Union Pacific Keeps Chugging Along

| About: Union Pacific (UNP)


We expect Union Pacific’s operating ratio to be among the best in the railroad group by the end of this decade, and we like its exposure to growth in Mexico.

Pricing strength has been a huge lever for Union Pacific, and the company continues to do a great job aligning its resources to current demand levels.

Union Pacific's free cash flow generation is solid, but headwinds related to volume growth with respect to industrial product and coal shipments will pressure performance.

Let's take a look at the firm's investment considerations as we attempt to uncover the drivers behind its Dividend Cushion ratio.

By The Valuentum Team

We like Union Pacific's dividend, but we note there is downside risk to our fair value estimate.

--> One of America's most recognized companies, Union Pacific (NYSE:UNP) links 23 states in the western two-thirds of the country by rail, providing a critical link in the global supply chain. The railroad's diversified business mix includes agricultural products, automotive, chemicals, coal, industrial products and intermodal.

--> Pricing strength has been a huge lever for Union Pacific, and the company continues to do a great job aligning its resources to current demand levels. Total volumes, however, remain under pressure, and we're starting to grow concerned our forward outlook for the company is too optimistic.

--> We expect Union Pacific's operating ratio to be among the best in the railroad group by the end of this decade, and we like its exposure to growth in Mexico as well as future export expansion on the West Coast. In the third quarter of 2015, for example, the railroad's operating ratio of 60.3% was one of the best marks in its history.

--> As with its peers, the firm is levered to coal, though we note its mix is more of the Powder River Basin variety, which should continue to take share from Central Appalachian coal in the domestic market. The firm also boasts a strong Dividend Cushion ratio and a decent annual yield.

--> Our forecasts for Union Pacific include one of the lowest cost of equity assumptions and a relatively strong bounce in top-line performance in the out-years coupled by strong operating earnings performance. If the company comes up short, there is downside risk to the valuation.

Note: Union Pacific's annual dividend yield is about average, offering a ~2.2% dividend yield at recent price levels. Though we are not considering the firm for addition to our dividend growth portfolio, it has been a holding in our Best Ideas Newsletter portfolio for some time. Let's take a look at what keeps it from being a dividend growth favorite.

Dividend Strengths

Union Pacific has simply done a fantastic job with improving its operating ratio thanks it part to strong pricing performance and impressive operating expense execution. The company's free cash flow generation is solid, and its net debt position is not as ominous
as that of peers, in light of the potential magnitude of operating cash inflows. Union Pacific's Dividend Cushion ratio could still be better, and we point to healthy energy prices, the consumer economy, and grain markets as the key ingredients to ongoing strength in the payout. As with many of its peers, we're expecting slowing growth in the dividend.

Dividend Weaknesses

Union Pacific's free cash flow generation is solid, but headwinds related to volume growth with respect to industrial product and coal shipments will pressure performance, especially if pricing gains across its portfolio in aggregate fade. Cost containment will be paramount, in any case, as the railroad operator navigates an increasingly challenging economic environment. We'd prefer the company halt its buyback program and perhaps hold onto excess cash to further pad coffers in the event lower prices can be had. Union Pacific's income proposition isn't as strong as it once was on the basis of our future forecasts. We still expect healthy growth in the payout, but slowing growth nonetheless.

From the Comments Section: How to Interpret the Dividend Cushion Ratio -- A Ranking of Risk

As for how to interpret the Dividend Cushion ratio, itself, it is a measure of financial risk to the dividend, much like a credit rating is a measure of the default risk of the entity. Said differently, a poor Dividend Cushion ratio of below 1 or negative doesn't imply the company will cut the dividend tomorrow, no more than a junk credit rating implies a company will default tomorrow. That said, the Dividend Cushion ratio does punish companies for outsize debt loads because in times of adverse conditions, entities often need to shore up cash, and that means the dividend becomes increasingly more risky.

We think investors should look at a variety of different metrics in assessing the sustainability of the dividend. Because the Dividend Cushion ratio is systematically applied across our coverage, it can be used to compare entities on an apples-to-apples basis. Dividend payers with significant free cash flow generation and substantial net cash on the balance sheet often register the highest Dividend Cushion ratios, as they should. These companies have substantial financial flexibility to keep raising the dividend.

Dividend Safety

We think the safety of Union Pacific's dividend is good. Please let us explain.

First, we measure the safety of the dividend in a unique but very straightforward fashion. As many know, earnings can fluctuate, so using the payout ratio in any given year has some limitations. Plus, companies can often encounter unforeseen charges, which makes earnings an even less-than-predictable measure of the safety of the dividend. We know that companies won't cut the dividend just because earnings have declined or they had a restructuring charge that put them in the red for the quarter (year). As such, we think that assessing the cash flows of a business allows us to determine whether it has the capacity to continue paying dividends well into the future.

That has led us to develop the forward-looking Dividend Cushion™ ratio, which we make available on our website. The measure is a ratio that sums the existing net cash a company has on hand (on its balance sheet) plus its expected future free cash flows (cash flow from operations less capital expenditures) over the next five years and divides that sum by future expected cash dividends over the same time period. Basically, if the score is above 1, the company has the capacity to pay out its expected future dividends and the expected growth in them.

