Growing rail shipments defy recession

Posted Sept. 24, 2011, at 6:50 a.m.
Containers filled with goods are stacked up and awaiting shipment by rail in the Port of Los Angeles near San Padro, Calif.
AP file
Containers filled with goods are stacked up and awaiting shipment by rail in the Port of Los Angeles near San Padro, Calif.

NEW YORK — Railroads shipments are the highest in almost three years, helping to defy concerns about a double- dip recession.

Total rail volumes excluding grain and coal averaged 381,831 carloads in August, the most since October 2008, according to data from the Association of American Railroads in Washington. These shipments represent the bulk of materials for industrial production, so rising volumes show the economy is still growing, according to Art Hatfield, a transportation analyst in Memphis, Tenn., at Morgan Keegan & Co.

“We’re not seeing declines in rail volumes that are synonymous with a recession,” Hatfield said. “We remain in a slow growth environment.”

The correlation between the 12-month average of total rail-car loadings, excluding grain and coal, and the three-month average of the Federal Reserve’s manufacturing industrial- production index is 0.82, according to Bloomberg News calculations. A correlation of 1 would show they move in lockstep, while a value of zero signals no relationship.

Manufacturing output — which makes up 75 percent of all U.S. factory production — climbed 0.5 percent in August, the fourth consecutive increase, according to Fed data released this month.

“Industrial-production growth is slow but positive,” according to Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in Pittsburgh, who forecasts a 0.3 percent increase in September from August. This indicates the “gradual” expansion is still in place, he said.

Gross domestic product climbed at a 1.0 percent annual rate in the second quarter, after almost stalling with a 0.4 percent gain from January-March, Commerce Department data show. GDP will rise 1.6 percent this year, according to the median estimate of 63 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

The order rate for Kennametal Inc., the No. 1 supplier of cutting tools used by manufacturers including Caterpillar and Boeing, increased at a 20 percent annual pace in August, excluding acquisitions, divestitures and workdays, the company said Sept. 15. Kennametal’s end markets “continued to reflect strong demand,” and its industrial business showed “ongoing strength,” the company said.

Hatfield is bullish about U.S. manufacturing output even amid concerns that the world economy is slowing. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for global growth this week, projecting expansion of 4 percent this year, compared with a June forecast of 4.3 percent.

Between March 13, 2009, and July 1, 2011, the Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Railroads Index — which includes the three companies — rose 200 percent, while the S&P 500 Index grew 77 percent, Bloomberg data show. Since July, the railroads index has fallen 23 percent, compared with the S&P 500′s 14 percent decline.

The recent underperformance is driven by investor concern about a recession, Hatfield said. The Fed noted in its Sept. 7 Beige Book report that “most” manufacturers were less optimistic than in its July survey. On Sept. 21, Fed policy makers said they expect “some pickup in the pace of recovery over coming quarters,” adding there are “significant downside risks” to their outlook.

Hatfield still projects rail-car shipments will grow in the “low single digits” for the second half of this year, even though third-quarter volumes may be lighter than forecast because of weather-related disruptions, he said.

Omaha, Nebraska-based Union Pacific had its strongest weekly volume so far this year — almost 187,000 carloads — prior to Labor Day, Chief Financial Officer Robert Knight said Wednesday at a conference hosted by Citigroup. It continues to see “solid demand” across most business segments, including shipments of industrial products, up 8 percent annually as of Sept. 15 for the quarter ending Sept. 30, he said.

Norfolk Southern, based in Norfolk, Va., maintains an outlook “which is still upbeat despite some of the macro indicators,” Chief Financial Officer James Squires said at the Citigroup conference on the same date. Total railcar shipments are up about 3 percent on an annual basis so far for the three- month period ending Sept. 30, he said.

Industrial volumes for Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX have increased about 5 percent since last year through August for the quarter ending Sept. 30, Vice President Fredrik Eliasson said Thursday at the Citigroup conference. Even amid recent “moderating,” the economy continues to grow and the company is “doing OK from a volume perspective,” he said.

 With assistance from Marco Babic in Singapore.

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