Monday, December 12, 2011

Examining the financial crisis fallout

Written by  Tony Kruglinski, Financial Editor
Tony Kruglinski Tony Kruglinski
There are unanswered questions about regulatory changes and a shrinking operating lessor pool. As readers of this column already know, the rail industry has enjoyed more than 30 years of seemingly limitless financing of its equipment needs by banks, insurance companies, and operating lessors.
The result? Of the nearly 1.6 million railcars in North America, more than 60% of them are owned by non-railroads and leased to railroads and other industry participants under a variety of financing structures. The costs inherent in these financings have also been regularly subsidized by Uncle Sam as the owners have made use of the depreciation deductions that come with ownership of the equipment and passed a portion of the benefits on to the lessees in the form of lower rents—all in all, a win/win situation for all involved.

However, the financial crisis we have just weathered and a series of pending regulatory changes are likely to severely impact the amount and/or cost of this kind of financing available to the industry in the coming years.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Railroad Financial Corporation’s Rail Equipment Finance Conference, set for March 6 -9, 2011 in Palm Springs, Calif., is set to tackle this thorny issue of financial capacity for the next generation of rail equipment finance, along with regular agenda items profiling the status of the North American railcar and locomotive fleets.

Since many of our readers won’t be journeying to Palm Springs to be with us, we thought we would use this month’s Financial Edge to at least point out the issues involved in this financial conundrum so that you can track its development in your own situation.

Shrinkage of the operating lessor pool: Perhaps the most easy to observe evidence of a change in the circumstances facing rail equipment operators who do not wish to own their rolling stock is the reduction in the number of operating lessors willing to make substantial purchases of railcars and locomotives for lease to third parties. While the absolute number of rail equipment lessors has only shrunk slightly, the number of players willing to write a big check to take over a large order for an end-user seeking operating lease financing is down materially.

Why? The financial crisis has rocked several of them back on their heels to the point that they are still in the market but seeming reluctant to write big checks. The impact of this situation is somewhat muted at this time by the slow market in new building for railcars and locomotives. The issue, we believe, will become more apparent when the market for new building comes back in the next couple of years and the number and appetite of the operating lessors willing to make big equipment bets has shrunk.

Will this create a huge problem for the industry? Will rents rise materially to compensate for these changes and to lure new players into the market? Will end-users end up purchasing equipment for cash or with debt financing? These are all questions that we intend to examine in March.

Regulatory changes due to impact finance leasing: Over the past months and years, we’ve used this column to highlight pending regulatory changes likely to impact banks and other financial institutions that have been big players in the financing leasing market, which has supported billions of dollars in finance leasing for the rail industry. (With a finance lease, the lessee usually controls the future of the equipment at lease end. Not so with operating leasing, where the lessor recovers the equipment for release.)

For instance, we have warned that capital requirements inherent in the capital adequacy rules generally referred to as Basel II would have a significant impact on long-term leveraged financing leasing (the cheapest type of finance lease available to lessees due to its inherent low-cost debt component).

What’s happened during the past year or two? Virtually all leveraged leasing to the rail industry has been replaced by single-investor leasing (more expensive due to the absence of a low-cost debt component). You can still get your deal financed, but it just costs you more.

We are also awaiting the impact of as-yet-to-be-finalized changes to the account rules relating to just who records what assets and liabilities on its books relative to the kinds of finance transactions that have been the mainstay of rail equipment finance in North America.

The impact of these rule changes will likely be massive. What will these changes likely be when the rules are finalized? How will lessors and lessees react and tailor their transactions as a result? Most important, will the economics of finance leasing change for the worse? These are all questions that, as yet, have no answers, but we are sure to shed further light on them at Rail Equipment Finance 2011. We invite you to join us for this discussion and others that can shape the way you will be doing business in 2011 and beyond. See www.railequipmentfinance.com for information on the conference.