CSX Net Earnings, Revenue Down in 4th Quarter 2019

Cost cutting can only take a company so far. That is one takeaway from the CSX announcement this week that its net earnings and revenue declined in the fourth quarter of 2019 due to a 7 percent drop in freight traffic volumes.

Net earnings fell 9 percent to $771 million, or 99 cents per share, from $843 million, or $1.01 per share in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Revenue fell 8 percent to $2.9 billion from $3.1 billion. CSX said in a news release that one bright spot was that fourth-quarter expenses were down 9 percent year over year to $1.73 billion due to efficiency gains and volume-related savings.

Operating income declined 8 percent to $1.15 billion compared to the fourth quarter of 2018.

The Class 1 carrier said the lower volumes were in part driven by loss of coal traffic.

CSX did post a 60 percent operating ratio, a fourth quarter record. The operating ratio is the percentage of revenue that is devoted to expenses.

In the fourth quarter of 2018 the operating ratio had been 60.3 percent.

For 2019 as a whole, CSX generated net earnings of $3.33 billion, or $4.17 per share, versus 3.31 billion, or $3.84 per share, in 2018, an increase of 1 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

It said its full-year 2019 operating ratio of 58.4 percent set a U.S. Class I record, improving from the 2018 record result of 60.3 percent.

For the year, CSX traffic volume was down 4 percent with merchandise traffic flat, coal traffic down 5 percent, and intermodal falling by 8 percent.

CSX said much of the 17 percent decline in coal traffic in the fourth quarter of 2019 was due to fewer shipments of coal used to generate electricity. That market has been hindered by competition from natural gas.

Export coal fell due to reduced international shipments of both thermal and metallurgical coal as global benchmark prices fell.

Also falling was domestic and international intermodal shipments. CSX attributed that 7 percent decline to the closing of some low-density service lanes.

As far as the 3 percent falloff in merchandise traffic, CSX said chemicals were down due to reduced natural gas liquids, fly ash and sand shipments.

Agriculture and food products increased due to gains in ethanol, sweeteners and oil.

Automotive traffic fell due to a reduction in North American production while minerals increased due to higher shipments for highway projects.

Forest products dipped due to fewer pulp board shipments while fertilizer volume gained on short-haul phosphate shipments that offset by declines in long-haul fertilizer shipments.

Metals and equipment were down due to reduced steel, construction and scrap shipments.

In a conference call, CSX CEO James Foote sought to put a positive spin on the report by saying, “our service is the best it’s ever been and getting better.”

Mark Wallace, CSX’s executive vice president of sale and marketing, insisted that the railroad is gaining market share every day from trucks as a result.

Nonetheless, he said CSX does not foresee a contraction in trucking industry capacity that would spark an increase in truck rates that could prompt diversion of highway loads to intermodal.

Wallace also said CSX will hold the line on intermodal rates and refuse to chase volume to cutting price.

He said most of CSX’s domestic intermodal business is under long-term contracts.

In speaking to investors, Foote said traffic was hindered by a strike against General Motors last summer and the closing an oil refinery in Philadelphia following an explosion and fire.

“These are truly great results considering the industrial economy’s second half performance,” Foote said.

CSX management expects freight volume to continue to lag over the next few months due to a lackluster industrial economy.

There is a reduced global demand for thermal and metallurgical coal and low natural gas prices will depress domestic demand for coal.

The railroad’s management team said it expects to post growth numbers in 2020 in intermodal and merchandise traffic, but those will enable the carrier to overcome an expected continued decline in coal traffic.

For the year ahead, CSX is projecting revenue to fall by 2 percent compared to 2019. It has an objective of an operating ratio of 59 percent.

Capital expenses are expected to range between $1.6 billion and $1.7 billion, which would be similar to what has spent in recent years.

Foote said the improvements in service quality have enabled CSX to offer service to shippers that is “truck-like in consistency.”

If CSX is to compete against truckers is must offer a reliable service. He also played up his contention that CSX is less expensive than service and more friendly to the environment due to better fuel efficiency.

Jamie Boychuk, executive vice president of operations, said improvements in velocity have enabled the carrier to tighten some of its train schedules, which might negatively affect on-time performance in the first quarter.

CSX said its train velocity has improved by 12 percent with terminal dwell down 9 percent and car miles per day up 6 percent.

During the fourth quarter, trip plan compliance was 82.6 percent for carload traffic and 95.5 percent for intermodal shipments.

The same figures for the fourth quarter of 2018 were 67.3 percent and 73.4 percent respectively.

CSX said 92 percent of its trains departed on time and 85 percent arrived on time.

Those are improvements of 18 percent and 15 percent respectively from the fourth quarter of 2018.

During the 2019 the personal injury rate for CSX employees fell by 15 percent while the train accident rate improved by 41 percent.

Despite falling traffic volume and revenue, Railway Age described CSX’s fourth quarter results as solid because the earnings per share performance exceeded that projected by Wall Street stock analysts.

“However, weak 2020 guidance and top-line outlook were the larger story, with 2020 revenue to be adversely affected by lower coal volumes and yields,” wrote Cowen and Company Managing Director and Railway Age Wall Street Contributing Editor Jason Seidl.

Seidl said his firm has lowered its 2020 and 2021 earnings per share estimates for CSX.

CSX reported earnings per share of 99 cents for the fourth quarter, which beat the 96 cents per share expected on Wall Street.

Analysts had projected CSX would have operating income of $1.18 billion while the actual figure was $1.15 billion. Revenue at  $2.89 billion was slightly below the projected $2.91 billion.

The diminishing coal market is important, Seidl noted, because it is a high-margin business. CSX management expects to lose $300 million coal revenue this year.

Cowen is projecting that 2020 and 2021 earnings per share estimates for CSX will be $4.10 and $4.50 to account for CSX management’s new outlook. The projections had been $4.40 and $4.75, respectively.

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