Add tank car makers to the list of U.S. industries bracing for the effects from the plunge in crude prices.
While 2014’s record orders, including an all-time high 42,900 in the third quarter, will drive deliveries this year, according to Susquehanna International Group, manufacturers from Carl Icahn’s American Railcar Industries Inc. to Warren Buffett’s Union Tank Car Co. are facing a decline. New bookings in 2015 may plunge 70%, Macquarie Capital USA Inc. said, putting earnings at risk when scheduled deliveries drop in 2016.
Oil prices down 49% since June have crimped investment in U.S. fields including the Bakken range, where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are more expensive than conventional oil drilling. That has hurt industries from steel to heavy equipment. It also has slowed the boom in oil-by-rail shipping, which along with new federal safety rules, had fueled the record orders.
“The confidence of the industry has been shaken quite seriously,” Cleo Zagrean, a New York-based analyst for Macquarie Capital said by phone Jan. 15.
Tank-car maker stocks have suffered during the oil price decline, with shares of Trinity Industries Inc. dropping 40% in the fourth quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. American Railcar shares fell 30%, and Greenbrier Cos. dropped 27%.
“It’s having an impact already,” said Art Hatfield, managing director of equity research at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in Memphis, Tennessee. “I think the forward-looking minds are realizing that we may have hit a cyclical peak within the industry.”
New freight-car orders fell to 37,431 in the fourth quarter, down 13% from record highs, according to data from the Railway Supply Institute, reported Jan. 22. Leasing company GATX Corp.’s deal with Trinity added 8,950 new car orders in the fourth quarter. Those cars will be delivered over a four-year period beginning March 2016.
Backlogs swelled to a record 142,837 orders the Washington-based RSI said. These may bolster the industry through 2015.
Throughout last year, buyers piled on requests for cars amid an oil boom in North Dakota and Texas. Freight-car bookings and backlogs swelled to record highs even as West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices fell 14% between July and the end of September, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Orders for cars that carry cement and frac sand, a resource instrumental in the U.S. shale boom, declined in the fourth quarter from a record, according to Bascome Majors, an Atlanta-based transportation and rail-equipment analyst for Susquehanna International. Falling oil prices might temper future demand for frac-sand cars, he said.
Oil prices tumbled 18% in November and 19% the next month, ending the year with the steepest monthly loss in six years, data compiled by Bloomberg News show.
“The oil price drop is a significant hit” to the tank-car industry, Macquarie’s Zagrean said. As customers re-evaluate the cost of new cars, even extensions on orders can weaken manufacturers’ earnings, she said.
Freight-car producer Greenbrier has dodged order cancellations as oil prices fell. Only one customer approached the company about canceling an order but has yet to call the deal off, CEO William Furman said in a conference call Jan. 7.
Trinity had not seen any “appreciable impact” on its business from the low oil prices in the third quarter, Stephen Menzies, group president of the company’s rail and railcar leasing group, said in an earnings call October 29. The company stands by those comments, spokesman Jack Todd said in a Jan. 21 e-mail.
Union Tank Car spokesman Bruce Winslow declined to comment on the company’s orders. GATX’s director of investor relations Jennifer Van Aken didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
In addition to concerns that low oil prices will threaten demand, the industry faces new regulations spurred by accidents including the July 2013 derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration plans to issue in the coming month rules to phase out older railcars that carry crude, PHMSA spokeswoman Susan Lagana wrote in an e-mailed statement Jan. 15. The type of tank car most implicated in spills, known as the DOT-111, would be phased out or rebuilt to meet the new standards within two years for the most volatile crude oil, according to the proposal.
New rules may create “quite a lot of replacement demand,” Greenbrier CEO Furman said in the earnings call. Currently, the Lake Oswego, Oregon-based company’s tank-car orders comprise just slightly more than a quarter of its backlog, according to company spokesman Jack Isselmann.
Owners are expected to scrap more than a fifth of an estimated 117,000 tankers that would require modifications. The work, which may include adding full-height steel shields at the ends and adding a metal jacket around the body, is estimated to cost between $27,000 and $46,700 per car, an RSI study said.
BNSF Railway Co., which like Union Tank Car is owned by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., delayed an order of 5,000 new and safer oil-tank cars until the new safety standards are set. The railroad said last year that it would buy the new cars because of safety concerns even though railroads typically don’t own the cars that their locomotives haul on the track.
Many of the orders for safer tank cars might already be included in the backlog as buyers line up in anticipation, Raymond James’ Hatfield said.
“This industry has really earned a lot of money in the last few years due to this tank car boom, and when that goes away, it’s going to have an impact on peoples’ businesses,” he said.