Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Financial Edge: Gauging the Buffett effect

Written by 

By Tony Kruglinski, Financial Editor

anthony-kruglinski-web.jpgIf you are like this writer, during the past weeks and months you have been pummeled by kith and kin concerning Warren Buffett’s BNSF strategy and what it may mean “for” and “to” you. It’s pretty clear that we are getting these questions because our friends and family don’t understand exactly how we make a living in this industry and now (they think) they have something to discuss with us! God bless them. But I would suggest that we need to go beyond the easy “Buffett” answers that we give friends and relatives . . .

“It’s a vote of confidence for the American economy and an important industry that supports it.”

“He recognizes the long term role railroads play and the long term growth that is possible for the knowledgeable investor.”

. . . and ask some serious questions that need asking, which have nothing to do with Mr. Buffett’s investing wisdom.
We should ask, for instance, how Warren Buffett’s very public endorsement of the future of the railroad industry in North America will, in-and-of-itself, affect us? Let’s start with some basics:

• Savvy industry participants know all about the vibrant future freight railroading will have when the economy rebounds.

• Investors in railroad stocks are now benefiting from the “rising tides lift all boats” result of Warren Buffett’s BNSF strategy.

• Railroad industry wannabe investors have been sitting on the sidelines looking for opportunities to jump into a depressed market for rail equipment (in particular), but have found their options severely limited due to the absence of sellers willing to take a haircut on prices.

Will the spotlight Mr. Buffett has put on our industry suggest to potential investors (who have been on the sidelines, studying the industry for months or years) that waiting for better opportunities may just cause them to miss the proverbial train? We think that’s a good possibility. Everything in life needs to be taken in context with what’s happening and what can be perceived as likely to happen.

For instance, in the second half of 2008, several large railcar operating lease portfolios were (formally and informally) offered for sale. We are told that none sold because potential buyers were unwilling to offer pricing at or close to the sellers’ book values. The only sale that occurred was a small 3,000-plus fleet that sold (for a discount of about 25%) when its parent entered liquidation.

Every indication is that one or more operating lease fleets could be on the market in 2010 if the interest and pricing rebounds in the marketplace. Both CIT and AIG are possible candidates for sale. There could be others. If buyers continue to hold back, waiting for a “deal” on discounted assets, these potential sales will only occur if the seller hits a wall of some sort and absolutely has to sell.

But what if, keying on Mr. Buffet’s view of the long-term investment value represented by the railroad industry, some of these buyers decide that the time to invest is now before the train leaves the station? We think that possibility is a real one. Residential real estate sellers and buyers ultimately reach agreement based on mutual perceptions as to the state of a moving market. We believe it is very possible that efforts to market existing operating lease portfolios of equipment in 2010 may be more successful than in the past simply because Warren Buffett has started playing face-up poker regarding his long-term view of our industry. (A side issue: Debt markets need to rebound to lend into these potential acquisitions.)

Now, who will these likely buyers be? We think that many of the new investors that took a look—and a pass— at buying operating leasing fleets will be back and, perhaps, may be more willing to realistically consider the seller’s minimums. Remember, investors who invested side-by-side with Mr. Buffett in BNSF are now due to earn a premium materially larger than any discount sought by potential lease fleet investors in 2008!

Timing is everything.

What about the stocks of railcar builders that have been depressed due to the miserable market for new car sales? Here, we are not sure that any Buffett vote of confidence will be able to boost stock prices unless and until order books begin filling up. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of parked freight cars would suggest that is not about to happen.
How about investments in other rail industry suppliers? We believe that there will be increased investor interest due not only to Mr. Buffett, but also to passenger rail funding coming from Washington. (Arguably, federal largesse has already started M&A activity in this sector.)

I’ll steal a page from Marilyn Monroe’s serenade to JFK on his 45th Birthday (Sung to “Thanks For The Memory”):

“Thanks, Mr. Buffett.
For all the things you’ve done.
You’ve invested by the ton.
You’ve led the way.
You’ve sold the Street
To us you’re number one.
We thank you so much!”

 

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.