Friday, May 29, 2015

Union Pacific (UNP) Dividend Stock Analysis

Union Pacific Corporation (UNP), through its subsidiary, Union Pacific Railroad Company, operates railroads in the United States. Union Pacific Corporation is a dividend achiever, which has raised dividends for 10 years in a row.

The most recent dividend increase was in February 2015, when the Board of Directors approved a 10% increase in the quarterly dividend to 55 cents/share.

The company’s largest competitors include CSX Corporation (CSX), Norfolk Southern Corporation (NSC), and Burlington Northern Santa Fe which is part of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/B).

Over the past decade this dividend growth stock has delivered an annualized total return of 23% to its shareholders. Future returns will likely be much lower, and will be dependent on growth in earnings and starting dividend yields obtained by shareholders. Investors should also not forget that the transportation sector is exposed to the cyclical nature of the economy, and would follow its short-term cycles pretty well.


The company has managed to deliver a 25.90% average increase in annual EPS over the past decade. Union Pacific is expected to earn $6.39 per share in 2015 and $7.15 per share in 2016. In comparison, the company earned $5.75/share in 2014. The high percentage since 2005 was caused by one-time events artificially depressing earnings, as earnings seem to have been hit by a one-time event.

Earnings per share have also been aided by share buybacks. The number of shares outstanding has decreased from 1.066 billion in 2005 to 883 million by 2015.

Railroads are an oligopoly in the US, as 80% of revenues are generated by BNSF, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and CSX. The first two operate largely on the west coast, while the last two operate largely on the east coast. Railroads compete for customers, but also share assets as well. They compete with trucks, pipelines, ships and aircraft for hauling goods. Trucking provides more flexibility in transporting goods, though they are more expensive. It makes sense to transport goods on long distances using a combination of rail and other modes of transport for maximum cost savings when moving goods.

Long-term growth will be driven by the growth in US economic activity. When economic activity improves over time, this would translate into more goods being shipped in the country.
The railroad's best prospects are long-term. As Warren Buffett put it, an investment in railroads is an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States. Over time, the movement of goods in the United States will increase, and railroads like BNSF or Union Pacific should get its full share of the gain. Railroads move goods across longer distances in a much more efficient way that long-haul trucks. This provides railroads a cost advantage.

Today, the United States has half the usable track it had in 1970, though companies like BNSF and Union Pacific are hauling much more freight than they did back then, and the American Association of Railroads estimates that freight loads will nearly double by 2035. That congestion, which is a signal of demand, means opportunity for railroads to improve existing tracks and add new ones, and boost sales.

The economic moats around railroads are the billions of dollars it costs to build them and the fact that the rights of way they need are all but impossible to obtain today. Therefore, it is unlikely that a new railroad will be created, though other modes of transportation could chip away market share. However, given the fact that it costs 3 – 4 times lower to transport goods through a railroad than truck, railways have inherent cost advantage. This cost advantage could also allow railroads to raise prices, and still remain competitive. Railroads have some geographic advantage as well.

Furthermore, rail companies can increase profits by improving productivity. For example, using smart systems to optimize speed depending on terrain could generate significant fuel savings over time. Reducing the amount of time railcars sit idle, could also improve profitability (since using those assets more effectively reduces the need to buy too many railcars to begin with). Raising the length of trains could further boost productivity.

Union Pacific operates the longest network of railroad track in the US, with over 32,000 miles. 2013 freight revenues are derived by Intermodal (20%), Agricultural (16%), Autos (10%), Chemicals (17%), Coal (19%), Industrial Products (18%).

The annual dividend payment has increased by 20.30% per year over the past decade, which is lower than the growth in EPS. Future rates of growth in dividends will be limited to the rate of growth in earnings per share.

