North America's Class I railroads run a predictable and straightforward business, but the same can't be said of their stock price. Companies such as Norfolk Southern
Intermodal cargo is an important revenue source for railroads, but it leaves them sensitive to weak consumer demand. In September, two reports came out from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve banks indicating that manufacturing output was down in those regions, continuing a national trend. Depressed manufacturing means fewer industrial inputs are being shipped to factories, fewer finished goods are being shipped to consumers, and lower revenue is resulting for transporters.
Markets got a reminder of this weakness when freight shipping and logistics operator FedEx
King Coal dethroned
The day after FedEx's announcement, Norfolk Southern slashed its own earnings guidance, specifically blaming low volumes of coal. Coal shipments are critical for many railroads: Norfolk Southern and CSX
Coal is primarily used for electricity generation, and its weight makes railroads the most viable way of transporting it. This has been a windfall for the rail industry, but coal has always been among the most environmentally harmful energy sources, a reality that has led successive administrations to pass tough new rules regulating the burning of coal for electricity. Utilities such as Duke Energy
The advent of hydrofracturing, a process for extracting gas from shale formations, has allowed for record production, soaring supply, and plunging prices for natural gas. Natural gas is now not only the cleanest hydrocarbon but also the cheapest. Coal stalwarts are responding: Duke Energy will retire the Dan River coal station, for example, and replace its capacity with a new natural gas facility. Industry analysts don't expect another coal plant to ever be built in the United States, and railroads will need to face that reality.
Keep chugging along
The common thread in these challenges to railroads, however, is that they were both foreseeable. Slow economic recovery and the decline of coal have been years in the making, and investors should have already priced these dangers into railroad stocks.
I haven't been an owner of railroad shares for some time now, simply because I thought the market wasn't correctly pricing in these short-term troubles. Norfolk Southern's announcement changed all that. With most railroads down hundreds of basis points over the past week, I think it's time to reconsider.
American railroads' advantages are considerable. Compared with trucking, railroads enjoy a fourfold advantage in fuel efficiency and lower labor costs per ton, making them much more competitive for long distances and heavy goods such as commodities. Strong property rights make it next to impossible for potential competitors to put together the rights-of-way required to enter the railroad market, giving railroads a monopoly in their geographies.
And railroads will not be short of business opportunities. Despite the decline of American coal usage, China is expected to drastically increase its coal import and consumption. Coal terminals are under construction on the West Coast, and railroads may soon be shipping massive volumes of coal for export. In other sectors, rising global populations will trigger demand for the bulk agricultural products that American railroads move, and rising incomes will drive intermodal traffic higher. It's safe to say that when global trade recovers, so will railroads.
My favorite railroad today is Canadian National
Of course, any investment in railroads is tightly geared toward the energy markets, as the railroads are so exposed to energy prices for both revenue and costs. One Motley Fool analyst believes that the era of cheap natural gas could end as soon as 2014, and he's identified one stock you need to own before then. This report is free, but it's available for only a limited time, so get your copy today.
Fool contributor Daniel Ferry has no position in any of the companies mentioned above. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Canadian National Railway and FedEx. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.