By Scott T. Matheson, CFA, CPA
Senior Director, Investment Research,
CAPTRUST Financial Advisors
On Nov. 3, Warren Buffett announced his company’s intention to acquire BNSF. He commented on CNBC that “[the acquisition is] an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.” Based on BNSF’s ties to the economy, we agree that Buffett’s decision is predicated on faith in eventual economic recovery.
The BNSF story is indicative of the railroad industry in general. As market analysts, CAPTRUST pays close attention to railroad trends, as freight data and company earnings reports/outlooks can provide tangible assessments of economic trends, particularly consumer demand. The preliminary Gross Domestic Product (GDP) release within the U.S. for the quarter ended Sept. 30 indicated that consumption continues to account for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic output, making consumers a key variable in economic growth—and an important gauge for the railroad industry’s health.
Here are few of the variables we think are critical to gauge the U.S. consumer’s health. In aggregate, we are seeing some modest improvements in each factor:
Unemployment: September’s unemployment rate stood at 10.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure is expected to rise is coming months and we are looking for stability in the latter part of 2010.
Credit availability: The U.S. consumer has relied on easy credit to facilitate spending over the past three decades. In spite of the substantial aid provided to financial institutions from the federal government, banks are not eager to extend loans to the average consumer, but we are seeing some pickup in available credit.
Housing: Home prices, as measured by the Case Schiller 20 City Composite, are down 32% since July 2006. While the U.S. has experienced several recent month-over-month increases in prices, we foresee a gradual recovery and stabilization within residential real estate.
The U.S. dollar: From early March 2009 to early November 2009, the U.S. dollar declined more than 15% vs. a trade-weighted basket of global currencies. The direction of the U.S. dollar is important to watch as it is not only impacts the volume of goods U.S. consumers import, but also as it impacts the volume of exports when U.S. goods look cheap to overseas buyers. Both these factors affect rail traffic.
Preliminary third-quarter U.S. GDP exhibited some economic growth that may mark the recession’s end, a positive for the economically-sensitive railroad industry. However, given the established importance of the consumer and considering the challenges outlined above, while we believe the U.S. is on the road to recovery, we expect it to be a slow and bumpy ride.
Rail operators should continue to monitor the challenges facing the U.S. consumer as they seek to assess the health of the U.S. economy in an ultimate effort to understand the impact to their bu.s.inesses, but we do see the glass as half full and are encouraged by increased U.S. export demand.
Scott Matheson oversees the investment research of CAPTRUST Financial Advisors, a 20-year-old independent investment research and retirement plan advisory firm that is headquartered in Raleigh, N.C.