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CSX Corporation (CSX - Analyst Report) reported fourth quarter 2012 earnings of 43 cents per share, ahead of the Zacks Consensus Estimate of 39 cents and in line with the year-ago quarter. For the full year, earnings per share leaped 7% year over year to $1.79.

The company’s fourth quarter revenues of $2,884 million remained marginally below the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $2,886 million and declined 2% year over year due to lower volume, partially offset by higher pricing and fuel surcharge recoveries. Revenues for the year remained flat year over year at $11,756. 

Fourth quarter operating income was down by 4% at $804 million, resulting in operating ratio (defined as operating expenses as a percentage of revenue) that increased 60 basis points year over year to 72.1%. Operating expense inched up 1% year over year to $2,080 million. 

For fiscal 2012, operating income rose 1% year over year to $3,457 million resulting in an operating ratio of 70.6%, down 30 basis points. Operating expense remained flat year over year at $8,299 million.

Performance Across Business Lines

Merchandise revenues increased 4% year over year to $1,661 million in the reported quarter driven by 5% increase in revenue per unit (RPU). However, volumes for the segment registered a 1% year over year decline given significant drop in Agricultural Products (down 12%), Metals (down 7%) and Emerging Markets (down 6%) on a year-over year basis.

Coal revenues were down by 18% year over year at $747 million on 19% volume declines. RPU remained flat on a year-over-year basis.  The poor performance by Coal was due to lower domestic coal shipments given lower electrical generation, higher utility stockpiles and low natural gas prices. Export coal also suffered a significant setback due to lower shipments of U.S. metallurgical coal to overseas markets.

Intermodal revenues rose 6% year over year to $398 million driven by highway-to-rail conversions in the domestic market, increase in service lanes and increase in existing customers. International intermodal business also performed well given the rise in customers, offset by disruptions by Hurricane Sandy. On a year over year basis, Volumes and RPU increased 4% and 2%, respectively.

Other revenues were $78 million, up 25.8% year over year.  

Liquidity Position

The company exited 2012 with cash and cash equivalents of $784 million compared with $783 million in the year-ago period. Long-term debt increased to $9,052 million from $8,734 million in the year-ago period. The company repurchased approximately 34 million shares worth $734 million in 2012 against 67 million shares worth $1.6 billion during 2011.

Other Railroad Stocks

Besides CSX, other railroads that released their fourth quarter earnings include Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC - Analyst Report) and Kansas City Southern (KSU - Analyst Report). Both the companies surpassed their Zacks Consensus Estimates.  While Norfolk Southern registered a year-over-year decline in its earnings, Kansas registered a substantial growth over the prior-year quarter.

Other stocks worth considering within the sector is Genesee & Wyoming Inc (GWR - Snapshot Report)  that holds a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy).

Our Analysis

CSX Corp. delivered a stable financial performance in its fourth quarter amid economic worries that influenced demand trend. Lower volumes continued to adversely affect quarterly results but the bright spot for the company remained pricing improvements. This highlights the growing significance for rail-based freight transportation services compared to other freight transportation services.

We expect the company to remain focused on growth across most of its products lines, in particular in Intermodal and Merchandize markets, which remain the key revenue drivers over the near term. However, we remain cautious on the stock due to the company’s capital-intensive nature and unionized workforce, increased competition as well as strict railroad regulation.

CSX Corp. retains a Zacks Rank #4 (Sell).

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