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Most freight transportation companies to miss Wall Street's Q1 earnings consensus estimates, Stifel Nicolaus says


CN and Kirby Corp. are the only two freight transportation companies likely to “slightly” beat Wall Street’s first-quarter earnings consensus estimates, but it’s possible a handful of firms will miss consensus numbers, say transportation and logistics analysts at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Inc.

In a first-quarter earnings preview research note issued Wednesday, the analysts said CN will earn 52 cents per diluted share in the first quarter compared with the 61 cents during the same 2008 period. Wall Street’s consensus is 49 cents.

Despite Stifel’s bullishness on CN’s potential to beat the consensus estimate, the firm’s analysts noted the railroad’s first-quarter unit volumes fell 15.6 percent year over year on an 18.3 percent decline in carload volume and a 9.1 percent slide in intermodal volume. But Stifel also noted that CN’s exposure to Alberta oil sands, the Port of Prince Rupert and export grain markets are all pluses.

“Near term, however, the economy has left volumes with nowhere to hide,” said the analysts, who include John Larkin, David Ross and Michael Baudendistel. “On the bright side, the revenue ton-mile decline in Q1 should be less severe than carloads due to loss of very short haul iron-ore business.”

Meanwhile, the analysts offered up an EPS estimate of 55 cents for barge carrier Kirby, down from the 68 cents a share a year earlier. Analysts’ consensus is 52 cents. Kirby is one of the only transportation companies to give 2009 EPS guidance, the Stifel analysts noted, adding they expect the company to earn between $2.40 and $2.65, down 9 percent to 18 percent compared with first-quarter 2008’s EPS.

“We consider the company’s blue-chip customer base, conservative balance sheet, potential for accretive acquisitions and strong free cash flow all to be pluses,” Stifel analysts said.

Canadian Pacific, Con-Way Transportation Services, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Quality Distribution Inc. could miss Wall Street’s Q1 consensus estimates by between one penny and 3 cents per diluted share, according to Stifel. The firm’s EPS estimate for CP is 38 cents vs. 76 cents in the year-earlier period and a consensus estimate of 40 cents.

“Declines in [metallurgical] coal production and very little global trade of potash have contributed to particular volume weakness in 1Q09,” Stifel said of CP.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., CSX Corp. and Union Pacific Corp. are among the companies that could miss their respective consensus estimates by at least 4 cents per diluted share, Stifel analysts believe. Wall Street’s consensus estimates for the companies are 98 cents, 53 cents and 67 cents, respectively.

Grain and coal are “no longer pillars” of strength for the rail industry, with weak global demand and less interest in ethanol weighing on the grain market, Stifel’s analysts said. A weak European economy has hurt the export coal markets, and autos, construction material and industrial products volumes weakened further during the quarter, Stifel said.

— By Desiree J. Hanford. A Chicago-based free-lance writer, Hanford covered the equities market, including transportation, for Dow Jones & Co. for 10 years.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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