Air and Rail networks have lost substantial revenues. First Rail freight traffic due to trade disagreements, tariffs, and the downturn in coal, and then both Air and Rail due to the impact of the Covid-19 shutdowns. Economics remains challenging. The landscape that has emerged was unexpected. Air Carriers are zero base budgeting equipment needs, personnel (payroll support ends in September), and optimizing networks. Flying point-to-point with few passengers onboard is not economically viable. Legacy carriers are rediscovering the virtues of ‘hub-and-spoke’ systems which work to maximize load factors. Operators are retiring older equipment from their fleets, preferring newer more fuel-efficient equipment and technology.  

An example is the jumbo jets which are too big for current passenger demand.  The International Air Transport Association updated its projection of when it expects passenger air travel to return to pre-Covid-19 levels – 2024. This year, when Boeing finishes the last fifteen 747 freighters on order, 747 production will be discontinued.  The last passenger 747 was delivered in 2017. Older 747-400s are not expected to fly again. There are only 35 of the newer 747-8 variant flying. These four-engine aircraft are not as fuel-efficient as newer design dual-engine aircraft. The pandemic has grounded almost all of Airbus’ superjumbo A380s and Airbus will close A380 production delivering the last unit in 2021. The A380 was designed with little cargo space compared to the twin-engined A350 which has twice as much cargo capacity as the four-engine A380. With 500 seats on average, the A380 is just too much aircraft and too expensive to operate when most seats are empty.  Engine issues have delayed Boeing’s 777X which when certified will compete directly with the A350.  

As fleets are repositioned trends are becoming apparent.  The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of video conferencing. Many see this resulting in a long-term reduction in higher-margin business travel. We’ll have to wait to see if Robert Crandall, former chief of American Airlines, will be right when he said, “You are never going to see the volume of business travel that you’ve seen in the past.”  Lower margin leisure travel is expected to return once a vaccine is available.  But even after a vaccine has been developed and tested it will take time for acceptance and coverage.  Then countries will have to standardize entry and documentation requirements for international travel to return.  Class One Railroads, using Hunter Harrison’s Precision Scheduled Railroading (“PSR”) strategy, are removing railcar capacity, locomotives, and employees.  Their focus is on reducing ‘operating ratios’ and improving short-term profitability.  

The unexpected demand environment is forcing Bank Lenders, Operating Lessors, Private Capital, and those who service and support aviation and rail equipment investment to reconsider their investment strategies. Success rarely comes from projecting trends.  Rather it comes come from insights that define future demand. Even with no additional Washington stimulus, another 1.4 million jobs were created in August, unemployment declined to 8.4%, and labor force participation increased to 61.7% (only 1.7% below its February level).  

The best investment strategy in a low demand environment?  Maintain liquidity, competitive market position, and key talent.  Be responsive to opportunities that deliver long-term value.  Call RESIDCO.

Global freight traffic flows are recovering. U.S. and German manufacturers surveyed in late August reported a ‘jump’ in export orders, “Container traffic is approaching the level reached before the corona crisis”. In the U.S. seasonally adjusted imports (inbound TEU’s) are up significantly on the West Coast, and Domestic North American Intermodal container volumes have fully recovered to pre-pandemic volumes*.  The purchasing manager’s index rose to 54.2 in July from 52.6 in the previous month (which was above expectations of 53.6, and its highest reading since March 2019).  Economically sensitive Rail carload freight (excluding Ag/Petro/Coal) has improved but is expected to be down for the balance of 2020.  

First it was tariffs and trade tensions that impacted freight traffic.  Then the coronavirus lockdowns disrupted domestic and international supply chains.  During the second quarter of 2020, the World’s largest economies experienced the deepest contraction in six decades (record keeping began in 1960).  The previous largest drop in a single quarter had been -2.9% in the first quarter of 2009.  The pandemic exposed the strategic vulnerabilities of reliance on China as a sole source, low cost supplier.  Unnoticed until now China managed to capitalize on our appetite for access to their markets.  It has been a one-way street as China is now ‘adjusting’ their export of pharmaceuticals, laser technology, cryptography, and artificial intelligence, given the ‘rapid development’ of China’s ‘industrial competitiveness’.  National security concerns will impact future trade volumes as the world’s two largest economies drift apart.

