Has Potential Upside Gone Missing in Transport Stocks? (CSX, NSC, UNP, CP, JBHT, LSTR, DSX, DRYS, EXM, FRO)

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Railroads and trucking companies have, for the most part, seen share prices rise over the past 12 months, while ocean-going shippers have taken a severe beating. Of four railroads, CSX Corp. (NYSE: CSX), Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE: NSC), Union Pacific Corp. (NYSE: UNP), and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. (NYSE: CP), only the last has failed to see its share price rise in the past year. Truckers J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. (NASDAQ: JBHT) and Land Star System, Inc. (NASDAQ: LSTR) have both gained more than 20%. Shipping companies Diana Shipping Inc. (NYSE: DSX), DryShips Inc. (NASDAQ: DRYS), Excel Maritime Carriers Ltd. (NYSE: EXM), and Frontline Ltd. (NYSE: FRO) are all down between -45% and nearly -90%.

To start with the worst, Frontline is down more than -88% for the year, and its median target price has dropped to $6.00 from $7.25 in late October. At today’s share price of $2.98, the potential upside is slightly more than 100%. DryShips is not much better, with a lower target price of $5.00. At today’s price of $2.37, the implied gain is nearly 111%. Neither Excel nor Diana is as bad, but neither is likely to achieve anywhere near their implied gains of 63% and 46%, respectively. The shipping business has too many ships sailing around at unprofitable day rates. Until that situation resolves itself — not likely until 2013 — anything that resembles value in the shipping business is likely a mirage.

Railroads are faring better because rail traffic is up. The Association of American Railroads reported this morning that November carload traffic on US railroads grew 4% compared with November 2010. Intermodal traffic (containers) grew by 3.7% year-over-year. The largest increase came in motor vehicle carloads, which grew by 42% compared with last year and petroleum product carloads which grew by more than 28%.

Another large gain, more than 30%, came in carloads of crushed stone, sand, and gravel. Because beach sand is the most common material used in hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, it’s probably a reasonable assumption to give the drilling industry credit for the increase.

Of the four railroads, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern have both had target price boosts since late October. Union Pacific’s median target price is $114.00, up from $110.00. At a current price of $102.70, the potential upside in UP’s stock is 11%. The company’s dividend yield of 2.4% is also tied with Norfolk Southern’s for the best in the group.

Norfolk Southern’s median target price is $85.50, up from $82.00. At a current price of $74.90, the stock has a potential upside of 14.5%. With a slightly higher implied gain and an equal dividend yield, Norfolk Southern might be the best bet among the railroads.

In trucking, J.B. Hunt’s median target price fell from $49.00 to $48.00, but that was quite likely due to two brokers dropping coverage. At today’s price of $$45.40, the potential upside for the stock is just 5.7%. The company pays a dividend yield of 1.2%.

Landstar’s median target price is $52.00, up half a dollar from late October, and again likely due to a drop in the number of brokers covering the stock. At today’s price of $45.90, the potential upside for the stock is 13.3%. Landstar pays a dividend yield of 0.5%. Earlier this week, Landstar was downgraded from ‘buy’ to ‘neutral’ at SunTrust.

Of the two trucking companies, neither has a clear edge over the other. Hunt is more fully valued, but the company reported record results in the third quarter. If Hunt can do that again, then the current target price will be left way behind. Hunt’s strength in intermodal transportation could easily make that happen.

Of all ten stocks reviewed here, Norfolk Southern may be the safest bet, but J.B. Hunt may add more significant growth potential to its relatively limited upside potential.

Paul Ausick