Why Merrill Lynch Says Now Is the Time to Return to Trucks and Rails

On Monday, transportation industry stocks were seeing a noticeable boost. A driving force behind this jump is one key analyst upping the ante for a few key companies in the industry. Merrill Lynch raised its ratings on nearly half of the rails and trucks under its coverage.

The companies included Swift Transportation Co. (NYSE: SWFT), Knight Transportation Inc. (NYSE: KNX), Union Pacific Corp. (NYSE: UNP) and CSX Corp. (NASDAQ: CSX), which were raised to a Buy rating from Neutral. Also, Genesee & Wyoming Inc. (NYSE: GWR) and Werner Enterprises Inc. (NASDAQ: WERN) were raised to a Neutral rating from Underperform.

The brokerage firm previously had 82% of its rail and truck coverage as Neutral to Underperform ratings, as it highlighted deteriorating data into year-end of 2015. This shift in ratings is driven by the stabilization of rail carloadings, an uptick in Merrill Lynch’s biweekly truck shipper survey and historically relative attraction of valuation multiples.

According to Merrill Lynch:

Intermodal rail carloads were positive for consecutive weeks in February, the first time Intermodal carloads have posted successive growth in 17 weeks. While this was mainly due to the West Coast port shutdown and harsh February weather in 2015, the data suggests the consumer may show increasing signs of stability. We expect the next few weeks to post solid Intermodal and rail weekly carload performance, with -14% and -7% Intermodal comps the next two weeks, before returning to +5% growth comps in March, upon which Intermodal volumes should settle back to lower single digit growth similar to January. On an overall Carload basis, comps slowed to +1% average growth in March before turning negative and remaining in negative territory for every week but one for the rest of 2015, providing incrementally easier comps ahead.

Last Friday, the firm’s proprietary biweekly Truckload Diffusion Indicator for shippers’ three-month freight demand outlook was 53.7, down 18% year on year, but up 4% sequentially. It was the highest reading year to date and the least negative level on a year-over-year basis since October 2015, ending a six-week stretch of 20% or more declines. The indicator has declined since its all-time peak in April 2014, accelerating downward in April 2015, before forming a mini-rebound in September and October, and then dropping steadily again until this recent floor.

Shares of Swift Transportation were recently trading up 2.8% at $17.49, with a consensus analyst price target of $19.83 and a 52-week trading range of $11.74 to $28.90. Merrill Lynch raised its price objective to $21 from $16.

Knight Transportation shares were trading up 3% at $25.36, with a consensus price target of $25.94 and a 52-week range of $20.56 to $34.73. The firm raised its price objective to $28 from $24.

Union Pacific was up 2.2% to $81.62, within a 52-week trading range of $67.06 to $123.90. The consensus analyst target is $84.48, and Merrill Lynch raised its price objective to $88 from $74.

Shares of CSX traded up 4.1% at $25.51, with a consensus price target of $26.78 and a 52-week range of $21.33 to $37.67. The brokerage firm raised its price objective from $25 to $28.

Genesee shares were seen up 3.5% to $58.55. The consensus price target is $64.57, and the 52-week range is $41.56 to $105.49. Merrill Lynch raised its price objective to $60 from $51.

Werner was up 1.8% at $26.67, in a 52-week trading range of $20.91 to $33.42. The consensus price target is $27.47. The firm raised its price objective to $28 from $25.

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