Freight bump fuels hope for transportation sector

Improving freight demand could signal brighter days ahead for transportation companies — if they can persuade retailers and manufacturers to pay more for shipping.

Trucking and logistics firms should give their outlooks for the rest of the year as they begin to report earnings next week, with investors watching for signs of a rebound from a two-year slump in freight rates.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., one of the largest U.S. freight carriers, is expected to announce its second-quarter earnings Monday. C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., the biggest freight brokerage, reports Thursday. Several large trucking companies report the following week.

The results come as bountiful produce harvests and increased shipping demand tied to Inc.’s Prime Day sales promotion have helped boost rates on the spot truckload market, where companies book freight transportation on a daily basis. The average rate for dry vans, the most common type of tractor-trailer used to ship consumer goods, rose 11% in June compared with the same month last year, according to DAT Solutions LLC, an online freight marketplace.

The recent lift has fueled hopes for a broader freight recovery, and transportation firms will be watching closely this month to see whether the upswing holds. Spot rates can be a leading indicator for contract rates, the long-term prices transportation firms negotiate with shippers. Big carriers do the majority of their business via contract, and those prices have remained stubbornly low even as freight volumes rose.

“July is the canary in the coal mine for the industry,” said Cowen & Co. analyst Jason Seidl.

Overcapacity in the truckload sector, where customers book entire trailers to carry their cargo, has weighed on trucking companies since late 2015. Fleets that expanded during a previous boom found themselves with too many trucks chasing a smaller pool of freight. The glut has also tamped down rates in the intermodal…

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