Hope for a rapid vaccine deployment is keeping the Dow Jones Transportation Average near a record.  But weakening passenger demand in the US domestic aviation market and continued restrictions on international travel weigh heavily on airline recovery efforts.  The proportion of the global passenger jet fleet in storage has remained at approximately 33% with fewer than 30% of narrow bodies inactive versus more than 40% of widebodies.  This reflects the proportionally higher passenger demand for domestic and intra-regional travel compared with international long haul.  The most popular aircraft in the U.S. fleet remains the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus’ A320/321 (the MAX is now expected to return to service in early 2021). 

The Conference Board’s July economic indicators, both leading and coincident, are pointing to a recovery.  Economists expect a strong rebound in the Third Quarter.  But as long as the pandemic lingers, the economic shock across the aviation and rail equipment leasing sectors will continue.  As the recovery unfolds the big picture question will be how will existing aviation and rail equipment capacity (and supply chains) be efficiently managed while we wait for demand to fully recover?  Despite low interest rates and fiscal stimulus, low utilization of existing fleet assets is likely to continue through 2021.  Demand remains uneven.  A third of the railcar fleet is in storage, railcar lessors are reporting pricing pressure on lease rates, aircraft manufacturers face order deferrals, and aviation lessors are faced with widespread restructuring challenges.  We are better than before,but not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.  The present requires the ability to identify investment opportunities that perform in this uncertain environment.  It’s time to prepare for the rebound.  Call RESIDCO.

Making Sense of What the Economy and Freight Markets are Telling Us, August 27, 2020, FTR + Midwest Association of Rail Shippers.

Second Quarter year over year comparisons are down but sequential growth is evident in the third quarter. A timeline towards recovery is beginning to take shape. 

Manufacturing is expanding (but from a lower base). Factories across the U.S., Europe, and Asia increased production in July but were held back by weak global trade (export orders were soft). Businesses are generally optimistic about future conditions and growth in manufacturing activity is expected to continue over the next six months. The U.S. Purchasing Manager’s Index grew in July for the third consecutive month reaching 54.2, up from a June reading of 52.6.  That’s the highest it has been since March 2019.  

On August 6, the U.S. Department of State, in coordination with the CDC, lifted the Global Level 4 travel advisory which had been in place since the end of March. “With health and safety conditions improving in some countries the Department is returning to our previous system of country-specific levels of travel advice.”  The virus does not appear to be spreading on planes due to air filtration, circulation, and mask requirements. Air travel and airports have not been hot spots. Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian reported there have been no cases that have been traced back to air travel passenger contact when sitting in rows near a passenger who later tested positive.    

Flight operations are focused on load and cost efficiency in each served air travel market.  With current lower flight demand levels, newer narrow-body aircraft are more desirable.  These are the first units returning to service. Older narrow bodies are next, subject to accumulated engine time and maintenance cycle demands. With country travel restrictions in place, long haul wide-body passenger flights are not economical. Many expect the Boeing 737MAX* (when it returns to service in extended twin-engine operations), along with the AirbusA321LR/A321XLR to be flying long-haul routes. These single-aisle aircraft are designed to allow point to point operations in a lower demand environment, making a business case for such aircraft to operate profitably on longer transatlantic routes in a recovering Covid-19 environment.  

On August 1, 504,043 freight cars remain in storage (30% of the North American rail freight car fleet). But rail carload traffic (excluding grain and coal) is trending in the right direction.  In July carload traffic originated on U.S. railroads averaged 208,403 units per week, the highest since March.  Auto sales in July were their highest since February with North American carloads of motor vehicles and parts reasonably close to their pre-pandemic levels.  It is well known that the consumer drives the U.S. economy and that consumer spending is driven by job growth.  That spending is closely correlated with the goods related side of the economy.  The economy created 1.8 million jobs in July down from 4.8 million new jobs in June, and 2.7 million in May.  Over 9 million jobs have been created in the last three months and unemployment has fallen to 10.2% in July, down from a record high of 14.7% in April.  

