Monday, March 08, 2010

Financial Edge: Treading water . . . and then some

Written by 

By Anthony D. Kruglinski

 

anthony-kruglinski-web.jpgOur regular readers know that in addition to being a Contributing Editor at Railway Age, I am the President of Railroad Financial Corp., a financial advisor that works only in the rail industry. Several weeks ago, Railroad Financial Corp. celebrated its 21st birthday, and I had the opportunity to explain to a new acquaintance what my company does.

 

I explained that during the first five years of RFC’s existence, the majority of our financial dealings involved buying and selling and financing and refinancing older railcars and locomotives. The late 1980s and the early- to mid-1990s were mostly taken up with extending the lives of existing rail equipment. (There were certainly new cars and locomotives built and financed, but most of RFC’s customers at the time were shortlines and regional railroads, not Class I railroads.)

 

The mid-1990s through 2007 or so saw more new rolling stock being built and fewer cars and locomotives rebuilt or remanufactured. At the time, we reported in Railway Age that end-users of railcars and locomotives were voting with their checkbooks in favor of new modern equipment rather than to continue to plow more money into older equipment.

 

What’s happened recently? While RFC is still financing new cars, the vast bulk of our activity—well in excess of $1 billion in equipment last year—involved restructuring existing leasing agreements to attempt to wring more efficiency from existing transactions.

 

Sometimes we find ourselves working for a bankrupt entity seeking to restructure its operating lease fleet. Other times we work for financially healthy lessees who are seeking to lower their rental costs by trading term (longer) for rate (lower).

 

The point is that during the past 21 years we have gone from extending the lives of various types of railcars and locomotives, to building almost exclusively new equipment to, today, very little building any equipment of any kind.

 

We are all, more or less, sitting around waiting for developments:

• New cars are being built, but in numbers that are 25% or 30% of the numbers built only a few years ago.

• Locomotive OEMs are not inking any sizeable North American new locomotive orders. (Why would they when there may be as many as 10,000 locomotives in storage?)

• Depending on how you do your count (do you count cars awaiting the scrapper?), there may be as many as 500,000 cars stored in North America.

• Several large lessors reportedly are interested in selling some or all of their railcar and locomotive fleets, but not at material discounts. The cars they do want to sell are off lease; no one wants them.

 

Almost nothing is happening, except that RFC is making a reasonably good living restructuring and reformatting existing transactions involving railcars and locomotives to save lessees money.

 

Those of you who wait for this column’s annual predictions saw they did not come in December, January, or February. For now, I think that the big prediction for 2010 is for more of the same. That’s the first time that I have ever predicted that! But I can’t leave 2010 alone without some prognosticating, so here we go:

 

Operating lessor sales: I predict that there will be significant sales of operating leasing fleets during 2010. Nothing much has happened since the last fleet sale at the end of 2008, but I believe that several new investors are interested in making a foray into the acquisition of operating leased rail equipment. The situation just needs a bit of a push. What could that be? Foreclosure by lenders who have the opportunity to do so, due to payment or other defaults. The need for cash that’s required by one or more large diversified financial entities that would cause them to sale rail equipment at a modest discount. A decision by private equity investors to finally make investments they have been contemplating for several years.

 

Scrapping equipment: The next time there is an upward blip for the price of scrap steel, look for tens of thousands of railcars and locomotives to be scrapped. Owners of these items must face that many of these units will never go back into service. Surprisingly, the cost of storage is now also becoming an issue.

 

Planning for EPA Tier 4 locomotives: While the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 locomotive emissions regulations and 2015 are still a ways off, locomotive manufacturers and high-horsepower end-users have to think about compliance. Here are some of the questions that the railroads are asking:

• What should I do with my existing high-horsepower locomotives? Should I invest in rebuilding some or all of them now or should I cut my losses and start scrapping them as soon as possible?

• EMD and GE are apparently fielding two different solutions for Tier 4. The GE product reportedly uses an aftermarket scrubber using urea. The EMD unit appears to continue to use the existing technology adapted for Tier 4. Planning needs to get started, but what planning?

 

That’s the best I can do this year!

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.