As income investors, however, we'd like to see a ratio much larger than 1 for a couple of reasons: 1) the higher the ratio, the more "cushion" the company has against unexpected earnings shortfalls, and 2) the higher the ratio, the greater capacity a dividend-payer has in boosting the dividend in the future. For Union Pacific, this ratio is 1.3, revealing that on its current path the firm should be able to cover its future dividends and growth in them with net cash on hand and future free cash flow.

Dividend Cushion Ratio Cash Flow Bridge

The Dividend Cushion Cash Flow Bridge, shown in the image to the right, illustrates the components of the Dividend Cushion ratio and highlights in detail the many drivers behind it. Union Pacific's Dividend Cushion Cash Flow Bridge reveals that the sum of the company's 5-year cumulative free cash flow generation, as measured by cash flow from operations less all capital spending, plus its net cash/debt position on the balance sheet, as of the last fiscal year, is greater than the sum of the next 5 years of expected cash dividends paid.

Because the Dividend Cushion ratio is forward-looking and captures the trajectory of the company's free cash flow generation and dividend growth, it reveals whether there will be a cash surplus or a cash shortfall at the end of the 5-year period, taking into consideration the leverage on the balance sheet, a key source of risk. On a fundamental basis, we believe companies that have a strong net cash position on the balance sheet and are generating a significant amount of free cash flow are better able to pay and grow their dividend over time.

Firms that are buried under a mountain of debt and do not sufficiently cover their dividend with free cash flow are more at risk of a dividend cut or a suspension of growth, all else equal, in our opinion. Generally speaking, the greater the 'blue bar' to the right is in the positive, the more durable a company's dividend, and the greater the 'blue bar' to the right is in the negative, the less durable a company's dividend.

Dividend Cushion Ratio Deconstruction

The Dividend Cushion Ratio Deconstruction, shown in the image to the right, reveals the numerator and denominator of the Dividend Cushion ratio. At the core, the larger the numerator, or the healthier a company's balance sheet and future free cash flow generation, relative to the denominator, or a company's cash dividend obligations, the more durable the dividend. In the context of the Dividend Cushion ratio, Union Pacific's numerator is larger than its denominator suggesting strong dividend coverage in the future. The Dividend Cushion Ratio Deconstruction image puts sources of free cash in the context of financial obligations next to expected cash dividend payments over the next 5 years on a side-by-side comparison. Because the Dividend Cushion ratio and many of its components are forward-looking, our dividend evaluation may change upon subsequent updates as future forecasts are altered to reflect new information.

Please note that to arrive at the Dividend Cushion ratio, divide the numerator by the denominator in the graph below. The difference between the numerator and denominator is the firm's "total cumulative 5-year forecasted distributable excess cash after dividends paid, ex buybacks."

Dividend Growth

Now on to the potential growth of Union Pacific's dividend. As we mentioned above, we think the larger the "cushion" the larger capacity the company has to raise the dividend. However, such dividend growth analysis is not complete until after considering management's willingness to increase the dividend. To do so, we evaluate the company's historical dividend track record. If there have been no dividend cuts in the past 10 years, the company has a nice dividend growth rate, and a solid Dividend Cushion ratio, we characterize its future potential dividend growth as excellent, which is the case for Union Pacific.

Because capital preservation is also an important consideration to any income strategy, we use our estimate of the company's fair value range to assess the risk associated with the potential for capital loss. In Union Pacific's case, we currently think shares are fairly valued, meaning the share price falls within our estimate of the fair value range, so the risk of capital loss is medium (our valuation analysis can be found by downloading the 16-page report on our website). If we thought the shares were undervalued, the risk of capital loss would be low.

Wrapping Things Up

Union Pacific has long been our favorite operator in the railroad industry, but our tune has changed to a degree as of late. Our prior forecasts may have been too optimistic, and if the company comes up short on some of these expectations, there will be material downside risk to our valuation. Nevertheless, we continue to expect the firm's success to be driven by its solid operating ratio, which has been strong in recent quarters. Union Pacific boasts a solid Dividend Cushion ratio and a decent yield, but we have grown less fond of the company as a result of a reassessment of our valuation assumptions.

Breakpoints: Dividend Safety. We measure the safety of a firm's dividend by adding its net cash to our forecast of its future cash flows and divide that sum by our forecast of its future dividend payments. This process results in a ratio called the Dividend Cushion. Scale: Above 2.75 = EXCELLENT; Between 1.25 and 2.75 = GOOD; Between 0.5 and 1.25 = POOR; Below 0.5 = VERY POOR.

This article or report and any links within are for information purposes only and should not be considered a solicitation to buy or sell any security. Valuentum is not responsible for any errors or omissions or for results obtained from the use of this article and accepts no liability for how readers may choose to utilize the content. Assumptions, opinions, and estimates are based on our judgment as of the date of the article and are subject to change without notice.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.