Sequential improvements are pointing to the beginning of a recovery.  If you are uncertain about the future, include cash, cost control, maintenance of financing flexibility, and implementation of investment strategies that will protect your competitive position. For opportunities that can deliver that and lead to long term value creation?  Call RESIDCO.

* The 737MAX has the same fuselage width at the B757 which flew trans-Atlantic regularly.

The Global economy is projected to contract 4.9% in 2020, with World merchandise traffic falling 13 to 32% and a 50 to 60% decline in air passenger revenue miles. In response, more than two-thirds of governments across the world have scaled up fiscal support with budget measures now standing at 6% of GDP on average. Covid-19 lockdowns, trade disagreements, and changing Class One Rail operating methods have impacted the cash flows and profitability of transportation assets that serve the Air and Rail investment segments.

Despite deteriorating economic conditions, Rail carload freight has remained profitable for the Class One Railroads. The impact of Precision Scheduled Railroading (“PSR”) is evident as they have maintained profitable operations even with freight volumes decreasing (U.S. rail traffic for the first 29 weeks of 2020 decreased 12.8% compared to last year). Class Ones are focused on carload traffic which drives their PSR operating models.  ‘Pricing discipline’, longer train lengths, and a reduced need for equipment and labor have improved operating ratios. The Class Ones are all reporting second-quarter profits (examples: CSX $499 million, Union Pacific $1.1 Billion, Norfolk Southern $392 Million, Canadian Pacific C$635 Million, Canadian National C$545 Million and Kansas City Southern $109 Million).  

While Air cargo flights have surged, travel restrictions have resulted in a steep contraction of regional, mid-haul, and long-haul passenger demand.  Second-quarter losses across all the U.S. carriers demonstrate this. Delta, the world’s most profitable airline prior to the pandemic, reported a 91% decline in revenue and a second-quarter operating loss of $3.9 Billion (plus an additional $3.2 Billion non-operating write-down related to fleet restructuring and write-downs of investments). United’s revenues were down 87.1% with a reported net loss of $1.6 Billion (after adjustments a net loss of $2.6 Billion). American reported an operating loss of $2.5 Billion and a GAAP net loss of $2.1 Billion. Southwest (the only investment-grade rated carrier in the U.S. airline industry) reported a second-quarter net loss of $1.5 billion (excluding special items).  

All are parking portions of their fleets and adjusting network schedules as they focus on returning to break-even cash flow. The downturn has extended to aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus.  Boeing delivered just 20 aircraft in the second quarter, down from 90 last year (their lowest quarterly total since 1963). Airbus delivered 74, down from 227. The International Air Transport Association aptly summarized the situation.  At the end of 2019, the commercial passenger jet fleet in service was 23,710 units (including regional jets, single-aisle, and twin-aisle).  The equivalent fleet needed to operate in 2020 is 16,360 units (at a 62% load factor).  

Gulfstream delivered more high-end private jets in the second quarter (32) than Boeing’s total commercial deliveries.  Budget carriers like Southwest can set up and dismantle specific point to point routes based on profitability (legacy carriers need their whole hub and spoke network to work to stay cash positive). Yes, the recovery’s timing remains uncertain, but transportation assets under a lease that span the expected term of the pandemic provide attractive alternative investments.  

To find and unlock these pockets of opportunity?  Call RESIDCO.

Liquidity buffers, loans, restructuring operations, cost savings. As the pandemic lingers it continues to depress economic activity.  

The drop in passenger traffic is driving air carriers to constantly adjust network flight schedules and evaluate equipment needs and workforce reductions. United is exploring the possibility of a fall workforce reduction and American is considering similar plans. The major carriers are moving forward signing letters of intent lining up U.S. Treasury Department loans as their net bookings drop. Twin aisle and aircraft with higher operating costs are being parked. Newer more fuel-efficient single-aisle jets that can be filled with passengers more easily would be preferred. 

