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Freightcar America (NASDAQ:RAIL) is the leading North American manufacturer of coal-carrying rail cars. They manufactured 81% of the coal carrying rail cars delivered over the three years ended December 31, 2006 in the North American market. The company has been producing rail cars for over 100 years.

The majority of the company's business is to its top 10 customers. These included many of the major railroad shippers (Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Canadian Pacific, CSX and Union Pacific) and financing companies; the remainder are major utilities. The company maintains long range customer relationships with these companies and the chances of one of their customers moving their business to a competitor is low because of the high costs of switching manufacturers.

Coal-carrying rail cars need to be replaced about once every 25 years so most shippers buy infrequently. Combine that with the fact that the company has only about 10 customers that make up about 70% of its sales and you get a company with very choppy earnings.

The company's prospectus from 2005 has good information to help investors learn about the industry.

A Company facing a temporary obstacle

The company delivered 18,764 coal cars last year compared to 13,031 in 2005 and 7,484 in 2004. This huge spike in deliveries last year corresponded to a huge gain in earnings. There are two reasons for the large number of deliveries last year: First, this is a very cyclical industry and it happens to be a time when the industry is doing well. Second, many of their large customers made very large purchases.

Since their customers loaded up last year, the company's deliveries will be considerably lower this year. Investors dumping the shares in anticipation have caused the share price to fall below intrinsic value. At the end of the first quarter, backlog of unfilled orders stood at 6,006 - compared to 17,794 in the comparable period last year. Earnings and car deliveries for the first quarter were about the same as last year. But the results in the coming quarters will be much lower then last year.

Why it's cheap

The company's results will suffer for the next few quarters, but they will return to normal soon. What would make most sense is this situation is to calculate normalized earnings. Normalized earnings is an average earnings figure that helps the investor to see past Freightcar's lumpy results.

I'll start with a normalized order rate which includes the replacement rate of current fleets and the growth factor. There are 250k coal cars in the North America. Coal cars have a useful life of about 25 years. So that yields a replacement rate of 4%. Besides replacement, there is also a growth component for the normalized order rate. Energy demand in the US is expected to grow by about 2% a year and much of this will be met by coal. So with the growth factor of 2% and the replacement rate of 4%, 6% of the total coal car fleet or 15,000 coal cars will need to be manufactured every year.

Since the company will most likely maintain its 80% market share, 12,000 of those cars will be produced by the company. Also, historically 15% of the company's orders were from non coal-cars. That would add 2,000 cars to the company's yearly production. In all, the company's normalized order rate is 14,000 rail cars. This will be used to calculate normalized earnings.

The replacement rate and growth factor assumptions are very conservative and I believe that for reasons mentioned in the catalyst section below that they will be a few percentage points higher. Nonetheless, the company is cheap anyway and because of my extremely basic knowledge of the industry, it's best to err on the conservative side.

In 2005 the company delivered 13,031 cars. The margins will most likely be similar if the the company delivers 14,000 cars, so this can be the basis for calculating the company's normalized earnings. The company earned 45 million in 2005 - but that includes 11 million in interest expense and all this debt has since been paid off. So 11 million will be added to this figure which yields earnings of 56 million. 150 million in cash has since been added to the balance sheet and if the cash returns 5% that would add 7.5 million to earnings. Now we're at 64 million in earnings. Since the company delivered 13 thousand cars in 2005 and not the 14 thousand figure that were looking for it\'s safe to assume that with this extra 1,000 cars and the added efficiencies that have been realized since 2005 Freightcar America should be easily able to make 67 million a year in normalized earnings.

With a market cap of 610 million the company trades at about 9 times normalized earnings. But, there are still a few significant pluses that haven't been considered.

The Catalysts

1. Mohnish Pabrai invested in the company.

2. There will be a surge in the number of coal power plants scheduled to open beginning around the first quarter 2009. The utilities that own these plants will begin to order cars for these plants about 6-9 months before they are scheduled to open. Thus we’d expect to see a surge in new coal car shipments beginning in the second half of 2008. Here is an article in the Washington Post about this boom in plant construction. The article focuses around MidAmerican Energy's activities - David Sokol is quoted often:

At this bend in the Missouri River, with Omaha visible in the distance, the new MidAmerican plant is the leading edge of what many people are calling the "coal rush." Due to start up this spring, it will probably be the next coal-fired generating station to come online in the United States. A dozen more are under construction, and about 40 others are likely to start up within five years -- the biggest wave of coal plant construction since the 1970s.

3. The current fleets of coal cars are at the higher end of their useful lives. The average age of the 250,000 coal cars in North America is about 17 years old and coal cars typically need to be replaced at 25 years of age. Shippers looking to replace older fleets will be a significant plus for Freightcar America. This is already the case with Norfolk Southern. They announced last year that they will replace their 33,000 coal cars over the next ten years.

4. The company has a significant cash hoard. Over 30% of their market cap is cash. The company could expand their share repurchase program, increase dividend, make an acquisition or expand their operations overseas.

5. The company is repurchasing shares. They repurchased 1/8 of the shares outstanding in the first quarter. They can repurchase a further 1/8 of shares with the current program.

6. The company returned nearly 100% on capital last year. If my calculation of normalized earnings is used the company returns about 60% on capital (after taxes are added back in). Because of this the company is on the magic formula list. The company has no debt on its balance sheet!

Disclosure: Author is long RAIL

Source: The Long Case for Freightcar America