Saturday, January 24, 2015

Union Pacific Sees US Economic Growth; Cites Several Uncertainties

The overall theme of strong US economic growth in 2015 continues with Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) forecasting strength in several key domestic arenas.  With 31,838 route miles providing rail access to and from both the Pacific Coast and the Gulf Coast shipping ports, this 150 year old railroad corporation has the inside track on a wide range of industrial and consumer goods being transported around the nation.  What they are forecasting for 2015 is very promising on the domestic front.

Agricultural demand looks strong in the US, although there's oversupply internationally so demand for US agricultural products overseas looks weak.  There is also some short-term weakness evident in demand for ethanol - which will impact demand for corn - however with plunging gas prices in the US, demand for ethanol is forecast to increase as we head towards higher demand for gasoline through the first half of this year.

For those interested in the automotive sector, the news on that front continues to be positive.  UNP saw continued strength in consumer demand for both finished products (i.e. new cars) as well as increased demand for automotive parts.  They see this trend as continuing into the 2015.  Seasonally adjusted, shipments of new cars in the 4th quarter increased by over one million vehicles.  Shipments of parts also saw a 2% increase in the 4th quarter. 

On the energy front, strong demand for coal continues to be forecast.  Inventories are currently low, and UNP expects strong demand to replenish those supplies.  The price of natural gas, however, could put pressure on demand for coal since a lower natural gas price will decrease the demand for coal across the nation.  While UNP has yet to see this impact in their shipment orders, they have called this out as a concern for their coal segment in 2015.

The price of crude oil is already having an impact on shipments, and that's expected to continue into 2015.  Volumes in the Bakken fields are down significantly already, and as long as crude prices stay below $75 to $80 per barrel, declines there will escalate.  The Uinta Basin and Niobrara Basin have increased shipment volumes, however I'd be concerned about Niobrara maintaining that trend.  The Uinta Basin produces traditional natural gas and oil, and is increasing overall production while decreasing the number of rigs, primarily through horizontal drilling.  The increased volume per rig is currently able to offset the impact of decreased margins, although if prices remain low, that will not be enough to sustain profitability.  The Niobrara Basin, however, has a very high exposure to margin risks associated with shale extraction - the most expensive of the oil production methods in use today.  Low oil prices will cripple production in this basin.  This will also have an impact on UNP's shipment of frac sand which accounted for 35% of their 28% increase in non-metallic minerals volume in 2014.

Switching to the construction industry, UNP is seeing sustained growth in the shipment of construction materials and they expect that to continue into 2015.  This growth is in both residential and non-residential building materials, and it's also being seen in lumber shipments. 

Intermodal shipments continue to grow domestically as well.  This is of interest since intermodal shipments transcend the various transport providers including trucking, rail, and shipping.  There's weakness being felt in imports, however, due to the long-running labor dispute in the west coast ports.  A much-hoped-for deal in mid-2014 didn't manifest, and the impact is being felt along the coast.

UNP reported strong demand for imported beer in 2014, and they forecast increased demand in 2015.  I'm not sure if there's a trading opportunity here, but in the interest of full disclosure, I will state that I'm doing my part to ensure demand remains high.

UNP did cite several uncertainties in their 2015 forecast, but by now they are uncertainties of which we are all aware:
  • Crude oil prices will impact multiple industries, especially if they remain this low for any length of time.
  • Global economies are softening, primarily in Europe, Japan, and Russia.  China's growth has slowed, (although it's projected to be close to 7% in 2015, so that's still a significant amount of demand.)
  • The west coast labor dispute will continue to add import pressures.
Based on UNP's assessment of shipment volume projections in 2015, keeping an eye on the automotive industry and the construction industry should provide some interesting trading opportunities.  On the speculative side, it's worth keeping an eye on the interaction between coal and natural gas demand as the energy price dynamic plays out through the first half of the year.

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