But with demand down and list prices near $120 million, financing is challenging. United’s CEO, Scott Kerby, earlier told an investor conference “We won’t be taking delivery of a single aircraft unless it is fully financed.” American’s CFO has told Boeing it will not take delivery unless aircraft are financed under terms similar to those it enjoyed prior to the pandemic; “No financing, no 737 Max deliveries.” Delta said it will not take delivery of any new jets this year. Of Boeing’s 737 MAX on the ground inventory, 41 units are currently unclaimed (about 10% of the total parked).  By year-end, as many as 155 may be without takers.  

Airbus has reduced production rates of its A320 by one-third. Its CEO, Guillaume Faury, said in late April, “we’re facing the gravest crisis this industry has ever experienced”. The engines that power these aircraft are sold at a loss in order to secure long term service revenues. Ninety percent of Rolls-Royce Trent engines operate under service agreements that require airlines to make payments based on flight time. General Electric and its joint venture partner Safran (SAF, France) manufacture the Leap engines which power the MAX. They operate under similar long-term service agreements. The demand downturn is forcing Rolls-Royce to reduce production. It has resulted in a 17% workforce reduction (9,000 jobs out of its global workforce of 52,000). GE Aviation is implementing similar workforce reductions.  

But discount carriers sense an opportunity as the legacy airlines retrench.  Low-cost Allegiant Travel, CEO Maurice Gallagher Jr.: “I expect we will thrive in this changed environment.” Jets at bargain prices will be available as the legacy carriers retrench and sell aircraft.

In Rail, U.S. Rail carloads improved slightly in June but are still down 22.4% from 2019.  Carload declines continue across the board with declines in coal, crushed stone, sand, gravel, motor vehicles and parts and chemicals. Coal continues to lose its share of U.S. electrical generation. Despite declining U.S. rail volumes Class Ones are improving their operating ratios (operating expenses as a percentage of revenues) as they focus on equipment and workforce efficiencies driven by Precision Scheduled Railroading. A third of the North American rail fleet remains in storage. But lower operating ratios make more cash available. With nonfarm payrolls rising by 4.8 million in June the unemployment rate fell to 11.1%.  As Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao puts it: “It’s fair to say the recovery has started, but that’s not a guarantee that the recovery will continue uninterrupted.” Its timing and path will depend on a Covid-19 solution.

As business models are being disrupted market realities are transforming transportation investment management.  Identify and capitalize on current opportunities. Call RESIDCO.

Aviation and rail equipment lease rates and equipment values are stressed as operators adjust equipment capacity to meet current levels of demand (and adjust to the Class One Roads implementation of Precision-scheduled railroading “PSR”). In the near term, lessees are focused on ensuring the sustainability of their business by attempting to defer new delivery commitments and restructure existing lease terms. OEMs are doing the same as they adjust production schedules in recognition market demand will be lower until the virus clears.  

The unknown duration of the path back to where the economy was before the pandemic adds complexity to evaluating equipment opportunities, whether under lease or currently stored.  Secondary market values are often impacted by new equipment pricing and specific lease maintenance and return conditions if under a lease. 

Technical factors also impact values.  Standard configurations and deep markets mean units are easier to place. Special features can help equipment retain value. An example: a higher maximum takeoff weight enhances an aircraft’s utility and consequently its value.  If it’s part of a family (e.g. A320/A321, or B737-800/900/MAX) equipment will retain value as operators benefit from lower investment in parts, equipment, and pilot training. Lower fuel prices improve demand for older aircraft.  If fuel prices advance, demand for older units will be depressed, shifting operators’ preferences toward newer, more efficient aircraft. Lease rates for the single-aisle Boeing 737-800, the 900ER, and Airbus A321s remain “relatively unscathed” with fleet weighted average declines of around 5% or less since January 30th.  And data shows the more fuel-efficient A320neos are being favored over the older A320ceos (54% of the A320ceo remain in storage, compared to only 30% of the A320neo).  

Older equipment may appear less attractive due to operating economics or functional obsolescence. But a lot of planes parked in the desert could offer better returns than new equipment. Fifteen percent fuel savings on new aircraft may not justify their capital cost.  As demand reappears some of these surplus units might be economically leased to second or third-tier operators or sold to another lessor or operator.

