From product and produce shortages to delayed deliveries, supply chain constraints have routinely been cited as the source of the U.S. economy's various ills. Now they're being blamed for some of the trucking industry's less-than-stellar conditions.

For the fourth consecutive month, the American Trucking Association's For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index Index fell on a seasonally adjusted basis, this time in July. At 109.8, the index slipped from 111.1 in June, the equivalent of 1.2%.

What is the truck tonnage index?
The truck tonnage index is issued each month by the American Trucking Association. It's designed to represent how much weight, or tonnage, motor carriers haul to their intended destinations. Since nearly 73% of the domestic freight in the United States is transported by trucks, many economists consider it to be an indicator of the nation's economic well-being.

Bob Costello, chief economist for the trade group, said he believes the dip is a product of the ongoing supply chain challenges that are affecting businesses in just about every industry. The ongoing problems associated with not having enough drivers may also be playing a role.

"Not only are there broader supply chain issues, like semiconductors, holding tonnage back, but there are also industry specific difficulties, including the driver shortage and lack of equipment," Costello explained. "For-hire truckload carriers are operating fewer trucks than a year earlier. It is difficult to haul significantly more freight with fewer trucks and drivers."

Truckers are feeling the effects of supply chain instability in the loads they carry.Truckers are feeling the effects of supply chain instability in the loads they carry.

Truckers are hoping to bounce back after a tough 2020
While it's not unusual for the tonnage to diminish in the summer months — especially in comparison to the end of the year during the busy holiday buying season — motor carriers are looking to make up for lost time and money after the fallout from COVID-19. Since many retailers were closed or went out of business due to the shutdown of the economy, tonnage on the year was 3.3% lower than it was in 2019. And on a year-to-date basis, tonnage is 0.2% below where it was at this time last year, according to ATA data.

However, thanks in part to more people getting back to work as well as more Americans deciding to get vaccinated, the trucking industry may rally as the supply chain gets back to normal. The National Retail Federation says it expects retail sales to top $4.4 trillion in 2021. If that comes to pass, it would be a double-digit increase from purchase activity in 2020, up by as much as 13.5%.

"Incoming data suggests that U.S. economic activity continues to expand rapidly, and we have seen impressive growth," said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at NRF. "Most indicators point toward an energetic expansion over the upcoming months and through the remainder of the year."

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay added that a combination of vaccine distribution, private sector ingenuity and fiscal stimulus provided by the government have millions more Americans back on the job. This should help to further reduce supply chain bottlenecks.

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