One week ago, when we explained why "Things Just Went From Bad To Worse For U.S. Railroads," we said that "the rail industry is about to be slammed with a dramatic repricing, one which is only the start and the longer oil prices remain at these depressed levels, the lower the rents will drop (think Baltic Dry but on land), until soon most rails will lose money on every trip and will follow the shale companies into a race to the bottom, where "they make up for its with volume."
Today, none other than railroad titan Canadian Pacific (whose stock is down 4% despite the torrid surge higher in risk assets) confirmed that not only are things "worse", but the bottom may have fallen out from what until recently was one of Warren Buffett's favorite industries, after missing on both the top and bottom line, but especially during its conference call in which CEO Hunter Harrison admitted that he see "tremendous pressure" on the top line, and expects "challenging times" for revenue growth.
Then COO Keith Creel said that he expected volume in 2016 to be notably down from 2015, warns of strong headwinds for the US economy in the first half of 2016 and says CP is storing at least 600 locomotives in anticipation of better times.
Then the CFO also warned that compensation and benefit costs would be lower in the coming year.
Finally, the CEO warned that in addition to the already cut 7,000 jobs another 1,000 workers are about to "potentially" get pink slips.
Finally, and most ominously, CP warned that it sees delay in the Norfolk Southern deal timeline, and may change its strategy regarding the Norfolk Southern transaction.
We conclude with the warning issued by Bank of America one week ago:
Longest and deepest carload decline since 2009
We believe rail data may be signaling a warning for the broader economy. Carloads have declined more than 5% in each of the past 11 weeks on a year-over-year basis. While one-off volume declines occur occasionally, they are generally followed by a recovery shortly thereafter. The current period of substantial and sustained weakness, including last week’s -10.1% decline, has not occurred since 2009. In looking at carload data going back nearly 30 years, similar periods of weakness have occurred in only five other instances since 1985: (1) the majority of 1988, (2) the first half of 1991, (3) several weeks in early 1996, (4) late 2000 and early 2001, and (5) late 2008 and the majority of 2009. We exclude the period in 1996 from our analysis, as we consider it anomalous given that it overlapped with harsh winter conditions and was limited to January and early February of that year. Of the remaining instances, all either overlapped with a recession, or preceded a recession by a few quarters. The current period starting in October and continuing through the present has been accompanied by weak ISM results, with the purchasing managers index recently falling to 48.2 in December from 48.6 in November (a reading below 50 suggests contraction), and our proprietary BofAML Truck Shipper Indicator recently falling to its lowest level since 2012.
Weakness no longer limited to industrials or coal
For much of 2015, it was easy to dismiss weakness in carloads as being concentrated in industrial segments, and reflective of a secular shift away from coal. More recently, the softness has spread to other, more consumer-oriented segments. Intermodal carloads, which were up +1.0% and +3.6% in 1Q15 and 2Q15, respectively, posted a tepid +0.9% gain in 3Q15 and were down -1.7% in 4Q15. This follows the broader trend in 2015 of carloads accelerating to the downside through the year. Until recently, the difficult comparison year of 2014 was another reason to be dismissive of the decline percentages. Despite soft year-over-year results, absolute carloads remained above the 2010-2013 levels through the first 3 quarters of 2015. However, in 4Q15, volume is at its lowest level since 2010. BofAML Multi-Industrials analyst Andrew Obin recently noted that industrial weakness has not always been coupled with severe GDP declines, despite the high correlation between the two (86% correlation coefficient). However, as non-industrial segments post declining carload volumes, we are increasingly concerned with the breadth of the weakness.
We hope that after today's CP call, others are too.