For Air, more than half of the world’s passenger jets are now in service.  In Rail, the combination of lower rail freight volumes and the Class Ones’ implementation of PSR has placed 31% of the 1.67 million-unit North American rail freight fleet in storage (520,729 freight cars). Maintaining customer relationships is the key to today’s markets. Rail ‘relationships’ are being tested as rail shippers are being required to transition their operations to comply with the Class One’s PSR schedules. Rail modal share will grow only if the Roads better integrate intermodal and trucking to give rail shippers an ‘end-to-end’ solution. 

The U.S. entered the recession as the strongest world economy. Now, “The big picture is the economy is on the road to recovery and we have passed the worst”. With fall elections approaching and an expectation of additional government spending on infrastructure, the recovery will continue.  A return to moderate growth means the outlook is becoming brighter.  Identifying opportunities is constant in portfolio management. Call RESIDCO.

Domestic economies are beginning to reopen as evidenced by the number of TSA airport security screening checks.  They totaled 87,534 April 14th and by May 25th had tripled to 257,451.  “We’re past the trough in terms of peak damage”.  Much of the pickup reflects the states’ decisions to open parts of their economies.  While global supply chains remain fragile the mechanics of transportation decision making remain unchanged.  What is the payoff from the trip? Is it high value/time-sensitive? Where is traffic currently being allowed, and what mode is most cost-efficient?  

Globalization fostered the ever-increasing specialization of labor across countries.  The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the weakness of over-reliance on extended supply chains, whether for manufacturing automobiles, aircraft, or pharmaceuticals. ‘Just in time’ easily can become ‘just too late’. An example: the U.S. relies heavily on Mexico for parts and vehicle production.  Thirty-nine percent of auto parts ($60.8 billion) were imported from Mexico in 2019. Without Mexico, the Detroit auto industry will be unable to effectively restart production. Going forward the private sector must re-examine supply links, border restrictions, risks, and define solutions.  

Increased taxes financed the spending that helped the U.S. get out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.  From 1929 to 1939 the corporate tax rate rose from 11% to 19%, capital gains tax rates went up from 12.5% to 22.5%, and personal income tax rates jumped from 24% to 62% (the top marginal rate was 91% in 1960).  With the current level of deficit spending and lost tax revenues due to lockdowns, it’s not hard to imagine higher taxes. But borrowing now amounts to a transfer of economic activity from the future to the present.  

With air travel demand picking up, how full will planes be? Single-aisle airframes generally have 3+3 seating. Leaving all middle seats vacant implies a maximum load factor of 67%.  On a fleet-wide basis, the International Air Transport Association has said “social distancing would mean a maximum load factor of 62%.”  That would require a different business model than the airlines have been using.  Break-even loads vary with changing cost and airfare fluctuations (in 2019, the systemwide beak even load factor was 73.8% while the actual load factor was 84.6%).  

Class One Railroad operations remain strong with freight car velocity, terminal dwell, and car trip compliance improving. The Roads are running fewer and longer trains on tight schedules (Precision Scheduled Railroading). As traffic has declined, crews, locomotives, and freight car resources are being ‘balanced’ to meet the lower current volumes and improve operating ratios. New equipment deliveries are down and an equipment surplus hangs over the industry.     

The Global economy: the European Union’s borders remain closed to non-nationals until mid-June, and China has suspended entry of foreign nationals. U.S. tensions with China are escalating over trade, technology theft, the coronavirus, and Hong Kong’s independence. Managing a transportation portfolio in this turbulent ‘New Normal’ requires an ability to identify and seize opportunities the markets are currently offering. As demand recovers, focus on improving your odds of success. Call RESIDCO.

Air cargo represents less than one percent of global trade by tonnage but amounts to $6 trillion worth of goods moved every year – more than 36 percent of global trade by value.  Globally, half of that airfreight cargo has been carried on passenger jets rather than dedicated freighters. The rapid shutdown of passenger flights has eliminated passenger jet freight capacity, and air freight rates have responded, increasing significantly. 

