The CN Rail Cash Machine

CN Rail reported their Q3-2010 result; it indicates they have recovered well from the economic crisis.

Although CN’s equity price is relatively high in terms of the cash they are able to deliver to shareholders (most notably they are spending about $300M/year above the rate they are amortizing), there are worse places to put “stable” cash – the equity trades more like a bond. This is another example of when people talk about “asset classes” that you cannot just put a blanket on “Canadian equity” and consider every share of every corporation to have the same risk/reward characteristic.

In terms of the actual numbers, the business was able to generate about $2.78 per share of free cash flow over the past 9 months. Annualized, this is about $3.71 in free cash, on top of a $67 equity price justifies the “relatively high” remark with respect to valuation.

Despite the high price (which is very near all-time highs), it is likely that CN’s total return over the next 10 years will outperform the equivalent Canadian 10-year bond, which yields 2.74%. The railways (CN and CP Rail) will likely be successful cash generating entities as long as Canada and the USA remain politically stable, and also are a benefactor of high energy prices – freight rail competes very well against trucking when it comes to goods movement.

Unlike most utilities, all railways have one very valuable piece of paper which is impossible to obtain – the right of way in major urban centres. If you were to give somebody $100 billion from scratch and got them to construct a railway, there is no way you could transform that capital into an income-bearing instrument that would yield better than the government bond. One of those reasons is property acquisition and track right of way – something Warren Buffet was thinking about when he bought out Burlington Northern. The only way you’d be able to get any sort of reasonable return is just to buy the railway outright, but even then the government could step in, citing “national interests”.