A 20% growth in distributions translates into the dividend payment doubling almost every three and a half years on average. If we check the dividend history, going as far back as 1980, we could see that Inion Pacific has managed to double dividends almost every nine years on average. The item to add however was that in 1998 the company did cut its dividends by more than 50%. Therefore, while the dividend is likely sustainable, this is a cyclical company which is more likely to cut distributions than your typical consumer staples or healthcare dividend stock.

In the past decade, the dividend payout ratio has ranged between 20% in 2006 and a high of 33% in 2014. The high percentage in 2005 was mostly an aberration, as earnings seem to have been hit by a one-time event. A lower payout is always a plus, since it leaves room for consistent dividend growth minimizing the impact of short-term fluctuations in earnings.

Union Pacific has managed to substantially improve return on equity over the past decade. During out study period, this indicator increased from a low of 7.80% in 2005 to a high of 24.40% in 2014. I generally like seeing a high return on equity, which is also relatively stable or rising over time.

Currently, Union Pacific is attractively valued at 18.10 times earnings, though it has a low current yield of 2.10%. I initiated small position in the railroad, because it is easier for me to track companies when I have skin in the game. I would be more interested in Union Pacific on dips below $90/share. I also initiated a small position in Norfolk Southern (NSC), to which I also plan on adding to on dips.

Full Disclosure: Long UNP, NSC

Relevant Articles:

Warren Buffett Investing Resource Page
Norfolk Southern Corporation (NSC) Dividend Stock Analysis
Lifecycle of the dividend investor
- How to turbocharge dividend growth
How to find long term dividend stock ideas

9 comments:

  1. Great company to own, DGI. Its one of the best run companies in the business and the numbers speak for themselves.

    One aspect of competition to consider is that their track networks overlaps that of Burlington Santa Fe and Berkshire is investing a lot of money over the next year or two to upgrade their network and concentrate on efficiency. Something to look out for and consider. Attractive price to initiate a position.

    R2R

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    1. Thanks for your comment. There is some overlap, and some competition. But also track that doesn't overlap too.

      I think Buffett likes BNSF, UNP and NSC. Since he owns BNSF, he decided to sell UNP & NSC. Based on his comments he likes those railroads. And based on my research, UNP seems to be better operating than BNSF, which is probabaly why BNSF needs to invest a lot of money - probably to keep up.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a very good comment!

      DGI

      Delete
  2. I ran F.A.S.T.Graphs on this because we have no exposure to railroads. I was surprised to see that, from 1997 until today, the chart shows the average P/E is consistently between 16 and 18. There is usually much more variation over that long of a time frame. Note that I was looking backwards from today until the chosen starting point and seeing an average, but still, the chart is one of consistency. Now looks to be a good time to buy at around $100 since the fall from the low $120s 3 months ago. :)

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    1. That is interesting to hear. I do not really spend too much time comparing valuations to past, but rather look at all ideas available today and stack them against each other, let them fight it out, and inform me which one to take ;-)

      I find it interesting that so many other dividend bloggers are also looking at the space.
      It is either an example of groupthink or great minds thinking alike ;-)

      Delete
  3. Just noticed that Morningstar, S&P Capital IQ, and BoA (Merrill Lynch) all have "buy" ratings on UNP. The Chowder number is 30! Credit rating is A. Long term debt to capital is 35%. If there was a negative, it's that railroads tend to follow economic cycles (duh, obvious, I know) and could get hit in the next downturn. Otherwise, this looks like a keeper. Nice job, DGI.

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  4. UNP is a great company and currently I really like the price. I have been holding out waiting for a dip below $100. In the meantime I am having fun selling options and getting paid to wait. Thanks for the analysis.

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    1. Selling options is fun, but you also have to watch getting overleveraged. Good luck!

      DGI

      Delete
  5. Thanks for the analysis! Looks like a great price to finally get in on. Wish I had the money to sell puts like Dividend Dreams is doing. Always fun to get paid to pick the price you want to buy it at!

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    1. Thx for stopping by Scott! Good luck in your investing journey!

      DGI

      Delete

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