With the cascading passenger flight cancellations (and flight restrictions), air carriers are moving idle passenger planes to freight in high-demand routes, taking advantage of the very high air cargo market rates at a time when fuel prices have plummeted (American Airlines Group Inc. is flying its first scheduled cargo service since 1984 between Dallas and Frankfurt).  As Asian manufacturing capacity comes back online, moving goods to the U.S. will further increase demand for airfreight. Equipment maker, John Deere & Co., is budgeting an extra $40 million in expedited freight cost for the second quarter to help ensure parts from Chinese suppliers can reach its facilities in Moline, Illinois.

Markets are telegraphing their uncertainty over how long the coronavirus will impact the domestic consumer activity which has driven our recent eleven-year bull market run.  The sell-off that’s occurring is being amplified by a constant media blitz of event cancellations, corporate travel bans, ‘shelter in place,’ school closings, and election-year ‘coronavirus politics’.  To stop the pandemic, we are forcing a recession.  Near-term, the impact will reduce second-quarter economic growth.  However, the politics of the fall election (and a $2 Trillion Stimulus package) will lead to a rebound in the second half.   

While commercial passenger air travel has been turned on its head, U.S. rail freight continues to move the essential goods we need to survive.  The slowing of the global and U.S. economies will delay domestic rail traffic improvement.  

But, as the summer appears, and the virus abates, domestic manufacturers and retailers will need to play inventory catch-up.  Companies will face such a need to restock there will be the potential for a significant freight traffic recovery in the second half of this year.  Longer-term, rail equipment demand uncertainty has been created due to the industry’s adoption of precision scheduled railroading (“PSR”). PSR (and trade) are driving the market dynamics, impacting rail equipment values and lease rates.  

Rail traffic (excluding coal and grain) is down year over year (still up from January lows).  First-quarter container volumes through the Port of Los Angeles, the largest U.S. gateway for inbound seaborne container shipments from China, are expected to be down 15% year-over-year.  Spring flooding will impact traffic along the Mississippi.  Oil’s slide will negatively impact the demand for crude oil tank cars and the frac sand cars that serve the shale oil industry.  

Air and Rail equipment values and lease rates are stressed.  But consider what the markets allow. Volatility creates opportunities. Now is the time to look for those gaps, weaknesses, and areas of growth; ask “Where are the most productive assets available?

We have some answers.  Call RESIDCO.

Market Competition

When a National Bank invests in personal property, the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 12 Part 23, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency provides regulatory investment guidelines.  Prior to the early 1990s, banks entered into personal property leases only when they were the functional equivalent of a loan (meaning leases had to be “net, full-payout leases”). 

As bank regulations relaxed, banks began to enter the operating lease markets by creating operating subsidiaries that met regulatory investment requirements. With their low cost of capital, banks quickly became significant market competitors. Wells Fargo1, CIT, PNC, and Citigroup are examples. They own a significant portion of the national fleet of 1.6 Million units.  But with 400,000 railcars in storage and 2019 lease rates down 10 to 20% from the prior year, it has become a challenge to remarket or sell off-lease “nonearning assets” given current market pricing.    

Other than intermodal and autos, railcars carry grain, coal, crushed stone, sand, gravel, primary metal products, chemicals, iron and steel scrap, petroleum products, lumber, wood and paper products, and other high-volume, low-value commodities. Shippers want to manage their supply chains and inventory investment by controlling transport capacity and linking deliveries directly to production lines, customer factories, distribution centers, and ports of entry/export.  

With several modes of transportation available (truck, rail, air, and river), shippers and railroads are aware of the value of consistent delivery, pricing, and volume; this is what is driving the Class One focus on ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading.’ But by reducing service in insufficiently profitable secondary lanes, the Class 1 railroads are deciding to grow margins and cede market share to alternative modes. The result is the Class One Railroads are using fewer railcars and locomotives.

Rail Traffic as of January 2020

Exacerbating the oversupply of equipment U.S. rail volumes fell (again) in January (their 12th straight decline).  Excluding coal (which was down 13.8%) and grain (down 11.6%), U.S. carloads were down .6% in January. Carload gains included chemicals, grain mill products, and metallic ores (carloads of iron and steel scrap were up 5.2%).  U.S. intermodal originations fell 5.4% and have now fallen for 12 consecutive months.  

