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.

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