inventories in March

Posted by The FTR Experts on 5/13/24 9:53 AM

In March, economic indicators presented a mixed outlook. Wholesale sales dropped more sharply than inventories, possibly indicating oversupply or reduced demand. Both real exports and imports of goods declined, likely influenced by global trade dynamics and supply chain disruptions. New jobless benefits claims surged, reflecting ongoing labor market challenges. However, mortgage rates fell for the first time in six weeks, potentially boosting home buying. Diesel prices continued their decline, aiding transportation-dependent industries, while refrigerated truck spot rates surged due to increased demand for cold chain logistics. CDL hiring rebounded from a December lull. Despite challenges, total rail traffic increased year-on-year, suggesting resilience in transportation. These varied trends underscore the complexity of today's economic landscape.

  • Real exports and imports of goods fall in March.
  • Unemployment benefit claims rise by the most since January.
  • Refrigerated spot rates soar heading into Mother’s Day.
  • Total rail traffic was up more than 2% y/y in the latest week.

Tags: Economy, WTU


This week was light on economic indicators, but next week brings a plethora of indicators, including industrial production, retail sales, residential construction, and inflation at both the consumer and producer levels.

International trade in goods

Adjusted for inflation, seasonally adjusted exports and imports of goods both declined in March, but exports fell by a greater extent.

Real exports fell 3.2% m/m for the largest decrease since April of last year. Exports were down 0.7% y/y. All major categories of exports were down m/m except for automotive vehicles and components, which were up just 0.5%.

The sharpest drop (6.6%) in real exports occurred in foods, feeds, and beverages, although that decrease followed a very sharp 11.4% seasonally adjusted gain in February.

Although the category was weak in March, real exports of foods, feeds, and beverages led all categories in the y/y comparison at +9.6%. The only other category that was higher y/y was capital goods, which were up 1.4%. Automotive and consumer goods each were down 4.5% y/y.

Real imports of goods decreased 1.5% m/m but were up 2.5% y/y. The largest m/m decrease by far was in automotive vehicles, which fell 11.3% – the largest drop in a single month since May 2020. The next largest decrease was foods, feeds, and beverages, which were down 5.4%. Imports of consumer goods saw the largest increase at 4.9%.

On a y/y basis, capital goods saw the largest increase, up 7.7%. Automotive and consumer goods were up 3.6% and 3.4%, respectively.

Unemployment benefits

Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose by 22,000, seasonally adjusted, in the latest week for the largest increase since the week ended January 20. The 231,000 first-time claims were the highest since late August.

Ongoing claims also were up fairly sharply in the latest week, rising 17,000 to 1.79 million. However, that level is still slightly below the average for 2024.


Broker-posted spot rates for refrigerated equipment recorded their largest week-over-week gain this year during the week ended May 3 (week 18).

Refrigerated spot rates often rise sharply during the same week of the year in the run-up to Mother’s Day, although the increase was the largest for a week 18 over at least the past decade except for 2021 when the week coincided with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s International Roadcheck event. This year’s Roadcheck occurs next week.


Rail traffic for week 18 came in strong across several commodity types. According to the Association of American Railroads, total rail traffic was up 2.2% y/y for the week ending May 4, 2024.

Carloads were down 0.9% y/y. Unsurprisingly, the biggest drag this week was coal, down 22.1%. Coke was down 27.4%, and grain mill products declined 7.2%. However, several commodities saw growth with some above 10% y/y. Those with the highest   y/y growth include “other commodities” (35.6%), primary forest products (19.2%), metallic ores (15.5%), and grain (14.3%).

Intermodal was also up this week, consistent with its trend for almost all of 2024. For week 18, total intermodal traffic was up 5.3% y/y. This growth was driven by container shipments, which were up 6.3% and limited by trailer shipments, down 17.0%.

Year to date, total rail traffic is up 2.1%, with carloads down 3.8% and intermodal up 8.4%. Of the 10 carload commodity groups reported by AAR, four show positive YTD y/y growth. This is up from three last week, with the introduction of the “other” commodity group, which includes sub-commodities such as waste and non-metallic scrap, which are commodities largely tied to the industrial sector.





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      Weekly Transportation Update: Wholesale sector sales decline more than inventories in March