Job gains, the Institute for Supply Management’s (“ISM”), Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (“PMI”), the Non-Manufacturing Index (“NMI”), housing starts, and consumer spending were bright spots, all higher in January.  

Positive trade developments (the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement – “USMCA,” and the China “Phase One” deal) are being offset by the unknown economic impact of the Chinese coronavirus outbreak.  In January, coal carloads averaged 69,706 per week, the lowest January average since before 1988. In the first 10 months of 2019, coal accounted for less than 24% of U.S. electricity generation, down from 27% in 2018, and 50% in 20052.  Moreover, weekly average grain carloads in January (19,635) were the lowest for January since 2013.  

Investment Solutions

Railcar leasing can provide stable and predictable cash flows as freight volumes return, and the Class Ones show tangible benefits for shippers, such as consistent delivery and pricing that is market competitive.  As markets adjust, how can investment results best be managed? For restructuring solutions, seek the advice of independent, unbiased, and experienced counsel.  Call RESIDCO.

1Wells Fargo maintains they are the largest railcar lessor in North America, with more than 175,000 railcars.

2Ibid.

Labor and Equipment Demand

Eliminating hump yards and running fewer, longer, ‘scheduled’ trains, the Class One’s are continuing to implement Precision Scheduled Railroading (“PSR”). It’s transforming rail networks, reducing the need for labor and equipment. 

The Union Pacific is planning to reduce its workforce by eliminating 3,000 workers this year (after reducing its staff by 11% in 2019).  As train speeds increase, the need for rail equipment decreases.  It’s estimated that for every one-mile increase in average freight train speed and additional 50,000, additional railcars will be moved to storage. Of a fleet of 1.6 Million railcars, 25% were in storage this January.  And train speeds are increasing due to PSR, lingering trade tensions, and to lower freight volumes caused by our slowing manufacturing economy*.  Going forward with larger capacity and new cars being delivered, fewer cars will be needed.  Added to this, the Rails are losing market share as shippers move product to truck to meet just-in-time inventory requirements. 

The Election Effect

Over the years, car ownership has changed dramatically.  In 1962 the railroads owned 90% of the freight car fleet.  Today, 75% is privately owned. The oversupply of railcars and locomotive power caused by PSR and lower freight volume is acting to reduce market values of existing equipment and lease rates at renewal.  The current low-interest-rate environment is depressing lease rate factors available for new equipment.  Uncertainty over the fall election and direction of international events (both in the Middle East and Asia) are working to hold the business investment flat.  As a result, new railcar deliveries for 2020 are expected to trend down. 

Given the election year, Trump signed a “phase one” trade deal with China this January 15th.  It provides a measure of relief for rail shippers.  China agreed to make purchases of $200 billion worth of U.S. goods over a two-year period, doubling its agricultural purchases to $40 billion.  Whether China will honor this agreement (which includes ending its practice of forcing foreign companies to transfer technology to Chinese companies as a condition for access to the Chinese market) is an open question.  

The agreement won’t fix everything.  There will be a continuing lack of cooperation over technology, national security, military, and political ideologies.  These are significant and continuing issues.  As the U.S. and China pursue their own national and economic interests, the conflict will continue.  A degree of economic decoupling is likely and the future of freight traffic between the two countries remains unanswered.  At stake are a stronger economy and global influence.  

Globalism, which fostered complex supply chains spanning multiple borders, is retreating.  The U.S. has become unilateralist and is rewriting trade rules to prioritize its interests while shunning trade blocs.  Bilateral deals have been completed with Canada, Mexico, now China, and soon with Britain, as it has left the E.U. The economic impact of the coronavirus in China is unknown, but airlines are suspending flights and businesses are shutting down operations there.  

Investment Risk Planning

As fiscal stimulus fades and global growth slows, U.S. GDP growth is expected to remain at 2%.  Even though we’re in the longest bull market in history, overall uncertainty has not been reduced.   Tariffs have led to a decline in business investment. While change is certain, how we react to events, preplan for them, and manage through them is within our control.  

Struggling to price investment risk and looking for answers?  Call RESIDCO

*The U.S. manufacturing sector contracted for five straight months through December, the Institute for Supply Management.