Freight Rates have been going up at a record pace lately and one of the main reasons is that fuel prices are also at record levels.
In March, U.S. oil spiked to a 13 year high at over $130/barrel. A key driver was the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. In addition, US producers were slow to respond. They just didn’t have the capacity or willingness to ramp up quickly. Right now, demand is high, and supply is constrained, so that means the upward pressure on prices will continue.
When looking at how fuel relates to oil, it’s helpful to understand that refineries produce about 11 gallons of diesel fuel for every 42 gallons of crude oil, so the higher the cost of a barrel of oil, the higher the pump price for diesel. Diesel is the primary source of fuel for large tractor trailers and accounts for approximately 20% of a carriers cost to operate, so it’s going to highly impact trucking related freight rates. This will also take capacity out of the market as independent truckers adjust record high diesel prices. Now let’s look at different types of loads and transportation methods and how high diesel prices will change your freight cost.
Linehaul rates, the base rates for moving product from point A to point B, are triggered primarily by supply and demand factors. Load to Truck ratios drive spot pricing (daily pricing on freight load boards). The more loads and less capacity the higher the linehaul rates. Fuel Surcharges, on the other hand, are usually setup as a sliding scale, based on the Department of Energy ( D.O.E.) national average price of fuel. The scale slides up and down in cents per mile or as a % of revenue in accordance with designated bands of fuel costs. Usually, these fuel surcharges (FSC’s) are in cents per mile for over-the-road truckers, and in % of revenue for Less-than-truckload and Small Package. Current FSC’s are running around 31% for LTL and 96 cents per mile for truckload with diesel at 5.51$/gallon. They have increased dramatically since the first of the year.
The same dynamic between oil costs and fuel costs impact the other modes of transport as well. Ocean, Rail and Air transport all have significant expenses tied to fuel costs.
For Ocean, fuel costs represent 50-60% of their operating costs.
For Air carriers it’s more like 40% and is their biggest variable expense. This expense affects air transport belly freight as well as parcel express freight.
For railroads fuel cost represent about 20% of their operating costs. When fuel prices rise, rail becomes a more desirable solution vs truck, the converse is true when oil and fuel prices drop.
What is being done about all this?
The Carrier community is doing a couple of things.
Air carriers buy fuel hedges to guard against upward price swings. However, when prices drop, margins get hurt. They pass along fuel costs in the form of surcharges on their rates. These are currently running in the neighborhood of 25% of linehaul costs.
Ocean carriers are doing what’s called “slow steaming” to mitigate fuel costs. By reducing their speeds, they can save up to 59% of their fuel costs. The downside is that the travel time increases significantly. From days to weeks in some cases. Ocean carriers charge what’s called a “Bunker Adjustment Factor” or BAF, which is usually tied to the cost of Brent Crude Oil. Currently these charges run by trade lane and are reaching all-time highs of over $600 per 40’ container.
Rail Carriers are running diesel-electric locomotives which capitalize on the benefits of both energy types to improve the efficiency of their travel costs. Railroads, however, also impose mileage-based fuel surcharges. These have doubled since the beginning of 2022. They are now around 76 cents per mile.
The EIA or US Energy Information Administration posts the national average diesel price every Monday. Using this number along with the MPG of a truck (usually around 6mpg) and a pre-determined baseline (typically $1.50/gallon) you can calculate the Fuel surcharges that a motor carrier would ask for. The surcharge scale used is open to negotiation with shippers. Many shippers create their own fuel surcharge tables and when contracting with carriers, may force the carriers to use them. At the end of the day, Line haul cost + fuel surcharges = the total cost of transportation. So, if the shipper has a shipper-favorable fuel surcharge table, then probably the line haul rates will be increased by the carrier to compensate. At the end of the day the carriers must try and protect their margins and recoup their costs.
Depending on what type of shipper you are, a lot of the fuel impact depends on your base rates and whether you buy transportation on a “spot” or a “contractual” basis. If you buy contractually, which is recommended, your base rates usually remain the same for the term of your contract. Most contracts are a for at least one year. If you buy your transportation on the spot market, then you are exposed to the vagaries of the market. Fuel cost is always a floating cost that traditionally moves with the price of oil. Linehaul Base rates float on the spot market based on supply and demand in each market. If there are more loads than trucks, then rates go up. If the converse is true, then rates go down. Just remember if your base prices go up, and fuel is reflected as a percentage of base rates, then you take a larger hit than you would if the base rates didn’t float, i.e.., if you had contractual linehaul rates that were stable for a period. Not only will this save you money, but it will also allow you to plan you costs better.
The goal of any shipper is to negotiate a fuel surcharge that is favorable to their business and helps them maintain a strong competitive position. There are a few items that shippers should consider when deciding on a carrier to ship their goods.
- Make sure the carrier fully explains how their fuel surcharge formula works and when it is adjusted. For example, weekly, monthly, quarterly, every Tuesday, etc.
- Don’t assume that a high fuel scale base rate is bad. When the base fuel rate is higher, fuel surcharges usually are lower. Also make sure your cost bands are as large as possible. This will help minimize fluctuations.
- If you negotiate a favorable FSC scale, make sure that your base linehaul rates are fixed for at least a year. This way your base doesn’t change except when it’s time to re-negotiate the contract. Thus, allowing you to better plan your costs for the year.
- Make sure that when comparing carriers and modes that you fully understand how their individual fsc’s apply. Also, don’t forget to calculate the transit implication of using one mode over another. Dollars saved on transport can be lost because the products don’t arrive as soon as they are needed.
What does all of this mean for your freight cost in the next year? Lot’s of uncertainty and increasing complexity of solutions that provide a secure supply chain at a market price that allows your business to compete and grow. With all of this uncertainty, small & mid-size companies are going to find it challenging to mitigate cost and remain competitive.
Riverside Logistics is an expert in logistics costs and can help you with fuel surcharge negotiations and setting up scales favorable to your business. Give us a call at 804-474-7700 extension 82. We are here to help!